This film is held by the BFI (ID: 15325).


PROPAGANDA. A film on the National Government's aims to boost Britain's trade with the Empire: Though nerve-centre of the Empire, Britain is too small to be self-supporting. Scenes of industry, furnaces, ship building. A journey round the Dominions to see the importance of Empire from point of view of trade and employment at home.

SOUTH AFRICA - one of Britain's best customers; orange growing, tree planting, diamond mines; supported by British interests (193-230 ft).

INDIA - Buys more British goods than any other nation. Parade Street scenes (246-274 ft).

SINGAPORE - watching over the MALAY STATES where rubber plantations, coconut and date growing important exports. Sheet rubber seen drying. These colonies buy British (280-370 ft).

AUSTRALIA - Buys enough goods to keep 77,000 English workers employed. Sydney, town, bridge (399-440). Aborigines, Kangeroos, fruit picking (460-470 ft).

NEW ZEALAND - Almost self-sufficient. Sheep farming most important. Wool, mutton exported. Sheep round-up, shearing time, grading fleeces, packing mutton (471-635 ft).

CANADA - Export trade with Britain improving. Lumber industry, logs taken to saw-mill by train, or floated down river. Lumber men "riding" logs in river. Wheat exports vital to Britain (637-833) aim of National Government to open up Empire trade markets for Britain (893 ft).



In his study of the Conservative Party’s use of film between the wars, film historian Timothy Hollins described the Conservative Party as the ‘most progressive’ of political parties in its use of film and new technology and further argued that between 1925 and 1939 ‘film was believed to be one of the most potent and effective methods of publicity at the party’s disposal’ (Hollins, 1981, 360). In August 1925 Conservative Central Office had operated its first daylight cinema van, which would drive particularly to rural areas offering free cinema shows. Hollins noted in passing that ‘the first films were largely empire and colonial films borrowed from various dominion offices’ which, with their ‘views of Britain’s imperial glory’, were often shown to schools in the afternoon in the hope of attracting their parents to the evening meetings (Hollins, 1981, 363). By 1926 Central Office was commissioning its own films. In May 1930, however, its Film Department was disbanded and replaced by the independent, though party-financed, Conservative and Unionist Films Association (CFA). The films produced were 10-15 minute shorts, including cartoons, speeches by party leaders, and a series of compilation documentaries, ‘Britain Under National Government’, from which Empire Trade came.

A Co-Operative film activist recognised the influence of the Conservative Party’s film work when writing in 1939. ‘The Conservative Party spends huge sums annually on their films’, he stated, ‘they have a large fleet of daylight projection vans touring the country, particularly the rural districts, showing such films as ‘Our Heritage’, ‘Empire Trade’, ‘Great Endeavour’, ‘National Cine Magazine’, and many others. Anyone who has seen these films will realise how potent they are for the job they do’ (Burton, 2005, 50). By 1934 the CFA’s annual budget was triple that of the Publicity Department itself and, at a time when no other political party used mobile cinema vans, the party vans travelled the countryside for up to nine months of the year. The journal World Film News estimated that in the months leading up to the 1935 General Election 1.5 million people saw films from Party and National Publicity Bureau vans (Hollins, 1981, 365, 366).

The subject of Empire Trade features repeatedly within the ‘British Under National Government’ Series. The Great Recovery (1934) includes footage of the Ottawa Conference, held to discuss imperial trading in July and August 1932. Patrick Russell notes that this footage ‘evidences enthusiastic British promotion of imperial trading’, while also supporting the, then strongly-protectionist policies of the Conservative Party (Russell, 2007, 76). The Ottawa Conference saw the introduction of ‘Empire Free-Trade’, a policy that introduced limited tariffs within the Empire and higher tariffs within the rest of the world. The introduction of this protectionist policy led to the resignation of government ministers from the Liberal party and also contributed to the disbandment of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB). The EMB had, since 1926, sought to promote imperial trade and interdependency – not least through its film unit – but the introduction of this policy of imperial preference ensured that its continuation was now deemed unnecessary.

Further titles within the series included The Price of Free Trade (1932) and Two Lancashire Cotton Workers Discuss Safeguarding (1935), which further propagandised against free trade. 



At the conclusion of Empire Trade, the commentator succinctly illustrates the way in which the government sought to present its Empire Trade policy to the British public. ‘The aim of the national government is to open up for British goods the vast markets within the Empire because expansion of Empire trade means more employment in our factories at home. We must go forward with this Empire policy’, the commentator concludes, ‘remembering that we are a great family linked together in a blood brotherhood of loyalty and service and that by helping our dominions, we are benefiting ourselves’. The film plays out with shots of London and of the Union Jack.

There are a number of points to note here. First, the film presents this issue of imperial trade largely from the perspective of home workers. With the continuing economic depression and with the Conservative Party emphasising, on film, the dangers of free trade for the British worker, Empire Trade instead highlights the jobs and opportunities provided for British workers at home and throughout the Empire through imperial trade. The commentator explains that India ‘takes more of our manufactured goods than any other part of the Empire and gives employment to as many as 130,000 British workers’, and, when referring to the Malay States, explains that ‘these colonies, by purchasing our goods, create regular employment in this country [Britain]’. Australia keeps ‘77,000 British workers regularly employed through buying British goods’, while Canada ‘gives employment to 67,000 Britons’. The film shares much in common with earlier imperial propaganda films, most notably EMB productions like One Family (1930), which illustrated by a tour of the Empire, the importance of the dominions and colonies in providing food for British homes. However, Empire Trade speaks directly to the British worker (and voter). It responds to fears about industrial unemployment in Britain and, as a political polemic, seeks to use the divisive issue of free trade to appeal to voters primarily through its mobile cinema circuit.

Secondly, the film transmits a message of imperial interdependency – ‘a great family… blood brotherhood of loyalty’ – and emphasises the existing British influences within the dominions. The commentator notes, for example, that the South African diamond and gold mines were ‘both developed by British engineers and worked with British machinery’, while Sydney Harbour Bridge was ‘built by a British firm, with British materials’. This message of imperial loyalty and interdependency also has a more defensive and militaristic undertone. For example, the commentator explains that the wheat supply in Britain would be used up within a month, if not for the imports from Canada. This, he asserts, shows ‘how vital to our protection is the unity of the Empire’. He further notes that the naval base of Singapore ‘keeps watch over the Malay States’, while Aden is ‘guarding the Suez Canal, our trade route to the East’.

Thirdly, the film presents London as the commercial and ideological heart of the Empire. ‘Here is London’, the commentator says, ‘a symbol of Britain’s commercial supremacy and her mastery of the high seas’. The images used are largely familiar – for example, the near-obligatory shot of a local climbing a coconut tree in Malaya – but the commentary serves to celebrate the Empire (‘Let’s take a look at this vast Empire of ours on which the sun never sets’), to highlight the benefits to the British worker (‘these colonies by purchasing British goods create regular employment in this country’) and to emphasise the ongoing role of the national government in promoting British industry (‘Under the guidance of our national government we have once more gained our rightful place as the greatest exporting nation’). The film presents trade with the colonies and dominions as a necessity – ‘we are not a self-supporting country’ – but there are notable omissions in the film. For example, in visiting the ‘most important parts of the Empire’, Empire Trade fails to mention either the African colonies or the West Indies.

The government’s imperial trade policy is most neatly encapsulated in a brief sequence featuring ‘our good friend New Zealand’. Here, the commentator outlines the policy of imperial preference advocated at the Ottawa conference, as he explains that New Zealand does not want to ‘harm’ the British farmer, ‘all she wants is preference over the foreigner’. This also highlights once more the way in which the government in 1934 sought to present imperial trade to the British public, not as competition to the British worker, but as a necessary and beneficial collaboration within the imperial family.

Tom Rice (September 2009)


Works Cited

Burton, Alan, The British Consumer Co-Operative Movement and Film: 1890s-1960s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

Hollins, Timothy J., ‘The Conservative Party and Film Propaganda Between the Wars’, English Historical Review (1981), 359-369.

Russell, Patrick, 100 British Documentaries (London: BFI, 2007).

‘Empire Trade The Agreements At Ottawa, A Summary Of Results’, The Times, 26 August 1932, 9. 



Series Title:

Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
Conservative and Unionist Film Association