Desecrated graves at a Jewish cemetery in Prestwich, Lancashire, in 1965. (Getty.)
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Britain's last anti-Jewish riots

Why have the 1947 riots been forgotten?

In 1947 a washed-out summer had followed a harsh winter, and Britain was in the grip of recession as it struggled to restart its economy after the Second World War. On the August bank holiday weekend, the weather in Manchester had turned hot and stuffy. Trade in the shops was poor, rationing was in full swing and many workers had opted to stay in the city for the long weekend.

In cinema queues and on street corners, one topic dominated the conversation: the murder of two British army sergeants by Irgun paramilitaries in Mandate Palestine. The Irgun was one of several Zionist groups fighting a guerrilla war to force British troops out of the territory and establish the state of Israel. It had kidnapped the two sergeants in retaliation for death sentences passed on three of its own fighters. The three men were executed by British forces on 29 July, and two days later the bodies of the soldiers were discovered amid the trees of a eucalyptus grove near Netanya. They had been hanged and the ground beneath them booby-trapped with a landmine.

It was just one incident of many in a vicious conflict. Militants had bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem a year previously, and even set off small bombs in London. But the “ser­geants affair”, as it came to be known, caused public outrage in mainland Britain.

On 1 August, a Friday, the Daily Express reported the story on its front page, prominently displaying a photograph of the bodies which, it promised its readers, would be a “picture that will shock the world”. British Jewish leaders condemned the killings, but more lurid details followed in the next day’s papers. That weekend, as Walter Lever, a working-class Jewish resident of Manchester recalled, “There was nothing to do but walk the streets . . . discussing the newspaper,” the story of the hanged sergeants “taking precedence over the week’s murders and rapes”.

There were already signs that a backlash was imminent. In Birkenhead, near Liverpool, slaughterhouse workers had refused to process any more meat for Jewish consumption until the attacks on British soldiers in Palestine stopped. Around Merseyside, the anger was starting to spill on to the streets as crowds of angry young men gathered in Jewish areas.

On Sunday afternoon the trouble reached Manchester. Small groups of men began breaking the windows of shops in Cheetham Hill, an area just north of the city centre which had been home to a Jewish community since the early 19th century. The pubs closed early that day because there was a shortage of beer, and by the evening the mob’s numbers had swelled to several hundred. Most were on foot but others drove through the area, throwing bricks from moving cars.

Soon the streets were covered in broken glass and stones and the crowd moved on to bigger targets, tearing down the canopy of the Great Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road and surrounding a Jewish wedding party at the Assembly Hall. They shouted abuse at the terrified guests until one in the morning.

The next day, Lever said, “Cheetham Hill Road looked much as it had looked seven years before, when the German bombers had pounded the city for  12 hours. All premises belonging to Jews for the length of a mile down the street had gaping windows and the pavements were littered with glass.”

By the end of the bank holiday weekend, anti-Jewish riots had also taken place in Glasgow and Liverpool. There were minor disturbances, too, in Bristol, Hull, London and Warrington, as well as scores of attacks on Jewish property across the country. A solicitor in Liverpool and a Glasgow shopkeeper were beaten up. Nobody was killed, but this was the most widespread anti-Jewish violence the UK had ever seen. In Salford, the day after a crowd of several thousand had thrown stones at shop windows, signs appeared that read: “Hold your fire. These premises are British.”

Arsonists in West Derby set fire to a wooden synagogue; workers at Canada Dock in Liverpool returned from the holidays to find “Death to all Jews” painted above the entrance. And in Eccles, a former sergeant major named John Regan was fined £15 for telling a crowd of 700: “Hitler was right. Exterminate every Jew – every man, woman and child. What are you afraid of? There’s only a handful of police.”

Just two years after British troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen, the language of the Third Reich had resurfaced, this time at home. Anger about what had happened in Palestine was one thing, but it seemed to have unleashed something far more vicious.

Hidden history

Whitechapel, London, 2012. I am waiting outside the library – a glassy new building just up the high street from the Victorian edifice where a generation of self-educated Jewish intellec­tuals and artists congregated in the early years of the 20th century – to meet Max Levitas. It’s a Thursday afternoon and I have interrupted his weekly ritual: a trip to the Turkish bath in Bethnal Green, a walk that Levitas still makes, alone, at the age of 97.

Born in Dublin in 1915 to Jewish refugee parents from the Baltic, Levitas has lived in White­chapel since 1930. In 1947 when the rioting erupted, he was a local councillor and member of the Communist Party. Although London was spared riots on the scale of those in the north, he recalls how the hanging sergeants incident compounded “animosity” towards Jews in the East End. “I opposed the hanging when I spoke at meetings, but the main fight was dealing with racism that foreigners were getting jobs and Jews were getting jobs.”

This was one sign that the anti-Jewish feeling had a deeper source than any act of terrorism in the Middle East. Postwar austerity was at its harshest. Contrary to the cheery “Keep Calm and Carry On” nostalgia with which the period is recalled today, it was a time of hunger and poverty. A fuel shortage during the winter of 1946-47 had led to soaring unemployment; in the spring of 1947 it peaked at 1.9 million. Hopes that anti-Semitism, which had re-emerged during previous economic downturns, would have disappeared with the defeat of Hitler were short-lived. Instead, as the historian Tony Kushner has written in an essay on the links between austerity and the 1947 riots, a popular stereotype persisted of Jews as “black marketeers gaining from the war but not contributing to the effort”. The extension of rationing kept the stereotype alive. Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, had made remarks about the Jews of Europe “pushing to the front of the queue” and during the fuel crisis he made a quip about “Israelites”, insinuating that Jewish black marketeers were hoarding fuel. Worse still, Jewish loyalty over Palestine was being questioned openly. In the opening days of 1947 the Sunday Times had addressed an editorial “to British Jews” in which the paper accused them of failing to perform their “civic duty and moral obligations” by denouncing the anti-British violence in Palestine.

In Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where the worst rioting took place, the downturn was at its most painful. These cities had the highest levels of unemployment in Britain and even though the disturbances initially targeted the Jews they quickly progressed to generalised looting. “Get the Jews, get the stuff and get into the shops,” was one shout heard in Manchester. Not for the first (or last) time, racism and economic exclusion combined and formed a poisonous resentment.

Levitas had been part of the crowd that faced down Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts on Cable Street in the East End in October 1936. Like many trade unionists, he was alarmed at the resurgence of violence. “There was a feeling that we’d just had a war against fascism, and that we’d got to ensure that the fascists didn’t do again what they did in the Thirties.”

Although the violence in 1947 was not orchestrated by fascist political parties, it emboldened the remaining adherents. Jeffrey Hamm, a former member of the British Union of Fascists who was now in charge of the League of Ex-Servicemen, visited the north-west of England and attempted to stir up trouble. Fascists displayed copies of the Daily Express’s “hanging sergeants” front page at their meetings. And in 1948 Oswald Mosley, who had been interned in Holloway Prison during the war, launched a new party, the Union Movement.

At the end of the war, 43 Jewish ex-servicemen had set up a clandestine group to infiltrate fascist meetings and break up their opponents’ rallies by fighting in the street. The 43 Group was the first of several such organisations. Levitas believes that one reason the fascists were kept at bay, and why east London stayed relatively calm through the late 1940s, is that the lessons of the 1930s had been learned.

“Only through the integration of society could we play a major part in stopping racism,” he told me. For him, this “integration” went beyond anti-fascist protest; it involved “people demanding for themselves jobs, housing and education for their kids. To ensure that whatever religion you’ve got, whatever your colour, you play a part in society.”

“National disgrace”

On 5 August, four days after its sensationalised coverage had triggered the riots, the Express appealed for calm. “No more of this!” it implored readers, arguing that the attacks on innocent shopkeepers had become a national disgrace. In Manchester, the violence had subsided, leaving an ugly atmosphere. “For the rest of the week,” Lever recalled, “one overheard behind one in the bus, over one’s shoulder at the next café table, a row ahead in the cinema, whispering anecdotes and muttered abuse relating to the events of the Sunday night.”

A dividing line had been drawn through daily life where none appeared to exist before. Rachel Barash, who had worked for the Jewish “hospitality committee” that brought refugee children over from Germany and the Netherlands during the 1930s, remembered how the riots sparked a “nasty” stand-off between boys from rival youth clubs. Until that point, the refugees, who were housed in the suburban village of Withington, had been welcomed and treated as “our children” by their neighbours. Now Jewish boys across Manchester gathered together, ready to defend themselves.

Yet the tension dissipated almost as quickly as violence had surged: in the words of another Manchester resident, Agnes Sussman, “It all passed over as if nothing had happened.” Today, there is little mention of the riots in the official histories. There are only a couple of academic essays beyond Kushner's study, and the violence in Liverpool forms a backdrop to the play Three Sisters on Hope Street, the 2008 retelling of Chekhov by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman. Elsewhere, they are viewed as an insignificant footnote to the story of the creation of the state of Israel.

Why have the riots been forgotten? According to Dave Rich, deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, a charity established in 1994 to ensure the “safety and security” of British Jews, one reason was that there were much bigger things to worry about then. The full horrors of the Holocaust were still coming to light; efforts to establish the state of Israel were ongoing; and in Britain, for Zionist and non-Zionist Jews alike, there were more pressing economic concerns. “Given that few people were actually hurt in the riots,” Rich says, “it’s understandable that, in the wider picture of what is on the mind of Jews at that time, it would very quickly get relegated.”

British politicians, too, were keen to sweep things under the carpet. James Chuter Ede, the postwar home secretary, dismissed the rioting as mere “hooliganism . . . rather than an indication of public feeling”, while magistrates condemned rioters as “un-British” and “unpatriotic”. Nations need their feel-good stories and as Rich points out, “The thought that those popular anti-Jewish riots could happen two years after the Holocaust in Britain . . . runs counter to the anti-fascist mythology of Britain’s role in the war. Who wants to go digging that up?”

Yet the riots were neither an aberration nor the product of an unruly working class. Britain was experiencing an identity crisis: it had won the war but appeared to be losing the peace, with recession at home and the break-up of its empire abroad, in which the events in Mandate Palestine played only a small part. As colonised peoples increasingly demanded independence, Britain turned to a more inward-looking nationalism. Along with it came the question of who would be included and who would be left out.

In 1948, with cross-party support, the Labour government passed the British Nationality Act, marking a shift from a situation where all those living in the empire – in theory, although quite evidently not in practice – were equal subjects under the Crown to one where each country in the Commonwealth could determine its own version of citizenship. Although in the years to come it would be non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth who would most strongly challenge received notions of Englishness and Britishness and who would bear the brunt of racism, Jews, too, were caught up in this, for a brief period.

There is one other reason why this episode is worth remembering. On the face of it, there are striking similarities with the way modern Britain has responded to Islamist-inspired terror. Now, as then, events in the Middle East have violent repercussions on Britain’s streets. Home-grown terrorists have set off bombs in London; tabloid newspapers give sensationalist coverage to attacks on “our boys” fighting abroad and question the loyalty of British people of a different faith, this time Muslims. This in turn has provoked an angry backlash in the form of the far-right English Defence League.

At the same time, “integration” is a demand made of outsiders to adopt “our” values, to become more like us. In doing so, some of today’s integrationists hold up British Jews as a kind of “model community”. In 2006 at a ceremony to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Crom­well’s readmission of the Jews into England, Tony Blair told a congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue: “As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.” Less was said about how we arrived at this point.

Yet it is best to see the events of 1947 as the end of a chapter rather than the beginning of one. A year later, the state of Israel was formed and Chaim Weizmann, who had lived and worked in Manchester, was appointed as its first president. Britain’s duplicitous conduct towards Jews and Arabs since it had taken control of Palestine in 1920, the dispossession of the Palestinians and the nasty guerrilla war were events that it suited both sides to pretend had never happened. Relations were soon “normalised” and nobody cared to recall the brief moment when the messy end to a colonial misadventure was played out on British streets.

Today Cheetham Hill, the old Jewish quarter of Manchester, is home to people of many faiths and none. Most of the old buildings were knocked down in the 1970s and one ornate former synagogue is now a clothing warehouse, its stained-glass Star of David window cracked and boarded up. But this is no cause for mourning; many Jews simply moved further up the road, taking their places of worship with them. At least 35,000 still live in Manchester, which has the largest Jewish population in the UK outside London. The “sergeants affair” is a fading memory, snatches of which are preserved on a handful of reel-to-reel recordings in local history archives. Yet somewhere amid the ghostly swirl of recollections, a painful irony remains: one of the murdered soldiers, Clifford Martin, was Jewish.

Thanks to the Manchester Jewish Museum

Tony Kushner's essay "Anti-Semitism and austerity: the August 1947 riots in Britain" is published in Panikos Panayi (ed.), "Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (Leicester University Press, 1996)

Daniel Trilling’s “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right” will be published by Verso in September. Follow him on Twitter @trillingual

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

JON BERKELEY
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The empire strikes back

How the Brexit vote has reopened deep wounds of empire and belonging, and challenged the future of the United Kingdom.

Joseph Chamberlain, it has been widely remarked, serves as an inspiration for Theresa May’s premiership. The great municipal reformer and champion of imperial protectionism bestrode the politics of late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain. He was a social reformer, a keen ­unionist and an advocate for the industrial as well as the national interest – all values espoused by the Prime Minister.

Less noticed, however, is that May’s excavation of Chamberlain’s legacy is a symptom of two larger historical dynamics that have been exposed by the vote for Brexit. The first is the reopening on the British body politic of deep wounds of race, citizenship and belonging, issues that home rule for Ireland, and then the end of empire, followed by immigration from the former colonies, made central to British politics during the 20th century. Over the course of the century, the imperial subjects of the queen-empress became British and Irish nationals, citizens of the Commonwealth and finally citizens of a multicultural country in the European Union. The long arc of this history has left scars that do not appear to have healed fully.

The second dynamic is the renewal of patterns of disagreement over free trade and social reform that shaped profound divisions roughly a century ago. Specifically, the rivalry was between a vision of Britain as the free-trade “world island”, supported by the City of London and most of the country’s governing elite, and the protectionist project, or “imperial preference”, articulated by Chamberlain, which sought to bind together the British empire in a new imperial tariff union, laying the foundations for industrial renewal, social progress and national security. The roots of these commitments lay in his career as a self-made businessman and reforming mayor of Birmingham. A leading Liberal politician, Chamberlain broke with his own party over home rule for Ireland and, with a small group of Liberal Unionists, joined Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government of 1895, becoming colonial secretary. He subsequently resigned in 1903 to campaign on the question of imperial preference.

The fault lines in contemporary political economy that Brexit has starkly exposed mimic those first staked out in the early part of the 20th century, which lie at the heart of Chamberlain’s career: industry v finance, London v the nations and regions, intervention v free trade. This time, however, these divides are refracted through the politics of Britain’s relationship with Europe, producing new economic interests and political ­alliances. What’s more, the City now serves the European economy, not just Britain and her former colonies.

Chamberlain is the junction between these two critical dynamics, where race and political economy interweave, because of his advocacy of “Greater Britain” – the late-Victorian idea that the white settler colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa should be joined with the mother country, in ties of “kith-and-kin” solidarity, or more ambitiously in a new imperial federation. Greater Britain owed much to the Anglo-Saxonism of Victorian historians and politicians, and was as much a Liberal as a Conservative idea. Greater Britain was a new way of imagining the English race – a ten-million-strong, worldwide realm dispersed across the “white” colonies. It was a global commonwealth, but emphatically not one composed of rootless cosmopolitans. Deep ties, fostered by trade and migration, held what the historian James Belich calls “the Anglo-world” together. It helped equip the English with an account of their place in the world that would survive at least until the 1956 Suez crisis, and it was plundered again by latter-day Eurosceptics as they developed a vision of the UK as an integral part, not of the EU, but of an “Anglosphere”, the liberal, free-market, parliamentary democracies of the English-speaking world.

Greater Britain carried deep contradictions within itself, however. Because it was associated with notions of racial membership and, more specifically, with Protestantism, it could not readily accommodate divisions within the UK itself. The political realignment triggered by Chamberlain’s split with Gladstone over Irish home rule, which set one of the most enduring and intractable political divides of the era, was symptomatic of this. For Chamberlain, Irish home rule would have entailed Protestant Ireland being dominated by people of “another race and religion”. Unless there could be “home rule all round” and a new imperial parliament, he preferred an alliance with “English gentlemen” in the Tory party to deals with Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of Ireland’s constitutional nationalists.

The failure of Chamberlain’s kith-and-kin federalism, and the long struggle of nationalist Ireland to leave the UK, left a bitter legacy in the form of partition and a border that threatens once again, after Brexit, to disrupt British politics. But it also left less visible marks. On Ireland becoming a republic, its citizens retained rights to travel, settle and vote in the UK. The Ireland Act 1949 that followed hard on the Irish Free State’s exit from the Commonwealth defined Irish citizens as “non-foreign”.

A common travel area between the two countries was maintained, and when immigration legislation restricted rights to enter and reside in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, Irish citizens were almost wholly exempted. By the early 1970s, nearly a million Irish people had taken up their rights to work and settle in the UK – more than all of those who had come to Britain from the Caribbean and south Asia combined. Even after the Republic of Ireland followed the UK into the European common market, its citizens retained rights that were stronger than those given to other European nationals.

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement went a step further. It recognised the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to hold both British and Irish citizenship. Common EU citizenship north and south of the border made this relatively straightforward. But under a “hard Brexit”, Britain may be asked to treat Irish citizens just like other EU citizens. And so, unless it can secure a bilateral deal with the Republic of Ireland, the UK will be forced to reinvent or annul the common travel area, reintroducing border and customs controls and unstitching this important aspect of its post-imperial, 20th-century settlement. Will Ireland and its people remain “non-foreign”, or is the past now another country?

 

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Today’s equivalent of 19th-century Irish nationalism is Scottish national sentiment. Like Gladstone and his successors, Theresa May is faced with the question of how to accommodate the distinct, and politically powerful, aspirations of a constituent nation of the United Kingdom within the unsteady framework associated with the coexistence of parliamentary sovereignty and ongoing devolution. Scotland’s independence referendum bestowed a sovereign power on its people that cannot be set aside in the Brexit negotiations. The demand for a “flexible Brexit” that would allow Scotland to stay in the European single market is also, in practice, a demand for a federal settlement in the UK: a constitutional recognition that Scotland wants a different relationship to the EU from that of England and Wales.

If this is not couched in explicitly federal terms, it takes the unitary nature of the UK to its outer limits. Hard Brexit is, by contrast, a settlement defined in the old Conservative-Unionist terms.

Unionism and federalism both failed as projects in Ireland. Chamberlain and the Conservative Unionists preferred suppression to accommodation, a stance that ended in a war that their heirs ultimately lost.

Similarly, the federal solution of Irish home rule never made it off the parchment of the parliamentary legislation on which it was drafted. The federalist tradition is weak in British politics for various reasons, one of which is the disproportionate size of England within the kingdom. Yet devising a more federal arrangement may now be the only means of holding the UK together. May’s unionism – symbolised by her visit to Edinburgh to meet Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in the first days of her premiership – will be enormously tested by a hard Brexit that cannot accommodate Scottish claims for retention of single-market status or something close to it. Separation, difficult as this may be for the Scottish National Party to secure, may follow.

The idea of Greater Britain also left behind it a complex and contentious politics of citizenship. As colonial secretary at the end for 19th century, Chamberlain faced demands for political equality of the subjects of the crown in the empire; Indians, in particular, were discriminated against in the white settler colonies. He strongly resisted colour codes or bars against any of the queen’s subjects but allowed the settler colonies to adopt educational qualifications for their immigration laws that laid the foundation for the racial discrimination of “White Australia”, as well as Canadian immigration and settlement policies, and later, of course, the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Nonetheless, these inequalities were not formally written into imperial citizenship. The British subject was a national of the empire, which was held together by a common code of citizenship. That unity started to unravel as the colonies became independent. Specifically, a trigger point was reached when, in 1946, the Canadian government legislated to create a new national status, separate and distinct from the common code of imperial citizenship hitherto embodied in the status of the British subject.

The Attlee government responded with the watershed British Nationality Act 1948. This created a new form of citizenship for the UK and the colonies under its direct rule, while conferring the status of British subject or Commonwealth citizen on the peoples of the former countries of empire that had become independent. It was this that has made the act so controversial: as the historian Andrew Roberts has argued, it “gave over 800 million Commonwealth citizens the perfectly legal right to reside in the United Kingdom”.

This criticism of the act echoed through the postwar decades as immigration into the UK from its former empire increased. Yet it is historically misplaced. The right to move to the UK without immigration control had always existed for British subjects; the new law merely codified it. (Indeed, the Empire Windrush, which brought British subjects from the Caribbean to London in June 1948, docked at Tilbury even before the act had received royal assent.)

At the time, ironically, it was for precisely opposite reasons that Conservative critics attacked the legislation. They argued that it splintered the subjects of empire and denied them their rights: “. . . we deprecate any tendency to differentiate between different types of British subjects in the United Kingdom . . . We must maintain our great metropolitan tradition of hospitality to everyone from every part of our empire,” argued Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Tory shadow minister of labour and future home secretary.

As the empire withered away in the postwar period, some Conservatives started to change their minds. Enoch Powell, once a staunch imperialist, came to believe that the idea of the Commonwealth as a political community jeopardised the unity of allegiance to the crown, and so was a sham. The citizens of the Commonwealth truly were “citizens of nowhere”, as Theresa May recently put it. As Powell said of the 1948 act: “It recognised a citizenship to which no nation of even the most shadowy and vestigial character corresponded; and conversely, it still continued not to recognise the nationhood of the United Kingdom.”

Once the British empire was finished, its core Anglo-Saxon populace needed to come back, he believed, to find their national mission again, to what he viewed as their English home – in reality, the unitary state of the UK – rather than pretend that something of imperialism still survived. On England’s soil, they would remake a genuine political community, under the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament. If Greater Britain could not exist as an imperial political community, and the Commonwealth was a fiction, then the kith and kin had to live among themselves, in the nation’s homeland.

Contemporary politicians no longer fuse “race” and citizenship in this way, even if in recent years racist discourses have found their way back into mainstream politics in advanced democracies, Britain included. However, the legacies of exclusivist accounts of nationality persist, and not merely on the populist right. British politics today is dominated by claims about an irreconcilable division between the attitudes and national sentiments of the white working classes, on the one hand, and the cosmopolitanism of metropolitan liberals, on the other.

But thinking and speaking across this artificial divide is imperative in both political and civic terms. Many Remainers have the same uncertainties over identity and political community as commentators have identified with those who supported Brexit; and the forms of patriotism exhibited across the UK are not necessarily incompatible with wider commitments and plural identities. Above all, it is vital to challenge the assumption that a regressive “whiteness” defines the content of political Englishness.

 

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Brexit thus forces us once again to confront questions about our citizenship, and the question of who is included in the nation. In an ironic twist of fate, however, it will deprive the least cosmopolitan of us, who do not live in Northern Ireland, or claim Irish descent, or hold existing citizenship of another EU country, of the European citizenship we have hitherto enjoyed. Conversely it also leaves a question mark over the status of EU nationals who live and work in the UK but do not hold British nationality. The government’s failure to give guarantees to these EU nationals that they will be allowed to remain in the UK has become a matter of deep controversy, on both sides of the Brexit divide.

As only England and Wales voted for it, Brexit has also exposed the emergence once again of distinct identities in the constituent nations of the UK. Although Scottish nationalism has been the most politically powerful expression of this trend, Englishness has been growing in salience as a cultural and, increasingly, as a political identity, and an insistent English dimension has become a feature of British politics. Although talk of a mass English nationalism is misplaced – it can scarcely be claimed that nationalism alone explains the complex mix of anxiety and anger, hostility to large-scale immigration and desire for greater self-government that motivated English voters who favoured Brexit – it is clear that identity and belonging now shape and configure political arguments and culture in England.

Yet, with a handful of notable exceptions, the rise in political Englishness is being given expression only on the right, by Eurosceptics and nationalists. The left is significantly inhibited by the dearth of serious attempts to reimagine England and ­different English futures, whether culturally or democratically.

It is not just the deep politics of the Union and its different peoples that Brexit has revived. The divisions over Britain’s economy that were opened up and positioned during the Edwardian era have also returned to the centre of political debate. Though as yet this is more apparent in her rhetoric than in her practice, Theresa May seems drawn to the project of reviving the Chamberlainite economic and social agendas: using Brexit to underpin arguments for an industrial strategy, a soft economic nationalism and social reform for the “just about managing” classes. She has created a new department responsible for industrial strategy and advocated places for workers on company boards (before watering down this commitment) as well as increased scrutiny of foreign takeovers of British firms. Housing policy is to be refocused away from subsidising home ownership and directed towards building homes and supporting private renters. Fiscal policy has been relaxed, with increased infrastructure investment promised. The coalition that delivered Brexit – made up of struggling working-class voters and middle-class older voters (or the “excluded and the insulated”, as the Tory peer David Willetts puts it) – is seen as the ballast for a new Conservative hegemony.

Presentationally, May’s vision of Brexit Britain’s political economy is more Chamberlainite than Thatcherite, a shift that has been obscured in Brexit-related debates about migration and tariff-free access to the European single market. Her economic utterances are edged with a national, if not nationalist, framing and an economic interventionism more commonly associated with the Heseltinian, pro-European wing of her party. In a calculated move replete with symbolism, she launched her economic prospectus for the Tory leadership in Birmingham, advertising her commitment to the regions and their industries, rather than the City of London and the financial interest.

It is therefore possible that May’s project might turn into an attempt to decouple Conservative Euroscepticism from Thatcherism, creating a new fusion with Tory “One Nation” economic and social traditions. It is this realignment that has left the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, often exposed in recent months, since the Treasury is institutionally hostile both to economic interventionism and to withdrawal from the single market. Hence his recent threat to the European Union that if Britain cannot secure a decent Brexit deal, it will need to become a deregulated, low-tax, Dubai-style “world island” to remain competitive. He cannot envisage another route to economic prosperity outside the European Union.

It also leaves those on the Thatcherite right somewhat uncertain about May. For while she has sanctioned a hard Brexit, in crucial respects she appears to demur from their political economy, hence the discontent over the government’s deal to secure Nissan’s investment in Sunderland. As her Lancaster House speech made clear, she envisages Brexit in terms of economically illiberal goals, such as the restriction of immigration, which she believes can be combined with the achievement of the new free trade deals that are totemic for her party’s Eurosceptics.

In practice, the Prime Minister’s willingness to endorse Hammond’s negotiating bluster about corporate tax cuts and deregulation shows that she is anything but secure in her Chamberlainite orientation towards industrial strategy and social reform. Her policy positions are shot through with the strategic tension between an offshore, “global Britain” tax haven and her rhetoric of a “shared society”, which will be difficult to resolve. May has embraced hard (she prefers “clean”) Brexit, but a transformation of the axes of conservative politics will only take place if she combines Euroscepticism with a return to pre-Thatcherite economic and social traditions. This would make her party into an even more potent political force. The recent shift of the Ukip vote into the Tory bloc and the notable weakening of Labour’s working-class support suggest what might now be possible. This is the domestic politics of Chamberlain’s social imperialism shorn of empire and tariff – only this time with better electoral prospects.

 

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There are some big pieces of 20th-century political history missing from this jigsaw, however. In the 1930s, Chamberlain’s son Neville succeeded where his father had failed in introducing a modest version of tariff reform, and trade within the empire rebounded. Britain abandoned the gold standard in 1931 and cheap money revived the national economy. The collectivism of the wartime command economy and the postwar Keynesian settlement followed. New forms of economic strategy, industrial policy and social reform were pioneered, and the Treasury beliefs in limited state intervention, “sound money” and free trade that had defined the first decades of the 20th century were defeated.

This era was brought to an end by the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Her government smashed the industrial pillars and the class compromises that had underpinned the postwar world. The ensuing “New Labour” governments inherited a transformed political economy and, in turn, sought to fuse liberal with collectivist strands in a new settlement for the post-industrial economy. What many now view as the end of the neoliberal consensus is, therefore, better seen as the revival of patterns of thinking that pre-date Thatcherism. This tells us much about the persistent and deep problems of Britain’s open economic model and the continuing, unresolved conflict between finance and parts of industry, as well as London and the regions.

Brexit brings these tensions back to the surface of British politics, because it requires the construction of a completely new national economic and political settlement – one that will be thrashed out between the social classes, the leading sectors of the economy, and the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Few peacetime prime ministers have confronted the scale and kinds of challenge that Brexit will throw up: holding together the UK, revitalising our industrial base, delivering shared prosperity to working people and renegotiating Britain’s place in Europe and the wider world. This is the most formidable list of challenges. Lesser ones, we should recall, defeated Joe Chamberlain.

Michael Kenny is the inaugural director of the Mile End Institute policy centre, based at Queen Mary University of London

Nick Pearce is professor of public policy at the University of Bath

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era