The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

15

Imperialism and After: The Economy of the Empire
on the Periphery

B. R. TOMLINSON

This chapter deals with the economic history of the Imperial periphery—the overseas territories that were part of the British Empire in 1914—from the turn of the century to the present day. It examines the patterns and structures of economic activity within the Imperial economic system, both before and after the British crises of the 1930s and 1940s; in addition, it considers the problems faced by Commonwealth countries in securing growth and development in the much more complex circumstances of the post-Imperial global economy of the last three decades. Looking back on the economy of the Empire from a vantage‐ point at the end of the twentieth century, it is now clear that it was able to operate so successfully only because of a particular set of global and local circumstances. These circumstances were linked closely to the demands and levels of technological advance that emerged in Western Europe, especially in Britain, during the second half of the nineteenth century.

In 1900 much of the world's economic activity was closely linked to the needs and capacities of the industrial centres of Western Europe, which was structured through the liberal international economic system of low transport costs, a stable international currency regime based on the gold standard, free trade, free migration, and large flows of international investment that had developed during the latter half of the nineteenth century. This international system connected industrial producers and consumers in the core (Western Europe and, increasingly, the United States) with primary product suppliers in the periphery (the less developed world) through a network of infrastructure, transport systems, and technology provided largely by exports of British capital. In a sense, all of the world outside Europe had formed a periphery for the British economy for much of the nineteenth century, since Britain dominated so much of the international networks of trade and finance, drawing in imports of food and raw materials and pumping out industrial goods, capital, and colonists that gave shape to many parts of the world. By 1914 the development of other industrial economies in Europe and the United States meant that the British economy was only one among equals, but one that

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