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Imperial Preference was a proposed system of reciprocally-enacted tariffs or free trade agreements between the dominions and colonies of the British Empire. As Commonwealth Preference, the proposal was later revived in regard to the members of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Especially during the early 1900s, Imperial Preference was considered a method of promoting unity within the British Empire and sustaining Britain's position as a global power as a response to increased competition from the protectionist Germany and United States.
The idea was associated particularly with Joseph Chamberlain, who resigned from the government of Arthur Balfour in September 1903 in order to be free to campaign for Tariff Reform. Among those opposing Chamberlain was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Thomson Ritchie, who, guided by the free-trade ideas of the leading economists of the time, such as Sir William Ashley, was vigorously opposed to any scheme of Imperial Preference. This ultimately resulted in a damaging rift within Balfour's Conservative-Unionist coalition government, contributing to its defeat in the 1906 elections.
During the 1920s, Imperial Preference became popular once more, mostly through the good will of Lord Beaverbrook and his Daily Express, once Lloyd George was ejected from office. Unfortunately for Beaverbrook, Bonar Law preferred Lord Derby and his fear of opposition to a policy of extra-mural Food Tax, and Beaverbrook was unable to adapt his scheme, perhaps because of the economics:
|“||For at that time there could be no advantage to the Dominions unless Empire food was admitted to Britain free--and Britain imported more than half of her consumption of food.||”|
Law died in office before his first year in power was complete, and was succeeded by Stanley Baldwin, who was a tepid supporter of the scheme. He called the 1923 elections specifically to introduce protectionist policies and lost, leading to the first minority Labour government. Baldwin's Conservatives came back to power after the 1924 elections without a protectionist policy. His Colonial and Dominions Secretary, Leo Amery, was one of its strongest supporters and in 1926 established the Empire Marketing Board to encourage Britons to 'buy Empire'. But Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Baldwin government, a former Liberal and always a no-holds-barred free trader, was an opponent. Public opposition to protectionism contributed to the Conservative loss of power again in the 1929 elections and the creation of the second Labour government.
The 1931 elections supported a National Government nominally led by former Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald but with an overwhelming majority of MPs being Conservatives under Baldwin; these largely supported Imperial Preference as a response to the Great Depression. In 1932, representatives of Britain, the Dominions, and the Colonies held the Commonwealth Conference on Economic Consultation and Co-operation in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. They agreed to implement policies of Imperial Preference for five years.
In 1935, the Canadian Prime Minister, R. B. Bennett, a Conservative who endorsed Imperial Preference, was replaced by a Liberal, William Lyon Mackenzie King. King, who had spent his Great War years in the US as a labour consultant with the Rockefeller Foundation, responded to pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and abandoned Imperial Preference.
- Beaverbrook 1963
- Beaverbrook 1963, p. 211-2
- Beaverbrook 1963, p. 175ff
- National Institute of Economic and Social Research (1943). Trade Regulations & Commercial Policy of the United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press. p. 188. Retrieved 2017-09-29.
- Lord Beaverbrook (1963). The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George. London: Collins.
- nationalarchives.gov.uk: "Policy, protectionism and imperial preference"