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Rebooting the Empire? Not so fast! March 22, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

We were discussing this only the other day, and good overview here in the Observer at the weekend by David Olusoga on some realities that face those who think the Commonwealth will offer a substitute for the EU. As Olusoga notes:

This newfound focus on the Commonwealth feels uncomfortably akin to recent divorcees looking up their former partners on Facebook; and being shocked to discover that they have got married, had kids and moved on. They might have fond memories, they might even want to be on good terms, but don’t really miss us. Former colonies, like old flames, build new relationships, based on their own needs and ambitions. Some may well be up for a better trade deal or more freedom of movement, but they don’t want to be part of Empire 2.0, any more than most of them wanted to be part of Empire 1.0.

And added to this are delusions in relation to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. As Olusoga points out these have been evident for decades but there are some pretty basic obstacles to a reboot of the past in the present or near future.

Ultimately, what makes Empire 2.0 a fantasy are the forces of geography and history. While Canada, for example, has undoubted cultural links to the UK, she also has a 5,500-mile border with the US. This, and her membership of Nafta, means that her key trading partner is, inevitably, the US, not the UK. Australia and New Zealand have perhaps even stronger emotional and cultural links to Britain, but as the economies of Asia have risen, the antipodean nations have found themselves on the doorstep of the greatest manufacturing region on earth. Australia has just been through a mining boom akin to the gold rushes of the 19th century, and it is to Beijing, not London, that their importers and exporters look.

He notes that Africa is already ‘lost’ to the UK. China and others are already major economic players. The idea the UK will catch up is simply absurd.

But his most telling point, I think, is one which notes that:

…the most jagged rock upon which the Empire 2.0 fantasy flounders is history itself. Britain in the 19th century was two things simultaneously; the hub of the largest empire on earth and the greatest manufacturing and trading nation the world had ever seen. Yet the formal empire and the trading empire were not the same thing. While the empire, especially India, undoubtedly helped make Britain rich, even at the height of our imperial power we traded more with Europe and the United States than with the colonies. It was to the booming cities of America, and to the slave-driven cotton economy of the deep south, that British capital surged in the 19th century. And while much of Africa was painted imperial red on the maps that famously hung on every classroom wall, Britain did more trade with tiny Denmark than with Nigeria, one of her biggest west African colonies.

Like so much in relation to Brexit all is based on rhetoric rather than reality. That the history is so far from the perception is, I would hazard, an artefact of just how askew the perception is. Britain regards itself as having a cultural, political and economic centrality that is somewhat overstated. To put it kindly. A good point BTL is that so many making the case for ‘new relationships’ with the former colonies (and let’s note that is what is essentially the argument being made) is most often made by politicians, not economists. One need have no great faith in the latter to recognise that basing existential projects simply on what is effectively political musings isn’t the most objective way forward.


1. Starkadder - March 22, 2017

I have a sister who lives in New Zealand, and she told me her Kiwi friends were baffled at the Brexit decision. One said she thought the UK was deliberately putting itself at an economic disadvantage because its voters think “they can get the British Empire back”.


2. FergusD - March 22, 2017

The British Empire quite rapidly moved from exploitation via trade etc to via finance. Transactions within and often without the Empire were in sterling and London provide these “services” – at a cost to poor countries. Remember the “sterling area”? Eventually finance dominated, at least politically, the UK govt outlook. I can remember when the TV and papers worried about the “balance of trade” in manufactured goods etc until they stopped worrying and learned to love “financial services”. Imperialist exploitation by another name. See Tony Norfield’s book on The City.


The City moved to the eurodollar market (trading in dollars outside of the US) and then also the euro trade. Given that finnacial services are what keeps the UK from going bankrupt and the “sterling area” has gone and will never come back what are the “Empire 2.0” crowd smoking? I see some insurance business is already moving to Luxembourg due to fears UK insurance business won’t get passporting rights in the UK post-Brexit.


3. CL - March 22, 2017

“Last Monday was Commonwealth Day, marked with a service at Westminster Abbey and dangerously rosy professions of faith that lost trade in Europe can be replaced through better deals with Britain’s former colonies. This is pie in the sky. The Commonwealth ceased to be a functioning trade bloc for Britain 70 years ago and nowadays absorbs less than 10pc of Britain’s exports. The Commonwealth as an alternative to Europe was rejected by Treasury analysts in the 1960s during Britain’s initial attempts to join the Common Market ”


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