Skip to main content  
 
 

 
Front cover of the programme for the 13th Congress of Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire conversazione, 1933

​Front cover of the programme of the 13th Congress of Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire Conversazione, held at Guildhall, 6 July 1933.

The Forgotten 'Commercial Parliament' of the British Empire and Commonwealth

Many forgotten fragments of London’s global past are preserved in the London Metropolitan Archives. A little over ten years ago Dr Andrew Dilley of the University of Aberdeen stumbled across one such fragment: bound volumes containing the records of the all-but-forgotten Congresses of Chambers of Commerce of the Empire. It soon became clear that these debates contained a significant and neglected window into the history of the British Empire and of the Commonwealth of Nations. The latter was formed in the 1920s largely from the UK, the self-governing components of the Empire (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, and Eire) plus India, and later expanded in the era of decolonisation to include most of Britain’s former colonies.

Beginnings

The Congresses, which the Edwardian economist W. J. Ashely described as the ‘unofficial commercial parliaments of the Empire’, began in 1886, sponsored and organised by the London Chamber of Commerce. They were held every three to four years through to 1972, excepting during the World Wars, and enjoyed royal patronage. Queen Elizabeth II herself opened the 1962 Congress. They lasted between two and five days and were attended by hundreds of delegates from chambers of commerce across the Empire, making them amongst the largest of pan-imperial gatherings. Delegates attended lavish banquets in the livery halls of the City along with receptions, garden parties, and visits to sites of interest. In 1902 delegates travelled to Montreal and thereafter Congresses were held alternately in London and overseas. When Wellington played host in 1936, the New Zealand Post-Office issued commemorative stamps!

Debates and policies

While the Congresses were major social events, their purpose was to formulate common positions on economic policy. As one eager Canadian delegate put it in 1896, ‘We do not come across the Atlantic… to attend these meetings without being in earnest’. In 1911 a permanent body, the British Imperial Council of Commerce, was formed to place the views of the Congresses before the governments of the Empire ‘with persistency’. After several further name changes, in 1964 it became the Federation of Commonwealth Chambers of Commerce.

The Congress debates provide insights into the ways businesses hoped that a supra-national polity like the Empire, later the Commonwealth, could facilitate trade and hence economic growth. Tariff policy occupied the most time. The British Empire was not a free trade area. As early as 1859, the province of Canada began protecting local manufacturing industries. Congress delegates agreed that ‘freer’ trade within the Empire was desirable, but this masked considerable divisions. Some still wished to see the establishment of complete free trade within the Empire. Others defended Britain’s adherence to complete free trade. From 1906, most delegates supported complex schemes of ‘imperial preference’ whereby the Empire’s component states would retain domestic protection (with Britain abandoning free trade) but place lower tariffs on imports from the Empire, a system finally adopted in a generalised manner at the 1932 Ottawa Economic Conference.

Further policy areas were persistent themes in Congress debates. They demanded government investment in communications: faster steamships, more and cheaper telegraphs, reduced postage costs, and, from 1920, inter-imperial air routes. After the First World War, currency fluctuations became an increasing problem and delegates called for exchange rate stability including, in 1933, for the formation of a ‘sterling union’. Congresses consistently advocated the harmonisation of a plethora of commercial laws and regulations which would reduce the costs of transacting trade. The first Congress endorsed a grandiose call for the ‘codification’ of imperial commercial law. Subsequent Congresses focused on specific areas where harmonisation was judged to be desirable: bankruptcy and shipping legislation, uniform practices for the arbitration of commercial disputes (based on London’s Court of Arbitration), the decimalisation of currency, and the adoption of the metric system. Crucially, delegates realised that some political mechanism at Empire-Commonwealth level was necessary for policies advocated by the Congresses to be implemented. Some delegates backed a formal imperial federation with supra-national institutions. However, with individual governments jealously guarding their growing sovereignty, Congresses generally lay greater emphasis on mechanisms for informal co-ordination such inter-governmental conferences, the diffusion of identical legislation, or consultative commissions.

Post Second World War

Following the Second World War the Congresses resumed, starting in Johannesburg in 1948. There remained plenty for businessmen to talk about: currency and international payments (especially the shortage of dollars); communications; and constitutional matters as the former dependent colonies began to enter the Commonwealth. From the 1950, the economic fortunes of the less developed world and the UK’s attempts to enter the European Economic Community (the antecedent of the EU, formed following the 1957 Treaty of Rome) became increasingly prominent in discussions. However, during the 60s questions were increasingly asked of the value of the Congresses. Trade was rapidly shifting out of Commonwealth channels. In 1953 the Commonwealth accounted for 49% of British trade. By 1970 that had fallen to 22%. The expanded Commonwealth that resulted from decolonisation could not be expected to co-ordinate economic policy even through informal mechanisms. A confidential reassessment of the Federation of Commonwealth Chambers of Commerce’s activities held in the archive concluded in 1966 that ‘There were few topics of general Commonwealth concern’ and that 'the Commonwealth was not a trading entity'. The last Congress was held in 1972; the Federation wound down in late 1974.

Significance

Wherein lies the significance of the Congresses? Their political influence remains to be charted, but it is clear that their debates provide insights into the policies which businessmen believed would facilitate trade in a multi-national political unit: ‘Freer’ trade, exchange rate stability, harmonisation of regulations, and communications. The Empire-Commonwealth - which shifted ever more power to its component states - could only ever partially deliver through informal mechanisms. Ironically, when the United Kingdom finally entered the EEC in 1973, it entered a more centralised political entity delivering many of the demands the Congresses of Chambers of Commerce had made of the Commonwealth. Thus using the LMA to understand a forgotten aspect of the Commonwealth’s past may also tell us something of Europe’s future.

Dr Andrew Dilley is a Senior Lecturer in History, University of Aberdeen and has been awarded an AHRC Early Career Fellowship: ‘Commerce and the Commonwealth:  Business Associations, Political Culture, and Governance, 1886-1975’.

Published:
09 February 2016
Last Modified:
30 August 2018

Notifications