1st March 1932. Imperial Preference.


Joseph Chamberlain the Tory imperialist in his 1897 paper ‘True Conception of Empire’, saw three stages of Empire: the 18thc model of pecuniary advantage; secondly after the loss of the America Colony, of development under a paternal colonial governance, finally the notion of a worldwide Federation of a British race which led to Imperial Preference.


Showing extent of British Empire at its height.

Originally a Liberal, Chamberlain who had already split the Party over Home Rule, thus spawning the Unionist Party (which allied to the Tories), was to cause  another rift by taking up the issue of Tariff Reform, via Imperial preference.

Joseph had joined the 1895 coalition as Colonial Secretary, but resigned in 1903 after divisions in his party over his vehement championship of a Customs Union for the Colonies, a scheme to bring all those countries together in a Greater Britain, Imperial Federation.

However the antagonism and division in the Conservative Party over Imperial Preference eventually saw the resignation of Prime-Minister, Arthur Balfour, and in 1906 a landslide election victory for the Liberals put paid to any developments.(1)

Later with Labour victories in the 1920.s and the fact that Tory Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin was lukewarm on the issue, it wasn’t until the Depression and a National Party did an Act come into effect Today in 1932, after a Bill instigated by Joseph’s son, now Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain.(2)


The Act introduced a General Tariff of 10% on most imports excluding some raw materials and food and confirmed in November when the Ottawa Imperial Economic Conference agreed on Imperial Preference.

To make sure everyone was singing from the same sheet, the Conservative Central Office issued a pamphlet,-Empire-‘Notes for Speakers’, to boost the Imperial cause.

It stated that about 2/7 of total imports come from British Possessions which in turn took 2/5 of our exports.


It went on, ‘that hardly a product it [Empire] can’t supply: corn, timber and meat from Canada; wine, meat, wool, coal from Australia; rice, tea, coffee, silk, cotton, spices, from India; iron and coal from England; wool and minerals from South Africa, whilst sugar would come from the West Indies and tobacco from Borneo’: self sufficiency was the by-word.

The  Act for 5 years was mediated through a series of bilateral agreements, but the Dominions thought their independence was being undermined and the Americans were employing their own restrictions;  by 1937 Imperial Preference was discontinued.

(1) It was to be Joseph Chamberlain’s commitment to Imperial Preference which caused      Churchill’s defection to the Liberals.

(2) The Bill was passed 454-78 though opposed by Labour and 32 Liberals.

Chamberlain on the passing of the Act gave a fulsome tribute to his father Joseph who he said would have been ‘proud to be here this day’.

Ref: Charles W Boyd. ed Mr Chamberlain’s speech (Boston 1914 vol 11 p 1-6).

Ref: tonythomas.org/ empire-commonwealth-eu/pics.

Ref: bbc.co.uk. Radio 4. History/empire episode. 77  date 30.5.2006.

Ref: wikipedia.org.imperial_preference.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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