Pax Britannica – The Zenith of the British Empire

Pax Britannica – The Zenith of the British Empire

The idea of imperial preference received official recognition in 1932 at a meeting in Ottawa, Canada. However, this had been adopted by individual colonies somewhat earlier. For example, Canada, wishing to offer a safe base for her rising industries brought in protective tariffs, but after 1897 arranged a preferential tariff so that British and other colonial productions could gain access at a cheaper rate than foreign goods. This approach spread to other colonies. Finally Britain caved in and after 1932 arranged bilateral trading agreements with individual empire countries, wherein reciprocal tariff preference was given. The purpose was to boost intra-imperial trade-in food, raw material and manufactured goods at the expense of foreign competitors. But the idea of the empire becoming an exclusive trading block was never contemplated; this was impossible. All the countries, Britain and increasingly the colonies, needed foreign trade. But the trend was to strengthen, at least temporarily, some of the closer trading links between Britain and the various empire members that had been developing since the turn of the century. 1932 confirmed the trend officially, from the British point of view.

Some tightening of economic links between Britain and empire countries due to the rise of foreign competitors was not surprising at all. “Indeed, the closer relationship arose more on Britain’s part, as she obtained fewer of her imports from foreign countries and sold more of her exports to the empire.”22 Individual empire countries for their part were still very pleased to have a ready market for their products in Britain but a number of the dominions were looking for new market opportunities, as well as obtaining an increasing amount of manufactured products from countries other than Britain. The weaker colonies of course generally remained heavily dependent upon Britain. “As to Britain’s imports the first four decades of the twentieth century showed a marked swing to the empire, after the relative stability of the nineteenth century. Foreign suppliers (led by the United States) still remained stronger, but were declining.”23 Apart from iron, steel and coal, other metals such as copper, lead, zinc and tin were also gaining intrinsic value, with the Empire again yielding up great wealth in the twentieth century. But as Britain failed to take advantage of some of this wealth before the 1914-18 war, Belgium and Germany bought Australian lead and zinc concentrates and the United States Canadian nickel. Germany also processed tungsten reserves from Burma, Australia and Malaya. The war showed Britain the folly of this neglect and increasingly in the 1920s and 1930s British industrialists bought directly from colonial producers rather than from German and other intermediaries. The British also became more active in the exploitation of empire wealth, such as Northern Rhodesian copper.

Britain had not, however, neglected the values of Malaya’s tin which dominated the world market and she was successfully exploiting this both before and after the war. The main mineral deficiency throughout the empire was in oil products and iron ore, but Britain’s interest in the Middle East in the twentieth century was designed to counteract the oil problem.

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