The Commonwealth: A Common Culture?

By Richard Maltby; Peter Quartermaine | Go to book overview

2: BERNARD PORTER
Wealth or Commonwealth? The History of a
Paradox

The modern British empire was built on a contradiction. What that contradiction was will be made plain in a page or two. It explains nearly everything about the empire: its origins, its growth, its nature, its decline – especially its decline; and the attributes and some of the problems of its successor, the Commonwealth of Nations, today.

To discover the contradiction we need to go back to the early nineteenth century history of British capitalism, out of which modern imperialism, in a curious way, sprang. The curiosity derives from the fact, which is well known, that early nineteenth century British capitalism was supposed neither to sanction nor to need imperialism, which was regarded by its leading theoreticians (like Adam Smith) as a costly survival from less enlightened times. The anti-imperialism of early free market capitalism was central to it: a cardinal tenet of the faith of men like Richard Cobden, for example, who believed that the whole spirit and ultimately the material effect of his free trade movement was inimical to the establishment of one nation’s authority over another. On the eve of free marketism’s crucial domestic triumph in Britain, in January 1846, Cobden looked forward to the fruits of its wider extension in the world, which he held to be inevitable. ‘I believe’, he told his audience in Manchester, ‘that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies – for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour – will the away; and I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man’. That was the vision that sustained him thereafter: of a world of interdependent yet entirely free nations, living together in prosperity, amity and concord, with only the historical memories of empires and imperialism to remind them of their more primitive past.

It was similar, of course, to liberal capitalism’s other vision, of the

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