The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Alaine Low; Judith M. Brown et al. | Go to book overview

4

The Metropolitan Economics of Empire

D. K. FIELDHOUSE

From the beginnings of European overseas colonization two issues have dominated assessment of its consequences. What benefits, if any, did the metropolis gain from possession of an Empire? What were the consequences of Empire for the colonies? They can be considered together as two sides of the same coin. But in this book they are separated. This chapter concentrates on the British side of the equation because B. R. Tomlinson extends the discussion into the post-colonial era.

It must be said at the start that it is impossible to draw up a reliable calculus of the benefits and disadvantages of Empire to an imperial state such as Britain without setting up a counter-factual: how might the British economy have performed had Britain possessed no colonies? It would be possible to do this, but it is beyond the scope of this study. The questions to be considered here are concrete rather than hypothetical. First, what advantages did the British desire or expect to obtain from their Empire 1 at different times between 1900 and decolonization in the two decades after 1945? Secondly, what devices did they adopt to ensure such benefits? Finally, what were the measurable results—the effects on the British economy—of its Imperial role and the policies it adopted?

During the twentieth century the British had to make a choice between an open, multilateral economic system, based on free trade between all countries, and a more or less closed Imperial economy.

In outline Britain's choice varied according to circumstance, and British minds turned to Empire as an economic support only in times of crisis. Before 1914, and despite the arguments of 'fair traders' and Chamberlainite supporters of Imperial Preference, the dominant view remained that the Empire was a particularly valuable part of the international economy, but that no attempt must be made

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1
In this chapter 'Empire' will be used as shorthand for 'Empire-Commonwealth', the cumbersome term used to indicate the dualism of the dependent colonies and the largely autonomous 'Dominions' before decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. 'Commonwealth' has been used instead of Imperial in the tables when the source used the term and in the text only when referring to a statistical table.

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