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10 June 2020

The new age of autarky

How crises and upheavals are drawing Britain away from globalisation and back towards a national capitalism. 

By David Edgerton

The United Kingdom used to be exceptional. From the end of the 19th century, until the middle of the 20th, it was the least self-sufficient nation among the large economies of the world. It was proud of this fact. British elites believed that the state’s interdependence with other nations and empires was a source of strength. After the Second World War, however, opinions changed. Self-sufficiency was considered to be the core of national power and security. Then, in the 1980s, that mantra changed again to emphasise the economic benefits of globalisation. The nation’s economy has been dependent on the rest of the world ever since.

But following the financial crash of 2008, Brexit, the shutdown of the economy to fight the Covid-19 epidemic, and the prospect of countries such as China and the US acting increasingly nationally, the question of Britain’s self-sufficiency could become a defining issue of our time. Indeed, the argument for national production – by which everything from food to ventilators is manufactured locally – has become more audible in the past few years.

The environmental movement, for ex- ample, has called for an increase in local food production using the idea of “food miles” – the distance travelled from farm to fork – as an indicator of environmental damage. The concept was invented by the food policy expert Tim Lang in the 1990s, and the implication of his research was that we should buy local produce.

But even today, strange as it may seem, the total miles travelled by British food from source to plate is less than it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the 1920s, most of the UK’s bacon and eggs came from continental Europe. Its wheat came from Canada, Argentina and Australia. About half of its meat came from the Southern Hemisphere. Some 80 per cent of London’s fresh beef came from the River Plate in South America. Imports of cheese and other dairy products came from New Zealand. None of these were tropical fares, or citrus fruits from the Mediterranean, but foods that could have been reared, grown and produced in the UK itself.

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From the late 19th century, the British economy was also freely open to the manufactures of the world, whether it was the petroleum products of Persia, Venezuela and the East Indies, or steel from Belgium. It was this “free trade” – Britain’s radical interconnectedness with the world – that distinguished it from any other major economy at that time.

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Not everyone agreed with the policy. In the early 20th century, achieving imperial self-sufficiency was the aim of opponents to free trade. Joseph Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform policy and pressure group, which emerged in 1903, was never about protecting the British economy; it was about granting preferences to trade within the empire. Just as Canada gave British products a lower tariff, Chamberlain argued, so the UK could reduce tariffs on Canadian imports.

A radical version of this idea was the Empire Free Trade programme advocated by Tory ultras, such as the press barons Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere, during the late 1920s and early 1930s. This envisioned an empire that was shielded from any trade outside the imperial fold, but with free trade taking place within it.

The proposals never came to pass. But the kind of British protectionism that emerged in the 1920s was always underpinned by the idea of “imperial preference”. In the 1930s there was an effort to protect national agriculture and to shift overseas supply of foodstuffs to countries within the empire. This included beef imports from Australia, or “empire wine” from Australia, South Africa and Cyprus. But imperial self-sufficiency was never achieved. Even when British trade was at its most imperially integrated – in the late 1940s and 1950s – produce from across the empire only accounted for 50 per cent of British imports.


For 19th- and 20th-century liberals, from the anti-Corn Law statesman Richard Cobden to Geoffrey Crowther, editor of the Economist from 1938 to 1956, global inter- dependence was a condition of British power. This was vindicated in the First and Second World Wars; had the UK been forced to rely on its own resources it would not have been able to fight in either conflict as successfully as it did.

Although in both wars domestic food production increased, the nation still depended on foreign food imports, meaning that fewer men had to be diverted from the battlefield and on to the land. Interdependence also supplied British forces with foreign material not available in the UK. In the 1914-18 war, for example, the British Army in Flanders sourced horses from all around the world that were necessary for transporting armaments.

The Second World War was an even more striking example of how Britain benefited from global interdependence. The British people may have dug for victory, but they still relied on food, oil and armaments (especially tanks) from overseas. The British state was able to mobilise so many people into the military and the arms industry not because of higher national commitment or superior planning, but because of its overseas supplies.

Britain first: Oswald Mosley leads members of the British Union of Fascists before a rally in Trafalgar Square, London, in 1934
Credit: PhotoquestGetty Images

The UK was not immune to calls for economic nationalism. In the 1930s, the great exponent of economic autarky, Oswald Mosley, wanted radical national protection and the stimulation of home demand. His British Union of Fascists (BUF) condemned what it saw as Britain’s capitalist cosmopolitanism, and repeatedly demanded increased domestic food production and the manufacture of oil-from-coal. The latter was one of the great nationalist technologies of the century, and was especially attractive for the UK, which enjoyed surplus coal reserves but no oil of its own at that time. For the BUF, it made perfect sense to use unemployed miners to dig coal to make British petrol.

In the 1930s coal liquefaction was achieved on a small scale. But neither Ramsay MacDonald’s National government of 1931, nor Winston Churchill’s war ministry of 1940-45, wanted to pursue the strategy since it was more cost-effective to import petrol (and other oils). Another reason was that employing miners to turn coal into fuel meant fewer soldiers and factory workers. The prevailing mood among the wartime elite was that the UK was far better off relying on the international economic order.

During the Second World War, it was the left that offered a strong nationalist critique of globalised British capitalism. In “England, Your England” (1941), George Orwell argued passionately that the monied class “sat, at the centre of a vast empire and a world-wide financial network, drawing interest and profits and spending them – on what?… the empire was underdeveloped, … and even England was full of slums and unemployment”.

The Communist Party of Great Britain also argued for the inefficiency of British capitalism and war production because these were based on exporting capital and importing goods, rather than promoting a national industrial capitalism. This critique of British capitalism became central to nearly all postwar left-wing analyses of the British state.

Inspired by continental economies such as France, the postwar Labour government called on the British population to work towards “economic independence”. There was a drive to increase domestic food production and to utilise local raw materials – such as the anhydrite deposits in Billingham in Teesside – to produce sulphuric acid and previously imported metals such as aluminium. Oil would be refined at home, on the Thames and elsewhere, rather than in the oilfields in Iran or the Dutch West Indies. Watches would be made by British firms, notably Smiths (also makers of components for cars and aircraft). Pressure was put on companies to buy British – airlines were effectively forced to buy British aircraft. Techno-nationalism ruled, and by the late 1960s the UK was a more national economy than it had been for nearly a century.

The opening of the British economy in the 1970s and 1980s was mainly a result of joining the European Economic Community (EEC), and coincided with a major economic crisis, symbolised by the collapse of British car manufacturing in the Midlands. The response from the left was exemplified by the publication of Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy in 1976, at the heart of which was leaving the EEC and embarking upon state-led national reconstruction of British industry.

The moment also coincided with a transformation in the UK’s relations with the rest of the world, as it became essentially self-supporting in food for the first time since the mid-19th century and, following the discovery of North Sea oil, self-sufficient in energy for the first time since the 1930s. It no longer needed to import food (historically the most expensive of its imports) or energy (which had become expensive in the 1970s).

But since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, there has been a radical liberalisation of the British economy, and a systematic indifference as to whether the nation could supply and equip itself. Food imports (now overwhelmingly from the EU) increased, and manufactured products – including machines used for basic infrastructure, such as main-line trains and medical ventilators – were no longer made domestically. Coal mines in Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire, and Nottinghamshire were closed as the country started importing its coal from abroad.


In the past few years, however, there has been significant political and intellectual criticism of Britain’s import model. The green movement has advocated national self-sufficiency in food and energy. Many sections of the Brexit-voting public were nostalgic for a national economy. The anti-globalisation left wants to rebuild Britain by investing in a national green industrial revolution. There are also budding ideas of local self-sufficiency, such as the “Preston model”, pioneered by its city council, of building “community wealth” by encouraging public authorities to procure from local suppliers. Our economic thinking is moving from the abstractions of capitalism to understanding concrete human needs.

Many commentators believe that Boris Johnson’s government will move left on the economy. It is an enduring myth of both the left and right that state spending is the unit by which the left-right axis is to be measured. What the state does, and how society is configured, is the significant point of division, not the levels of spending. Currently, the state’s central policy is a hard Brexit – de-Europeanising but radically globalising the British economy – which is likely to weaken national industry and agriculture.


The Covid-19 epidemic raises the prospect of enhanced national economies. It has dawned on the government that the UK does not have a well-developed diagnostic industry, nor a ventilator industry, nor a personal protective equipment industry. After refusing to participate in an EU-wide initiative, the Cabinet Office launched a programme, much too late in the day, for the crash development of lower-end ventilators that could be rapidly manufactured.

Some of these ventilators have been designed from scratch; one was adapted from a Penlon anaesthetic machine made in the UK for export to developing countries. Another is based on Smiths’ (the 1940s watchmaker) Medical ParaPAC ventilator for ambulances.

The Penlon and Smith machines are the only two ventilators to have been supplied so far, and are being made with help from European firms operating in the UK, such as Airbus, Thales and Siemens. The others have fallen by the wayside or are still being tested, including the Dyson CoVent machine. The Brexiteers James Dyson and Lord Bamford of JCB, who were involved with the Dyson machine, have garnered most of the publicity. The total cost of the programme will amount to an extraordinary £450m, and the UK government has since confirmed it will not need the Dyson ventilator.

The rejection of the EU initiative in favour of a national project spoke to a political agenda of pretending to have a serious national policy. The reality is that the top-end ventilators, which are expensive and complicated, and which the NHS had far too few of, continued to be imported. The idea that the government was aiming to emerge as a medical superpower, or even a moderately serious manufacturer, was fanciful.

We need more national economy and more skilled, secure and well-paid jobs. But those won’t come from a deluded, PR-driven nationalist politics of innovation, which both in the past and today is a substitute for a real change in policy. We need a politics of imitation not innovation, a politics of improvement that allows us to learn from others how to do basic things well, not least how to manage epidemics.

This won’t in itself follow from Covid-19, and is most certainly not what the Brexiteers have in mind for the British economy. Their policy, and their primary political commitment, is making the UK a “global champion of free trade” – a return to a past that can no longer exist. However, a very different politics of trade, and of national development and transformation, is possible. 

David Edgerton is professor of modern British history at King’s College London and author of “The Rise and Fall of the British Nation” (Penguin)

This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt