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.
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. 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.’
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.”’ 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. 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. In other words, the history of global market integration can and should inform 21st-century debates.
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. 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.
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. More generally, the recent debate surrounding the History Manifesto has further stimulated international discussion about the role of historians in providing long-term perspectives on economic policy.
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.
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.
 Referendum on the European Community (Common Market), Why You Should Vote Yes (1975), text available at http://www.harvard-digital.co.uk/euro/pamphlet.htm
 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, The Role and Future of the Commonwealth (2012), pp. 8, 36-9 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmfaff/114/114.pdf
 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, 82-5 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldselect/ldsoftpower/150/150.pdf
 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.
 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
 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
 UKTI, China Business Guide (2012), p. 91.
 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
 Ibid., pp. 10-12.
 Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (2014), p. 12 http://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).
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