A long time ago, an internet forum that I was involved with considered how the world would have been different had the settler colonies of the British Empire been able to hold themselves together into some sort of federation. Imagine a 125 million-strong country consisting of Canada, the British Isles and Australasia. A federated Commonwealth might not quite have gotten out of World War 2 as a superpower but it would have been much more of an equal to the United States.
To a casual observer, in fact, it seems a bit mysterious that the U.K. allowed colonies whose initial settlement came overwhelmingly from Britain (save Canada) to just drift away. Why not give them seats in Parliament and keep the new territories in the fold?
Well, one thing that surprised me is just how early Britain began allowing the settler colonies to impose their own tariffs. Even before responsible self-government, for example, New South Wales began taxing imports from Great Britain. Up until 1843 imports from the U.K. received preferential access ... but they still paid tariffs. And after 1843, tariffs had to apply equally to imports from everywhere in the Empire. That had the effect of ratcheting up tariffs on British goods, rather than (as London seemed to hope) lowering rates on imports from India.
One of the things that made Imperial Federation a nonstarter was that the Dominions, by the late-19th-century generally democratic and self-governing (I am going to ignore the abominable Union of South Africa) had little desire to fight the political battles necessary to create a common Imperial economic space. Moreover, the U.K. had pledged to defend them and was seen as unlikely to renege on that commitment. So why pay more for Imperial defense when the U.K. taxpayer was going to pay for most of your defense for you? Even in retrospect that proved to be a pretty good deal: sure, the U.K. failed to defend Australia in any serious way in WW2, but it seems unlikely that an Imperial Federation would have been able to devote more resources to the south Pacific than our far-less-organized British Empire actually managed.
But how did those Dominions come to have their own trade policies? Well, here it gets strange: London seems to have actively encouraged them to tax imports and set up local industries.
Consider Australia. New South Wales (NSW) started taxing alcohol imports in 1800; alcohol was the obvious thing to tax and most booze was imported, so the tariffs were also, in fact, the first taxes in the country. (Raised to pay for a pair of jails, which seems somehow ironic.) The import taxes rapidly gave rise to import substitution ... directly financed by the government in London. “The introduction of beer into general use among the inhabitants would certainly lessen consumption of spiritous liquors,” wrote the colonial secretary in 1802 (page 7). “I have therefore in conformity with your suggestion taken measures for furnishing the colony with a supply of ten tons of Porter, six bags of hops and two complete sets of brewing materials.”
Sadly, the subsidized importation of brewing equipment by the authorities back in London failed, so the colonial government set up its own brewery in 1804. In 1821, the British Parliament cut the alcohol tax on alcohol distilled in NSW from £0.50 to £0.13 while leaving the tax unchanged on imported spirits.
You got that right: parliamentarians in London kick-started import substitution in New South Wales. In 1827 they added insult to injury by taking a 5% duty on manufactured imports from places other than Britain and extending it to Britain.
Eventually the Australian colonies gained self-government, but by the then the urge to protect was well-established. South Australia separated from NSW in 1836; by 1846 it had ad valorem tariffs on even more goods than NSW. Victoria separated from NSW in 1851; by 1859 it had an organized “Tariff League” and in 1866 there came an openly protectionist Customs Act designed to promote the local manufacture of textiles, hats, leather goods, woodenware, furniture, toys, woollen blankets and rugs, glass and glassware, earthenware and porcelain. (Page 9.) Cigarettes soon followed.
By this point, Australia was clearly on its own economic policy path. Even had London been able to get its act together about inviting Dominion representatives into the Parliament, the negotiations would have been difficult. It is more surprising that the Australian colonies managed to knit themselves together into the Commonwealth of Australia than that they failed to build lasting economic links to Britain.
One has to wonder if things would have been different had British bureaucrats been more proactive about keep Oz and Albion in the same economic space. More concretely, I have to wonder why those self-same bureaucrats put Australia on the road to economic independence, to the point of passing an Act of Parliament. It seems strange and goes beyond simply wanting to make the Dominions self-financing. (Which they never were, if you count the cost of imperial defense.)
I understand why once you had local booze, independence was near inevitable. What I don’t understand is why London wanted them to have their own booze. But either way, the first sign of the inevitable end of the British Commonwealth came when that first Ozzie cracked open that first locally-brewed government beer.