History & Policy Global Economics and History Forum manifesto

David Thackeray, Marc-William Palen and Andrew Dilley

Cross-posted from History & Policy

This newly launched forum builds on the activities of the AHRC Imagining Markets network.

 

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Britain and Global Trade: Past and Future

Regardless of the outcome of the EU referendum Britain currently faces a period of significant upheaval in its relations with key international markets. In 1975 when voters last went to the polls on the question of membership of the EEC, the EU’s forerunner, access to the European Common Market was presented by the victorious Yes campaign as being key to Britain’s economic prosperity.[1]

By contrast, today both supporters and opponents of continued EU membership stress the importance of wider global economic connections as Britain seeks to develop new markets. For example, whereas the relative importance of the Commonwealth in British trade had declined sharply in the 1950s and 1960s the significance of this grouping in world trade has grown significantly in recent years, as was acknowledged in a Foreign Affairs Committee report published in 2012.[2] After all, this region contains two key BRICS emerging markets (India and South Africa) and countries which proved to have some of the most resilient economies in the world in the face of the post-2008 economic downturn (Australia and Canada). During the last twenty years the combined GDP of the Commonwealth has doubled. Lord Howell has gone so far as to describe the Commonwealth market as ‘the soft power network of the future.’[3]

The importance of the Commonwealth link is a long-standing one. Indeed, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries British settler colonies looked to develop ‘Greater Britain’ as an economic unit as other leading powers turned towards economic nationalism. This idea of ‘Greater Britain’ would manifest itself again and again in the imperial preferential trade demands of the Fair Trade League (1881-1891), the United Empire Trade League (1891-1903), and Joseph Chamberlain’s Edwardian-era Tariff Reform League. As Robert Reid, the Defense Minister of Victoria, put it in 1894 to his imperial audience in London: ‘We in Australia want to trade as freely with Canada and South Africa as Kent trades with Surrey, or Surrey with Yorkshire. With the introduction of restrictive tariffs and with foreign countries taking away our trade in all directions, our cry must be “Britain for the British.”’[4] The appeal of Commonwealth trade might appear in a very different guise today, but its importance as an alternative economic integrative path for Britain’s global trade identity builds on deep historical roots.

Today’s changes within Britain’s global economic orientation are far from unprecedented. Rather, as this example illustrates, they build on historic ties. If we look at the case of China too, there are long-standing debates about the country’s enormous potential as a trade partner and several key British companies can trace their presence in the region back to the nineteenth century.[5] More broadly, contemporary policy discussions about trade treaties such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have their roots in earlier debates about economic protectionism and national trade policies.[6] In other words, the history of global market integration can and should inform 21st-century debates.

Accessing expertise

As the UKTI’s China Business Guide makes clear, understanding the historical roots of trade relationships, and the cultural sensitivities they entail, is vital to those who wish to expand trade today.[7] However, as the recent AHRC-sponsored ‘Making History Work’ report indicates, the role of historical case-studies in policy-making varies between government institutions. Departments such as HM Treasury and FCO have developed historical seminar series, although in other cases outreach to academics can rely more on ad hoc informal networks.[8]

High staff turnover within departments (with 2 and 3 year placements common within the Civil Service Fast Stream) adds a further barrier to developing an ‘institutional memory’ for planning within departments.[9] More generally, the recent debate surrounding theHistory Manifesto has further stimulated international discussion about the role of historians in providing long-term perspectives on economic policy.[10]

Traditionally, there has been a disjuncture between the long lead times of academic publishing and the working practices of policy-makers who require rapid responses to the changing geopolitical environment. However, the growth of online publishing and digital venues like History & Policy provide new opportunities to challenge these divisions in working practices.

Aims of the forum

The History & Policy Global Economics and History Forum aims to:

– develop a network connecting people in academia, business, think-tanks, government and the public interested in historical and contemporary issues in the politics of global trade.

– offer a historicised perspective on current debates in British and global trade (such as relations with emerging markets and the role of trade in international conflict), providing a platform for both established scholars and early career researchers.

– connect policy-makers, business, academia and the public through social media, opinion articles, policy papers, policy workshops, consultations, and broadcast and print media.

– provide a forum for the discussion of trade policy past and present, building on the existing work of History & Policy, and connecting with initiatives in widening participation in policy making.

 


[1] Referendum on the European Community (Common Market), Why You Should Vote Yes (1975), text available athttp://www.harvard-digital.co.uk/euro/pamphlet.htm

[2] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, The Role and Future of the Commonwealth (2012), pp. 8, 36-9http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmfaff/114/114.pdf

[3] Lord Howell, speech to 57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, July 2011,https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/commonwealth-the-soft-power-network-of-the-future ; See also House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World (2014), pp. 13, 82-5http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldselect/ldsoftpower/150/150.pdf

[4] Reid quoted in Marc-William Palen, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 224.

[5] See for example Peter Cain, ‘China, globalisation and the west: a British debate 1890-1914’, History & Policy (2009)http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/china-globalisation-and-the-west-a-british-debate-1890-1914

[6] Marc-William Palen, ‘The protectionist side of outsourcing’, History & Policy (2013) http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/the-protectionist-side-of-outsourcing; Jim Tomlinson, ‘De-globalization and the search for economic security’, History & Policy (2011) http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/de-globalization-and-the-search-for-economic-security; David Thackeray, ‘History and future of British trade identities’, History & Policy (2014) http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/history-and-future-of-british-trade-identities

[7] UKTI, China Business Guide (2012), p. 91.

[8] Catherine Haddon, Joe Devanny, Chales Forsdick and Andrew Thompson, What is the value of history in policymaking? (AHRC/ Institute for Government, 2015), p.4 http://careforthefuture.exeter.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Making-History-Work-Report-Final.pdf

[9] Ibid., pp. 10-12.

[10] Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (2014), p. 12http://historymanifesto.cambridge.org/files/6114/1227/7857/historymanifesto.pdf; Similarly, see Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri, eds., The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft (2016).

Selling a new deal in Europe: what the Remain campaign can learn from 1975

David Thackeray

Cross posted from The Conversation

Just before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, Foreign Secretary James Callaghan worked hard to renegotiate the terms of British membership.

The concessions agreed back then are now widely seen as having had little lasting value – they related to imports of New Zealand dairy products and a complex correcting mechanism within the EEC budget. And yet, at the time they were popular. At the subsequent referendum, the UK voted two-to-one in favour of staying in the EEC.

While the context of the 1975 referendum was very different, the way the renegotiation terms were presented back then offers some valuable lessons for the people campaigning to keep Britain in the EU today.

However, the conduct of the campaign so far suggests that Prime Minister David Cameron may struggle to replicate Harold Wilson’s successful 1975 campaign to remain in the EEC in the face of opposition from his own government ministers.

Lukewarm on Europe

Opinion polls in early 1975 suggested that the electorate was lukewarm in its support for Europe. But the idea of renegotiating was popular, especially among Labour voters. It demonstrated that the EEC was willing to listen to Britain’s concerns and that Britain could lever authority within the European Community.

The renegotiation subsequently featured prominently in the manifesto of the Yes campaign. It was even mentioned at the top of the referendum ballot paper. Voters were instructed that “The government have announced the results of the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of the EC”. They were then asked: “do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)”.

By contrast, polling suggests that Cameron’s renegotiation has had little discernible impact on public attitudes to the EU. He spent weeks convincing fellow European leaders to allow the UK to limit welfare payments to EU migrants, among other measures, but voters appear unmoved.

Crucially, Harold Wilson was cautious in the way he presented the value of the new terms gained through renegotiation, in contrast to the more strident tone used by Cameron. Following the Labour cabinet’s majority agreement to support continued membership, Wilson stated in parliament:

I believe that our renegotiation objectives have been substantially though not completely achieved.

The Yes manifesto subsequently focused on the fact that many of Britain’s key historical trade partners in the Commonwealth supported its continued membership of the EEC, rather than promising significant change.

Wilson’s cautious approach arguably reflected the public mood of 1975. Support for European membership was tepid at best but it was often seen as better than the alternatives. Europe was often seen as a side issue to Britain’s domestic economic problems. Indeed, Europe did not often appear as a cover story in the national newspapers, even in the weeks leading up to the referendum vote.

Setting the tone

In 2016, the Remain camp has been widely criticised for the negative tone of its campaign. It has even been labelled Project Fear by supporters of Brexit. Yet there are parallels here with the approach of the successful Yes campaign in 1975, which also highlighted how Brexit would leave Britain in an uncertain geopolitical position.

Behind the scenes, civil servants involved in contingency planning for a potential Brexit often expressed anxiety about the logistics of leaving the European Community, for which there was no real precedent.

1975 indicates that focusing on the uncertainties of leaving the EU could be an effective strategy, not least as then, like now, supporters of Brexit are far from united in what alternative economic model they would follow.

And the Yes camps should acknowledge that the debate about the value of the concessions recently achieved by David Cameron is not likely to go away anytime soon. Michael Gove has already tried to question whether the package of reforms is legally binding, and Brexit backers are likely to continue to pick holes in the deal right up until the vote.

Wilson’s success in keeping Britain in Europe in 1975 suggests that it is essential for the Yes manifesto to acknowledge the limitations of the renegotiated terms as well as their value. In particular, as has been noted, it is important that each side provides independently prepared forecasts about how the different outcomes of the vote might affect immigration over the next ten years.

Planning for the Referendum and After: Lessons from 1975

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

Cross-posted from History & Policy

Forty-one years ago this month, James Callaghan finalised the renegotiation of Britain’s EEC membership at a Dublin meeting of the European Council. At the subsequent referendum the results were emphatic. The UK voted ‘yes’ to remaining in the EEC, the forerunner of today’s EU, by a two to one margin. Now with the EU referendum date set, this article considers the key differences between the 1975 and 2016 votes and the lessons of the 1975 renegotiation for policy-makers planning for the vote and its aftermath.

The first striking difference between the 1975 and 2016 referendums is the wording of the question which voters are being asked. In September David Cameron accepted a recommendation by the Electoral Commission that voters be directly asked whether they wish to stay in or leave the EU. This marks a radical departure from the precedent of the 1975 referendum. Significantly, opinion polls from the time suggested that many Britons were unhappy with various aspects of EEC membership, however they were willing to support continued membership on the terms proposed: ‘Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)’. Interestingly, the Cameron government’s original preferred wording for the upcoming referendum closely resembled that chosen by Harold Wilson in 1975.

The 1975 referendum demonstrates the importance of how the European question is framed in another way. Britain’s recent renegotiation of its terms of membership was mentioned at the top of the ballot paper and appears to have been a vote-winner. Gallup polls held before the renegotiation suggested willingness to support new terms of membership. The ‘yes’ majority widened significantly after the final renegotiation talks, with the Yes camp enjoying at least a sixteen per cent majority among decided voters for the final three months of the campaign. With supporters of continued EU membership enjoying no such advantage today, the renegotiation terms are likely to be a major area of contention over coming weeks and the Yes campaign will need to make a clear case for the value of the new terms.

Given the current uncertainty over the likely referendum result, contingency planning to meet the various outcomes will also be a key concern over coming months. Former cabinet secretary Gus O’ Donnell has recently commented that it is likely that civil servants are ‘mentally’ carrying out work in preparation for a potential British exit. Interestingly, the Cabinet Office, Treasury and Foreign Office were involved in substantial planning for a British exit in 1975. At the time, there was particular anxiety about how a British exit might affect the stability of the EEC. Civil servants expected that Denmark might join the UK in leaving and worried that bilateral relations with the Republic of Ireland would be complicated, potentially exacerbating problems in Northern Ireland.

Much of the contingency planning in 1975 focused on the complexities of leaving the EEC, for which there was no precedent. A Treasury memo produced at the time claimed that ‘a swift withdrawal is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with the facts of international political life’. Some ministers publicly called for a withdrawal from the Community no later than 1 January 1976. And yet, behind the scenes, civil servants raised concerns about the viability of negotiating an early exit, which largely relied on the goodwill of other EEC members. If the January deadline was not met then Britain’s budget commitments of £200 million would likely have remained in place for another year. It was hoped that a treaty of withdrawal could be kept as short as possible, with more complex aspects of Britain’s future trading arrangements to be settled afterwards. Whilst Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) includes a clause for Member States to voluntarily withdraw from the EU, the growth of this organisation’s functions over recent decades means that the procedure for Brexit remains highly complex.

In many ways the stakes of voting on EU membership are higher now than in 1975. Indeed, the wording of the referendum ballot paper means that voters will be given a specific ‘in-out’ question on membership for the first time. Convincing voters to support the renegotiation terms may also be harder now. In 1975 Britain had only been a member of the EEC for two years and was economically ‘the sick man of Europe’, having been particularly badly hit by the oil price spike of 1973-74. Many voters were dissatisfied with aspects of Britain’s EEC membership but willing to endorse it for fear that exit would leave the UK internationally isolated. By contrast, developing links with emerging markets like China and India is today commonly seen as crucial to Britain’s future economic growth and the problems of the Eurozone have tempered the appeal of the EU as an economic unit.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming referendum, and with the UK’s next presidency of the EU due to begin in July 2017, the nation’s shifting relationship with Europe is due to be a key matter of interest for some time to come.

In Wilson’s Shadow: Why the 1975 Europe Referendum Still Matters

Margaret Thatcher,  William Whitelaw and Peter Kirk, at a referendum conference. June 1975. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

 

Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum

Richard Toye and David Thackeray
University of Exeter

Forty years ago today Britain went to the polls to decide a crucial question: would the country remain in the European Economic Community (EEC)? It had only joined the EEC, the EU forerunner organisation, two years previously, and this was the first UK-wide referendum. When the votes were counted the results were emphatic. The nation had voted ‘yes’ to Europe by a two to one margin. The Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson hailed the result, noting that no one in Britain or the wider world could be in doubt about its meaning. Margaret Thatcher, the recently-chosen Tory leader, observed that the ‘massive “Yes” vote could not have come about without a massive Conservative “Yes”.’ Today, as the British people prepare for a new European plebiscite, what lessons can be learned from the experience of 1975?

Some things have remained constant over the last four decades. Even back then, David Dimbleby was one of the faces of TV politics; he hosted a Panorama debate on the EEC. Other things have changed, though, not least the fact that in those days it was the Labour Party that suffered the worst splits over Europe. Anti-European socialists such as Tony Benn and Barbara Castle found themselves at loggerheads with Europhile social democrats such as Roy Jenkins. The 1974 Labour manifesto tried to square the circle, condemning the Heath government’s ‘profound political mistake’ in entering the Community ‘without the consent of the British people’ yet keeping the door open for continued UK membership if the terms could be renegotiated. Although a different party was in charge, the parallels with David Cameron’s current strategy are obvious.

Wilson’s renegotiation did succeed, and the British gained concessions on the EEC budget, on the Common Agricultural Policy, and on food imports from Commonwealth countries. Some would argue that the changes that he secured were more nominal than real; today some Eurosceptic Tories fear that Cameron is planning to ‘do a Wilson’ and will use whatever cosmetic reforms he can secure as an excuse to campaign vigorously to stay in the EU. Be that as it may, it is worth noting that many of the key issues have changed, along with the political and economic context. In 1975 Scotland was the most Eurosceptic part of Britain and the SNP campaigned in support on an exit from the EEC. 1970s Europhobes harped on about food prices and the threat to the balance of payments. Little attention was paid to questions of freedom of movement for European workers during the referendum. After all, the EEC was then a club of nine wealthy European nations and Britain’s economy was fairing worse than many of its European neighbours at the time. Now, Cameron’s wish-list focuses on welfare, immigration and political integration.

There is, however, also an underlying continuity: the deeper issue in both the old-style and modern debates is that of sovereignty, and the degree to which it should be sacrificed in the interests of other benefits such as access to markets.

Yes girls: Pro-EEC campaigners back Brussels at the 1975 referendum

As in 1975, the ‘yes’ campaign is likely to receive significantly greater funding than the supporters of an exit from Europe. Business was overwhelmingly in favour of continued EEC membership in the 1970s, based on perceptions that access to European markets would enable Britain to improve labour productivity and promote high-tech industry.[1] Some opponents of EU membership now argue that the British economy would be better served by having a free hand to develop relationships with emerging markets such as India and China. However, the leading business organisation, the CBI, made clear its keen support for a ‘yes’ vote last week.[2]

In the light of the recent announcement that the Bank of England is organising a taskforce to make contingency plans in the event of a British exit from the EU it is worth noting that government departments organised similar operations forty years ago.[3] A Treasury memo produced in 1975 claimed that ‘a swift withdrawal is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with the facts of international political life’. Some ministers called for a withdrawal from the Community no later than 1 January 1976. And yet, behind the scenes civil servants raised the concerns about the viability of negotiating an early exit, meaning that Britain’s budget commitments would remain in place for another year.[4] There was no legal basis for the withdrawal of a member state, so the logistics of renegotiating trade relationships and implementing exit were uncertain.

If the British electorate decides to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum, the example of 1975 suggests that it would only be the beginning of a complex process of renegotiating a new relationship with Europe.

———

[1] http://gladstonediaries.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/business-and-europe-1975-referendum.html

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32805539

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/may/22/secret-bank-of-england-taskforce-investigates-financial-fallout-brexit

[4] C.W. Fogarty, Treasury memo., 30 May 1975 and attached undated Cabinet Office memo. ‘Referendum ‘No’- Contingency Planning Report’, , T355/275, National Archives, London

Imagining Markets workshop report, Exeter, April 2015

Imagining Markets 1st workshop, Exeter, April 2015
Report
Reed Hall1A chilly start at Reed Hall, Exeter!

 

We were delighted to welcome Imagining Markets network participants to Exeter for our first event last week. This is the first of a series of three academic workshops, with subsequent events to be held in London and Cambridge over the next year, exploring various facets of Britain’s economic culture and its relationship with key markets.
Paul Young opened proceedings with a paper exploring how the growth of the refrigerated meat and beef stock industries led to new understandings of the South American environment in Victorian literature such as the eco-romance The Purple Land and in advertising, where the Uruguay-based Leibig’s company had to compete with the imperial populism of Bovril.
Alan Booth introduced a new project exploring the development of the Rowntree business lectures, which emerged after World War I in a context of growing global economic competition to British business, and interest in new American methods of industrial psychology and management consultancy.

 

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Lawrence Black explored the changing practices of shopping in mid-twentieth century America and Britain, such as the growth of self-service, and attempts to reshape market relations through consumer activism. Groups such as the National Consumers League expressed anxiety about the conservatism of shoppers and their concern with the ‘cheapness’ of goods.
Glen O’ Hara discussed how European competitors were imagined during the 1950s and how this influenced Britain’s subsequent applications to join the EEC and perceptions of the country’s relative economic ‘decline’. Glen paid particular attention to how changing practices in compiling economic statistics and graphically representing the economy reshaped ideas of markets.

 

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The unlikely ‘Get Britain Out’ alliance in 1975, a portent for 2017 EU referendum?

 

Robert Saunders gave a taste of his project on the 1975 EEC referendum, exploring business organisations’ efforts in support of the campaign to keep Britain in the EEC. As Robert showed, in 1975 there was widespread business enthusiasm for expanding trade via the EEC, which appeared to offer opportunities to develop high-tech industries, and rationalise practices.
Piers Ludlow concluded the workshop with a plenary paper on the theme of ‘Economics and Britain’s European Choices’ which explored how government views of the UK’s most desirable economic future changed over the course of the 1950s with the rapid growth of EEC economies.
The day gave us an opportunity to discuss how various actors have politically constructed ideas about Britain’s economic future from the late nineteenth century onwards, from government, business, and civil society groups. Key themes to emerge include the importance of public debate about economic culture: the Rowntree business lectures emerged in a context of anxiety about mass suffrage and the growth of labour, consumer activism reflected anxiety about shoppers not behaving in an economically ‘rational’ fashion, and the 1975 referendum hinged on the idea of educating the public to support particular visions of Britain’s economic future. Coupled with these debates were anxieties about Britain’s world economic standing and its relative economic ‘decline’. We look forward to continuing the debates in London and Cambridge in the following months.

 

Reed Hall4
Not so typical Exeter weather!

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The History and future of British trade identities

Cross-posted from History & Policy (originally published 23/11/14)

  • Many of the core debates in UK politics today concern the nation’s future trade: the question of Scottish independence, devolution of political power to the regions, and a potential referendum on EU membership. Exploring the history of British trade identities can provide important insights into how we got here and the potential choices for policy makers. As historian Jim Tomlinson has argued, the twentieth century witnessed a gradual process of the ‘partial de-globalisation’ of British regions, with the declining influence of manufacturing and the growth of a more atomised service-sector economy. The discontents this has caused, exacerbated by the recent worldwide economic downturn, have been seized upon by parties such as the SNP and UKIP.

Britain, almost uniquely among major nations, retained a system of free trade until 1932. This owed much to the strong integration of Britain’s regions into global trade relationships. Amongst the heartlands of electoral support for free trade in Edwardian Britain were the cotton manufacturing towns of Lancashire and textile producing districts of West Yorkshire, which relied heavily on exports to a variety of world markets; and Dundee, then a global centre for jute manufacture. Even when tariffs were introduced in the 1930s, Britain sought to lower trade barriers to aid industrial exporters, signing trade treaties with a number of countries including Denmark, Argentina and the USA.

In fact, the 1930s can be seen as a higher watermark in support for the Union. A Conservative-dominated National Government won landslide election victories in 1931 and 1935, achieving a clear majority of seats in England and Scotland on both occasions. Business organisations such as the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire and the Federation of British Industries played an important role in trade affairs at this time, giving regional groups such as Liverpool and Glasgow shipbuilders, Lancashire cotton producers, and Yorkshire textile industrialists an important lobbying role with governments both in Britain and the wider Commonwealth. These bodies helped exporters develop links with overseas buyers, gave advice on commercial arbitration, and enabled industrialists to lobby for access to lower tariff rates in Dominions such as Australia, Canada, and South Africa. In turn, popular campaigns were launched in those countries to support the buying of goods from Britain and the wider Empire.

This system was challenged after 1945, leading to the eventual fracturing of Commonwealth trade relationships in the 1960s, which occurred concurrently with Britain’s first attempts to join the European Economic Community. Moreover, a steady decline in the role of manufacturing within the UK economy undermined regional identities, which were closely tied to industry. Whereas manufacturing made up 41 percent of the British economy in 1948,  this fell to around 30 percent in the early 1970s, and stands at 10 percent today. The region with the highest reliance on manufacturing is the East Midlands, where it accounts for 12.5 percent of jobs, whereas manufacturing accounts for only 2.4 percent of jobs in London. The troubled economic times of the 1970s led to a growth in Celtic nationalism which challenged the authority of central government at Westminster, a crisis brilliantly documented in Tom Nairn’s The break-up of Britain (1977). In October 1974, following a year in which oil prices escalated as the result of an Arab embargo, the SNP claimed over thirty per cent of the vote in Scotland (a share they have not bettered at a British general election since).

The recent revival in opposition to the two main parties at Westminster can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the ongoing long-term experiences of regional de-industrialisation and a concurrent de-globalisation of trade, aggravated by the recent recession. Scottish regions such as Dundee, which have experienced de-globalisation acutely as a result of the decline of manufacturing, voted for independence, whereas Edinburgh, a centre for international financial services, voted two-to-one against.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent pledge to tackle the ‘West Lothian question’ and implement a major devolution of powers across the four nations has further stoked debate about the future direction of Britain and the possibilities for English regional government. While the proposed devolution of decision-making may potentially help foster regional development, it is unclear how this will be achieved given that England makes up 85 percent of the UK’s population. What is most important is the need to rebalance the economy, lessening its reliance on financial services honeypots such as London and Edinburgh, and stimulating links with expanding markets in the regions. The UK is far more reliant on financial services exports as a percentage of total service sector exports than other G7 countries, making it particularly vulnerable to further instability in world markets.

The revived importance of the Commonwealth in world trade was recognised by the 2013 Lords’ Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence chaired by Lord Howell, which called for government to pay greater attention to developing economic links with this network of nations. With several fast-growing economies, including India, Australia and South Africa, and a doubling of trade between its members in the last 20 years, the Commonwealth provides key markets for the future. The UK is particularly well placed to exploit this link due to strong historical trade ties and the evolution of similar business cultures and legal institutions.

The Commonwealth Business Council, a company with corporate members, which promoted trade and investment in Commonwealth countries, ceased trading in July 2014. It is imperative that a successor organisation is formed which can play an important role in stimulating intra-Commonwealth trade. In addition, government needs to provide universities with greater opportunities to develop research and development links with markets such as India and China, thereby catalysing the UK’s regional economies.

Welcome signs of progress in this regard include the recent expansion of links between the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Indian Council of Historical Research, as well as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. AHRC projects offer a range of opportunities to project the UK’s ‘soft power’ – that is, building trust and prestige between nations through cultural influence. For example, Picturing China 1870-1950, a touring exhibition curated by historian Robert Bickers, offered a sophisticated image of pre-1949 China and its relations with the West. The project, which amassed and digitised photos by British expatriates and Chinese nationals, created a new public forum for discussion of complex pre-1949 Western-Chinese relations in China. In total the Foreign and Commonwealth Office estimates that the project reached 10 million people.

Globalisation may be a catchphrase for these times, but it has important historical antecedents, which throw light on the current challenges facing British policy makers as increasing numbers of disillusioned voters seek alternatives to the traditional two-party system. One of the key challenges that UK politicians face today is appealing to a population which has witnessed the partial de-globalisation of trade in some regions, it is therefore imperative that efforts are made to stimulate connections with growing markets such as India and China building on historic connections.