The economics of a white empire

Words: Zeena Starbuck


A rising concern about Britain’s standing on the global stage is often accompanied by a defence of white supremacist ideals. This was true when the empire entered its earliest stages of decline, and is true today: there have been far-right protests in London ‘defending’ monuments to British power, an increase in discrimination against ethnic minorities of 13% since the Brexit referendum, and political calls to avoid forging relationships with countries that have ‘vast cultural differences’.

White supremacy has long been embedded into Britain’s fiscal policies. Recent campaigns to ‘take back control’ of Britain by championing a ‘Britain for the British’ are reminiscent of Britain at the turn of the 20th century – a point at which the empire began to decline for a variety of reasons, including power competition from Germany and the US, industrial flatlining, and a global depression from 1873-1896. Politicians and the public alike thought Britain would lose its ability to dictate much of international trade. 

Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), former mayor of Birmingham and Secretary of State for the Colonies – and Theresa May’s hero – sought to uplift the British Empire by embracing economic policies that would empower a globally-linked empire of white nations, while non-white parts of the world were seen only as ‘instruments of labour’ to benefit the white ruling class. Chamberlain claimed he wanted to ‘recover’ the British Empire, which, to him, was synonymous with upholding global economic white supremacy.

When the empire adopted a policy of free trade in 1840, these two types of colonies were given different privileges and levels of independence on the basis of Britain’s ‘civilizing mission’. White-settler colonies like Canada and Australia were understood to be part of a ‘great governing race’, and could therefore be trusted with freedom. They were given indirect rule, which meant they had some autonomy and could decide on trade practices.

Colonies like India and the East African Protectorate (which included Kenya and Somalia), on the other hand, remained under direct rule, meaning Britain had complete control over trade and all forms of administration. Under direct rule, states were prevented from developing their own economic structures, and made subservient to Britain’s needs.

As a self-governing dominion, Canada’s infant industries progressed and grew less dependent on Britain, and in 1877 Prime Minister John A. Macdonald increased tariffs on imports, marking Canada’s turn towards economic protectionism in order to nurture its growing domestic industries. It moved away from the free trade empire, and progressed towards being a fully autonomous nation.

The same was not true for colonies like India. Under direct British rule, India was trapped under what historians Gallagher and Robinson call ‘free trade imperialism’. While Canada was allowed to impose tariffs to protect its infant industries, Britain forced India into trading patterns that withered its economy and made it difficult to become financially independent. Chamberlain believed that British rule had ‘brought security and peace and comparative prosperity to countries that never knew these blessings before.’

Keeping India down was beneficial to British trade and industry – particularly the cotton industry, a crucial factor in Britain’s ongoing Industrial Revolution. Under free trade, Indian cotton was exported to Britain, where British manufacturers produced clothes that were sold back to India at cheap prices due to a lack of import tariffs. This made Indian-produced clothes more expensive – particularly since there was a shortage of cotton available on the continent. The first Swadeshi movement, which began in 1850, was a direct response to this drain on the cotton industry. In the same way that Canada adopted protective tariffs to make themselves less reliant on the Empire, the Swadeshi movement sought to reduce dependency on Britain by encouraging Indian people to buy Indian-made clothing. 

As Canada and Australia started adopting protectionist tariffs against the Empire to protect infant industries, Chamberlain hoped to create a trading block where the white commonwealth nations could lower tariffs between them and foster better trade. As Secretary of State for the Colonies during the Colonial Conference of 1902 – attended by only white-settler colonies – Chamberlain pushed for Imperial Preference and an Imperial Trading Federation. At no point did he require Canada to change their policies outright – only to cooperate within a federated body. ‘The great federation of our race,’ Chamberlain said, ‘will inevitably make for peace.’ At the same time, India was still under direct rule. 

Chamberlain further pursued Imperial Preference by forming the Tariff Reform League in 1903, which split the Unionist party and laid some of the foundations for today’s modern Conservatives. Chamberlain asked ‘whether this great Empire of ours is to stand together, one free nation […] or whether it is to fall apart into separate States, each selfishly seeking its interest alone – losing sight of the common weal.’ The overarching concern was that the white colonies  were abandoning the white global hierarchy Britain had built. Chamberlain aimed to replace growing independent nationalisms with a type of white nationalism that would tie these colonies together.

While Chamberlain’s campaign was imperialistic, it’s also important to recognize that it derived from a strand of British white nationalism still very much in play. Chamberlain had been influenced in his beliefs from a young age by two popular works: J.R. Seeley’s The Expansion of England, which argued that Britain naturally deserved to be a great power and should endeavour to model empire in her white image, and Charles Dilke’s Greater Britain, which stated that Britain’s unique historical and racial characteristic warranted authority. At the root of every fiscal policy Chamberlain championed to fight the empire’s decline was the belief that the white race was divinely poised to rule the rest of the world.

This belief echoes today. After Brexit, Britain has sought to foster trade deals with white commonwealth countries and the USA above all others. Immigration policies value the same skills in white immigrants more than in non-white immigrants. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson remarked during his speech on 3rd February that Britain is a global power ‘by irrevocable facts of history and geography and language and culture and instinct and sentiment.’ But many of these ‘facts of history’ that make Britain ‘great’ are rooted in prejudice and exploitation. We must address this history of how white supremacy was intertwined intentionally not just into the British Empire, but in the manner in which it broke apart and our attempts to reassert ourselves on the global stage since. This history of politicians pursuing white British exceptionalism is one we are in the throes of repeating.

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Zeena Starbuck is a freelance journalist and writer with a focus on foreign affairs and gender in British, American, South Korean and Chinese society. She recently relocated to London after working for a political non-profit in New York and teaching in China. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.