Trading with the empire


Many revisionist historians take a very different view of the British Empire than was the case at the height of jingoism over a century ago, when India was regarded as ‘the Jewel in the Crown’. Undoubtedly, Britain left a major legacy when it exited India – mostly favourable but seriously tarnished by many indefensible actions post the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the unforgivable Amritsar massacre.

Amongst the legacy is the widely-spoken English language, a political system embracing democracy, long-standing trading relationships, the railways, a mass of personal contacts – and even cricket. Consequently, the Government’s high-profile efforts to increase trade with India, whose economy is growing strongly, should be greatly welcomed.

With c1.2 billion inhabitants, the size of the Indian market is vast: Britain’s legacy gives it a real inbuilt advantage to beat competition from elsewhere. More generally, with 53 other members of the Commonwealth, the potential for Britain to develop its trading relationships through these historic links is self-evident. To be sure, some Commonwealth countries, especially in Africa, are run by very dubious regimes. But many Commonwealth countries offer real prospects for expanding UK trade, including Australia and Canada.

Other countries with imperial histories have adopted a similar strategy. Interestingly, developments in the telecoms and electricity sectors illustrate this trend. After all, Cable and Wireless, the original ‘Child of Empire’, built its reputation by laying telephone cables worldwide. Following its recent split, the Communications segment now focuses on the former British colonies in the West Indies. Throughout Latin America, Spanish commercial operations are widespread, with Telefonica and Endesa being high-profile investors there, whilst Portugal Telecom and Electridade de Portugal (EDP) have invested heavily in Brazil. Not surprisingly, too, the French focus is on their former territories in Francophone Africa and on their DOM-TOMs.