Refining Sugar, Capitalism and Corporate PR in the British Commonwealth in the 1940s and 1950s

Keynote Lecture for the 2021 Commodities of Empire Workshop ‘The Raw and the Refined: Commodities, Processing, and Power in Global Perspective’

“Tate not State”: Refining Sugar, Capitalism and Corporate PR in the British Commonwealth in the 1940s and 1950s

Speaker: Professor Erika Rappaport (University of California, Santa Barbara)

After the close of the Second World War, the British Labour government threatened to nationalise sugar refining as part of its overall effort to build a social democratic economy. Industry’s reaction was swift and extensive. The sugar industry quickly moved much refining to the empire, especially the sugar islands of Jamaica and Trinidad, and later to British colonies in Africa. It forged ties with other domestic industries such as trucking, cement, and steel and manufacturing groups such as the Federation of British Industries to lobby government, workers and consumers. Led by Tate and Lyle, a firm that wielded monopolistic power over the sugar industry, sugar also developed one of the most successful PR campaigns in Britain. Tate and Lyle’s campaign employed the phrase “Tate not State,” which it printed on sugar packets, packages, toys and advertising at home. In the Commonwealth, sugar’s PR explained how “private interests” rather than public bureaucrats would create health, happiness, and progress. It especially focused on how growing, refining and consuming sugar would lead to development, modernity and racial and social equality. This story deliberately suppressed significant aspects of the colonial past and fought tooth and nail against state-centred forms of development throughout the Commonwealth and Great Britain. This campaign became also became a model for other industries that sought to fight “socialism” in the colonies undergoing decolonisation and in postcolonial nations thereafter. The sugar industry thus became a major voice of capitalism during decolonisation and the Cold War, a history that has gone unnoticed by business, economic or political historians. The shifting global geographies of sugar refining is thus part of the story of global capitalism but also reveals the connections between metropolitan, colonial and postcolonial political and cultural economies.

Date and time: Thursday 2 September 2021, 4.30pm - 5.30pm