Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum (originally posted 03/12/13)
This autumn I spoke at several universities in Australia and New Zealand on the subject of the various shopping weeks that were launched to promote Empire trade during the 1920s and 1930s. The story of the Empire Marketing Board’s efforts to develop the idea of ‘Buying Empire’ in inter-war Britain is well known, and its posters still appear regularly on the covers of books written about imperial culture. What is less well known is that the same cause was taken up with enthusiasm by a variety of organisations in the Dominions, and arguably achieved greater and more lasting prominence there than it did in Britain.
At the same time, it quickly became clear to me that the archives in England and Australasia were telling different stories. Politicians and businessmen in Wellington and Melbourne may have conceived themselves to be members of a ‘British’ trade community, but their understanding of what the future of the Empire as an economic unit should be often differed from their counterparts in London.
This study forms part of a wider project on debates about Britain’s economic future since 1900, for which I have received AHRC fellowship funding for 2014-15. While Britain remains at the centre of the story, my overseas trip has reminded me of the continued dynamism of imperial studies in Australia and New Zealand. Much of the best and most innovative of this work has sought to ‘decentre’ Empire, through explorations of culture and race . While ties with Britain played a central role in shaping the identity of the nascent settler colonies in the nineteenth century, we need to recognise the importance of the cultural links that Australia, for example, formed with South Africa, India, and its close neighbour, New Zealand.
Using such decentred approaches to trace the history of trade networks adds new layers to our understanding of imperial economic history. Moreover, it underlines the importance of going beyond the trade figures to understand the wider culture of the imperial economy. A ‘British’ trade identity was no doubt vital to many in the Dominions, at least up until the 1960s, but it could express itself in participation in the Toronto trades fair, crossing the Tasman to attend a meeting of Chambers of Commerce, or supporting a state-wide drive to promote Australian manufactures, as well as more literal practices of buying British (or Empire) goods. Teasing out these often uneven links of trade is a complex process but a vital one if we are to get a clearer understanding of the history of ‘buying British’ and I look forward to uncovering further perspectives when I travel to Australia and South Africa to undertake research in the New Year.
My autumn trip ended with participation in a delegation of Exeter historians at Peking University, the top humanities university in China. The pace of change in Beijing and its sheer scale is hard to believe. When one of my cousins visited the city seven years ago there were two metro lines; now there are fifteen. Peking University itself has twenty thousand postgraduate students and the nine-block hotel complex where we stayed on campus is the size of a village. As for the road network, imagine London being encircled by five M25s and have you have an idea of its scale.
The colloquium provided a unique opportunity for us to discuss the wide breadth of original research being conducted in our respective departments – sex in mediaeval Spain, the revolutionary experiences of France and China, and the history of desert regions – as well as learn about our respective postgraduate programmes. We look forward to welcoming a return delegation from PKU next year, although we’re not sure we can compete with the fantastic quality of their food — but perhaps a Devon cream tea comes close.
 See for example Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s colonial past (Auckland, 2013); Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the global colour line: white men’s countries and the international challenge of racial equality(Cambridge, 2008); and Philippa Mein Smith, Peter Hempenstall and Shaun Goldfinch, Rethinking the Tasman world (Christchurch, 2009).