Back to the Future: Brexit Britain, Canada, & the Commonwealth

Iain Johnston-White, Roehampton University |

The Commonwealth enjoyed some unexpected interest in 2016, at least in the UK. The ‘Vote Leave’ campaign in Britain’s EU referendum made big claims for the Commonwealth. Brexiteers hailed the Commonwealth as a global network and source of post-Brexit trading partners, breaking the cycle of four-year interludes (punctuated by the Commonwealth Games, of course) during which the institution usually fades to the background of political and cultural consciousness.[1] Like much else in the referendum campaign, ideas about what the Commonwealth is, what it was, and where it came from were confused at best.[2] Perhaps most surprising of all, even in 2018, some people still conflate today’s Commonwealth with nostalgic views of its predecessor, the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations.’ Though rarely explicitly evoked, many actually envisioned a kind of return to the less formalized ‘white’ Commonwealth structure that emerged in the interwar years, in other words, Britain and its former settler-colonies-turned-dominions.[3]

When leave-minded Britons speak of global free trade deals, the first countries often uttered are still Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, scant attention is devoted to considering the Commonwealth from the vantage of the potential trading partners. Instead, Brexiteers base their assumptions of a bright future upon a glorious London-centric past, comprised of trading, ‘settling’ (the acceptable euphemism for British outward migration), and, underlying everything, the legacy of shared sacrifice in two worlds wars––in short, upon a time when the Commonwealth was the British World ‘us,’ opposing a European ‘them.’ In a recent blog post here on Canadian Eyes Only, Graeme Thompson made a timely call for historians to think about Canada’s international history not as something that emerged in 1945 (or later), but to consider a longer timeframe inclusive of Canada’s imperial past.[4] What, then, did this Commonwealth relationship look like from Canada’s perspective in 1939-45?

Given Vote Leave’s aims, it is instructive to primarily consider Canada’s economic relationship with the Commonwealth. Canada’s broader war effort in the context of the Commonwealth is nevertheless indicative of wider trends. Under Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Canada carefully carved out its role in the Second World War. As the ‘Aerodrome of Democracy,’ Canada was the centerpiece of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the quintessential cooperative venture of the ‘British nations.’ The country accepted aircrew tutees primarily from Australia, New Zealand and Britain, producing trained cohorts in unmatched numbers to participate in the air war.

This end result hid the tense negotiating process – Canada had little interest in involving Australia and New Zealand, focusing on bilateral negotiations with Britain to the exclusion of all else. The participation of its fellow dominions, an important aspect in British eyes, was an afterthought, sometimes an irritation, in Ottawa. Once the scheme was in action, the Canadian Government pursued a policy of ‘Canadianization’ to mark out a Canadian identity for its airmen, separate from Britain and the other dominions.[5]

When invited to participate with its fellow dominions (including South Africa) in the North African campaign, 1940-43, Mackenzie King was clear: “if troops are being sent to the Near East they should be sent from parts of [the] Commonwealth… which are more geographically concerned.”[6] He went on to say, by contrast, that additional troops for the British Isles or Western Europe would be justifiable. Why this geographical distinction? What the British leaders at the time failed to realize was that Canada privileged its two most important bilateral relationships, with Great Britain and the USA. The ‘Commonwealth’ as a collective figured little in calculations, the empire even less so. Yet this Canadian perspective rarely figured in London’s reckonings on what it could expect from Canada during the war.

In trade and finance, Canada had always stood apart, a consequence of its border with the United States. Where other dominions pooled hard currency in London through the collective sterling area currency system, as a dollar country Canada did not. Canada’s ability to provide industrial and financial succor for Britain during the war also depended upon Canada’s economic stability vis-à-vis the USA, ultimately secured through the Hyde Park Declaration in 1941. As the war progressed, British economic needs in Canada grew exponentially. They were secured by transforming the financial relationships that had tied the two countries closely in practical ways – British industrial ownership and debt was repatriated to Canada, Britain accrued large Canadian dollar debts that were then given back to London as loans, and Canada provided its famous billion-dollar gift to Britain, before embarking on its scheme of Mutual Aid (a kind of Lend-Lease-lite). All along Canadian policy-makers emphasized the importance of postwar access to the British market, because this was where Canadian trade had earned essential US dollars in the 1930s.

Yet, by the later war years, this attitude was increasingly tempered by acknowledging Canada’s future as a global trading country and the new limitations on a bankrupt Britain. When Britain took the credit for dishing out supplies financed by Canada’s aid, Ottawa reclaimed the administration of its material support; there was a reason why the billion-dollar gift was not repeated, and Mutual Aid was launched. For Canada, supplying the Soviet Union, China, and other Allies with their needs directly – cutting Britain out of the process – was explicitly linked to the benefits for Canada through an enhanced reputation in a postwar, multilateral trading world. Even countries that prospered financially during the war, like South Africa, were supplied with Canadian freebies from Mutual Aid, all with an eye toward future trading relationships.[7]

In sum, the good news for ‘Brexiteers’ who choose to indulge in history is that Canada’s wartime Commonwealth was initially about a bilateral relationship with Great Britain, reflecting Canada’s lineage as the largest British settler-colony and the first ‘dominion’ within the British Empire. Less good, however, is that even by the close of the Second World War, Canada had turned to its southern neighbor – not its Mother Country across the Atlantic – to help establish itself as a global trading power. To achieve this, Canada’s horizons had to expand and its relationship with Britain had to accommodate ambitious Canadian goals.

For every member, the Commonwealth has existed both in the imagination and as a practical descriptor of an evolving set of political, economic, and military links. The latter were drastically transformed by 1945; the former differed in practice for each Commonwealth country but, on the whole, had already started to grow apart even at the height of wartime cooperation. Nostalgia for the old Commonwealth isn’t enough to recreate the conditions that enabled it. To stop a headlong collision between rhetoric and reality, the first step in London should be to ask what potential partners like Canada stand to gain in any future deal.

Iain Johnston-White is Lecturer in British History at Roehampton University.


[1]A British illusion of Commonwealth trade after Brexit,” Financial Times, 18 April 2018.

[2] For answers to these questions, see P. Murray, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth (London, 2018).

[3]Globe editorial: With Brexit looming, Britain suddenly remembers the Commonwealth,” The Globe and Mail, 20 April 2018.

[4] Graeme Thompson, “The ‘Imperial Turn’ in Canadian History,” Canadian Eyes Only, 11 March 2018.

[5] I. Johnston-White, The British Commonwealth and Victory in the Second World War (London, 2017), pp. 107-134.

[6] King to Ralston, 6 Dec 1940, Library and Archives Canada, RG-2-7-C, vol. II.

[7] Johnston-White, British Commonwealth, pp. 47-61.

One thought on “Back to the Future: Brexit Britain, Canada, & the Commonwealth

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of August 19, 26, and September 2, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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