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‘British ingenuity’ not colonialism drove UK growth, says Kemi Badenoch

The UK’s economic success is the result of “British ingenuity and industry”, not colonialism, a Cabinet minister has said.

Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, made the comments in praise of a book published by the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs think tank, in which political economist Kristian Niemietz claimed Britain’s growth was not financed by the slave trade or its imperial possessions.

Ms Badenoch, seen as a leading contender for the Conservative leadership should the party lose the coming election, said the book was “a welcome counterweight to simplistic narratives that exaggerate the significance of empire and slavery to Britain’s economic development”.

She said: “This paper… shows it was British ingenuity and industry, unleashed by free markets and liberal institutions, that powered the Industrial Revolution and our modern economy.

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“It is these factors that we should focus on, rather than blaming the West and colonialism for economic difficulties and holding back growth with misguided policies.”

Dr Niemietz has argued that colonialism made only a “minor contribution” to Britain’s economic development, “and quite possibly none at all”, with the benefits outweighed by the military and administrative cost of running an empire.

He added that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was no more important to the British economy than sheep-farming or brewing, and most trade was with North America and Western Europe rather than the colonies, even if some individuals did become “very rich” from “overseas engagement”.

But specialist historians have criticised the claims, saying they are based on “cherry-picked” data and “straw man” arguments.

In a blog post, Alan Lester, professor of historical geography at the University of Sussex, said: “Historians have demonstrated in thousands of research publications that British investors’ ability to appropriate land and subordinate people in some 40 overseas colonies, ensuring a supply of commodities such as tea, cotton, opium, rubber, meat and wool produced with free or low-cost labour, made a significant contribution to Britain’s economic growth.

“Because this is so self-evident, to challenge it would be absurd.”

Prof Lester said the claim that military costs of empire outweighed the economic benefits was “risible”, and while the Government at times thought the cost of empire was too high, they mostly “adjudged that the returns to British investors and settlers made such expenses worthwhile”.

He concluded: “If Britons had continued to invest in the maintenance of colonial rule and the denial of self-determination to their colonial subjects against their own aggregate material interests for over 300 years, what does that say about the spirit of British entrepreneurship.”