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The period between 1880 and 1913 in the history of Britain was known as New Imperialism. During this period, the territory of the British Empire increased by about four million square miles due to the colonial expansion.1 The British colonies became expanded from Egypt and Sudan to Southern Africa, and from India to Burma and other territories of Southeastern Asia. Further colonization was also observed in the Pacific region.2
Despite such wide imperial expansion, the British Empire faced the competition from the European states involved in developing colonialism that affected Britain’s decisions regarding its economy and the European economic trends in general.3 The key research question to be answered in this paper is the following: How far did Britain’s imperial expansion after 1880 reshape the economy? Although British conservative politicians focused on the policy of protectionism in the sphere of economics, the principles of free trade were still promoted, and during the period of 1880-1913, Britain’s economy was reshaped significantly to represent the combination of two different economic approaches. The purpose of this research paper is to discuss how imperial expansion influenced the economy of Britain in the context of tendencies of New Imperialism.
Fair Trade in Contrast to Free Trade
In the 1880s, the economic progress of Britain and its colonies became based on the idea of fair trade in contrast to free trade. Established in 1881 by a group of conservative politicians, the Fair Trade League became oriented to changing the focus on free trade with the focus on developing a new economic policy.4 According to this new policy, it was expected to create a single economic area, including Britain and its colonies, where no duties on marketing goods could be imposed.
This program was developed in the context of the campaign for protectionism. It was important to protect that single economic area and contribute to the economic development of colonies through capital inflows and investing in industries with reference to setting high duties for those countries that were not involved in this economic space.5 However, despite conservative politicians’ focus on fair trade in the context of the British Empire, representatives of the liberal party did not support the idea and promoted the principles of free trade.6 As a result, depending on the imperial expansion ideas, the economy of Britain after 1880 was reshaped to become a combination of principles of free trade and fair trade.
The imperial expansion after 1880 contributed to creating the changing economy of the British Empire because conservative and liberal forces of Britain realized projects associated with both free trade and fair trade. The imperial economic union was attractive to the British monopolists, farmers, industries in colonies, and sellers. Therefore, the principles of trading between Britain and its colonies improved national revenues by about 30 per cents.7
However, protectionist barriers typical of fair trade were not regarded as appropriate till the 1890s because of potential rises in prices for products and different goods. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the fact that the trade between Britain and other European countries was still based on free trade rules, without setting protectionist barriers.
The Focus on Colonial Markets and Changes in Duties and Taxes
The economy of Britain during the period between 1880 and 1900 was characterized by the focus on colonial markets because of the British financial interests in colonies where they had developed businesses. In spite of developing free trade relationships in Europe, Britain needed to guarantee the further development of markets for British goods in colonies. Therefore, more attention was paid to protecting colonial markets and creating favorable conditions for trade in the British Empire.8
The reason for building strong relationships with African and Asian colonies was in the necessity to exchange resources and receive more profits for Britain’s economy and for British businesses in colonies.9 From this perspective, some ideas proclaimed by conservatives were adopted for the market in colonies, and this aspect influenced or even reshaped the overall economy of the British Empire.
Britain’s focus on the imperial expansion allowed for changing key tariffs, duties, and taxes associated with fair trade within the British Empire and free trade markets. High duties were traditionally imposed on such imports as tea, tobacco, and wine. As a result, they provided more than 90 per cents of revenues in the 1880s-1890s. Still, the income from customs was rather low, and increases in the income tax were observed.10 Moreover, the imperial expansion led to rising military and naval costs.
Therefore, changes in revenue duties were not attractive to the citizens of Britain.11 As a consequence, a kind of “free trade imperialism” developed, and the territories of the British Empire had to accept free trade treaties in the context of slightly developing ideas of protectionism because of problems with reaching the European markets.
In the 1880s-1890s, Britain had a certain part in the European market, and the further emphasis on protectionism could cause the loss of these markets. Therefore, the period after 1880 was the time when British authorities paid much attention to evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of protectionism and free trade. Still, in spite of economic debates typical of Britain after 1880, the state remained to be one of the major players in international trade, and its position was associated with about 20 per cents of world imports in the 1900s. Before World War I, Britain’s position in the world market was associated with more than 16 per cents of imports.12
Thus, it is possible to state that an effective economic policy of Britain regarding setting duties and taxes at the end of the 19th century and before World War I allowed for funding military enterprises and covering the associated costs because of high taxes that accounted for about 20 per cents of the national income in Britain.13 From this point, it is important to note that specific positive effects of reshaping the British economy after 1880 could be observed even in the 1900s and before World War I.
Although Britain’s imperial expansion during the period of the 1880s-1900s led to the development of a unique economic system based on ideas of free trade and principles of fair trade in some cases, there are researchers who stated that Britain mainly developed the protectionist course in its colonies. Hobson was one of the main supporters of the idea that Britain invested in colonies in order to protect the market within the British Empire.14
The emphasis on the market in colonies and on the investment in this area was viewed as the key goal of the British government. As a result, this idea was developed in the academic literature for a long period of time. However, other researchers stated that the economy of Britain after 1880 was reshaped significantly as it became oriented to both free trade and fair trade.15 Therefore, it is almost impossible to state that Britain followed only one course because actual economic steps were directed toward developing free trade markets and making the markets within the British Empire more secure.
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The era of New Imperialism in Britain significantly contributed to reshaping its economy because of the country’s focus on protecting the interests of the British Empire and developing the international market in the context of free trade principles. In spite of the fact that conservative politicians in Britain had intentions to primarily concentrate on the policy of protectionism in the context of fair trade within the British Empire, the liberal forces of the country were mainly against this initiative, and they focused on promoting the free trade ideas.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that the imperial expansion of Britain after 1880 contributed significantly to reshaping its economy as it became the combination of two rather opposite economic approaches in order to address the needs of Britain and colonies in terms of securing the market in colonies and succeeding in the international market area. As a result, researchers found signs of both economic and trade systems in the approach typical of the British Empire during the period between 1880 and 1913. It is also important to state that the effectively developed economic system of Britain allowed it to have high revenues in the 1900s and cover significant costs associated with World War I.
Buzan, Barry, and George Lawson. The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Copeland, Dale. Economic Interdependence and War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Daunton, Martin. Trusting Leviathan: The Politics of Taxation in Britain, 1799-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Kennedy, Dane. Britain and Empire, 1880-1945. London: Routledge, 2014.
Potter, Simon. British Imperial History. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Thompson, Andrew. Imperial Britain: The Empire in British Politics, c. 1880-1932. London: Routledge, 2014.
- Dale Copeland, Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 375-376.
- Simon Potter, British Imperial History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 10-12.
- Dane Kennedy, Britain and Empire, 1880-1945 (London: Routledge, 2014), 91-94.
- Andrew Thompson, Imperial Britain: The Empire in British Politics, c. 1880-1932 (London: Routledge, 2014), 83-84.
- Thompson, Imperial Britain, 28-30.
- Ibid., 83-84.
- Potter, British Imperial History, 24-25.
- Thompson, Imperial Britain, 86-90.
- Potter, British Imperial History, 32-33.
- Barry Buzan and George Lawson, The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 37-38.
- Potter, British Imperial History, 32-33.
- Martin Daunton, Trusting Leviathan: The Politics of Taxation in Britain, 1799-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 23-28.
- Thompson, Imperial Britain, 86-90.
- Potter, British Imperial History, 16-17.
- Thompson, Imperial Britain, 91-96.