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Anxiety nation: why are so many of us so ill at ease?

It is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether we’ve just watched too much Woody Allen.

Image: Lola Dupre

For a condition that affects so many of us, there is very little agreement about what anxiety actually is. Is it a physiological condition, best treated with medication, or psychological – the product of repressed trauma, as a Freudian might suggest? Is it a cultural construct, a reaction to today’s anomic society, or a more fundamental spiritual and philosophical reflection of what it means to be human? For most sufferers, the most pressing concern is whether drugs work, and if therapy is a good idea.

Our modern, medical definition of anxiety could be traced back to 1980 and the publication of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III), the doctor’s and psychiatrist’s bible for identifying mental illness. The authors of DSM-III suggested that, according to their new criteria, between 2 and 4 per cent of the population would have an anxiety disorder. But three decades on, the America’s State of Mind Report showed that one in every six people in the United States suffers from anxiety.

The most recent nationwide survey, which took place in 2007, found that three million people in the UK have an anxiety disorder. About 7 per cent of UK adults are on antidepressants (often prescribed for anxiety, too) and one in seven will take benzodiazepines such as Xanax in any one year. Mental health charities warn that our anxiety levels are creeping even higher; they often blame our “switched-on” modern culture for this, or the financial crisis and the long recession that followed it.

And yet, it is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether it’s just our perception of those feelings that is different: are we increasingly viewing ordinary human emotions as marks of mental illness? “In theory, it’s possible that we’ve just watched too many Woody Allen films. That’s a very difficult argument to definitively disprove,” the clinical psychologist and author Oliver James told me.

If that seems like a slightly flippant way of framing the debate, that could be because James’s books, including The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch, are premised on the idea that rates of depression and anxiety have reached record highs in the affluent consumer societies of the English-speaking world.


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In January this year, Scott Stossel, who is the editor of the American magazine the Atlantic, published My Age of Anxiety, an account of his lifelong, debilitating battle with nerves. There has been a lot of interest in the book in both the US and Europe. Stossel, who is 44, is a successful journalist and yet he is deeply insecure. He has been in therapy for three decades and has taken a cocktail of antidepressants, anti-psychotic medications and sedatives (not to mention more conventional cocktail ingredients such as gin, Scotch and vodka) in an attempt to cope with any number of phobias, from the common (agoraphobia and fear of public speaking) to the more niche (turophobia: fear of cheese).

Stossel reveals in painful, intimate and sometimes comical detail the humiliations of living with high anxious tension and very loose bowels. Despite the severity of his problems, he successfully concealed them from most of his friends and colleagues until the book was published. He told me when we spoke that in recent months co-workers have given him lots of hugs (“which is sweet, but a little bit uncomfortable”) and thousands of strangers have approached him because they so identify with the experiences he describes in the book.

“I was very nervous about coming out as anxious,” Stossel says. “And now it’s too late and I can’t un-come out. It hasn’t been a cure, but it has been something of a relief. I now feel there are practical things I can help with, like trying to reduce the stigma around anxiety.”

He says we ought to view anxiety less as a “psychological problem” and more like a “medical condition, in the way gout or diabetes is. These are things that need to be managed and treated, and have an organic basis. It’s not necessarily that you are weak, but that you have an illness.”

Yet while we understand how our modern diet is making gout and diabetes more common, the causes of anxiety are more mysterious.


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Anxiety has long been associated with depression, and often the two were subsumed under the notion of “melancholia”: Robert Burton’s great book Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was as much about anxiety as sadness. But the DSM-III classified anxiety and depression as separate conditions: the former is related to feelings of worry, the latter to low mood and loss of pleasure and interest. More often than not, however, the two occur together. The blurred lines between normality and illness, or depression and anxiety, make it very hard to grasp what it means to say that three million people in the UK suffer from anxiety.

If one in seven of us is taking pills to control or ward off anxiety, are we just medicalising an ordinary human emotion? Did the purveyors of the early anti-anxiety medicines such as Miltown – discovered in the 1940s, and the first in a line of blockbuster drugs including Prozac and Xanax – manage to create a new problem along with the solution they offered?

Stossel describes how in the 1950s a young psychiatrist called Donald Klein began randomly treating his patients with a new drug called imipramine. He noticed that patients on imipramine often remained very anxious but were less likely to suffer from acute paroxysms of anxiety. And so, having found a cure, he defined the problem – “panic attacks”.

Until imipramine, panic attacks didn’t “exist”. This process of working backwards from new drugs to new illnesses is known as pharmacological dissection, and it is not uncommon. Yet even if modern drugs shaped our understanding of mental illness, that doesn’t mean they made us sick.

Or maybe the UK’s epidemic of anxiety isn’t pathological at all but a product of historically unprecedented good health and affluence. Perhaps anxiety is a luxury that comes with wealth, freedom and the privilege of having nothing fundamental to fear in our modern society.

This isn’t an unpopular notion. A World Health Organisation survey in 2002 found that, while 18.2 per cent of Americans reported anxiety in any one year, south of the US border only 6.8 per cent of Mexicans did. Of the 14 countries surveyed by WHO, Nigeria reported the lowest levels of anxiety, with only 3.3 per cent of respondents experiencing anxiety in any year. Nigeria’s per capita GDP is $2,690, about 6 per cent that of the US, and in 2010 84.5 per cent of Nigerians were living on less than $2 a day, the international poverty line. Breaking out into a nervous sweat on the London Tube because you can’t remember if you unplugged your hair straighteners is the kind of indulgence you can’t afford if you’re struggling to feed yourself, or so the argument goes.

However, it’s not that simple. Again, it’s very hard to tell whether feelings of anxiety vary internationally or if people label them differently. In countries with a large stigma against mental illness, people are less likely to report disorders such as anxiety or depression. Yet the psychiatrist Vikram Patel, who recently featured on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific, says his research in India and Zimbabwe has convinced him that rates of mental illness are the same all over the world.

The way we understand anxiety is cultural, says Beth Murphy, head of information at the mental health charity Mind. “If you’re living on the breadline in a hand-to-mouth existence you might not recognise what you are feeling as anxiety, but it’s quite probable that you’re going to be pretty worried about where your next meal is coming from.”

This raises another problem: if you are feeling anxious because it’s very likely you could go hungry tomorrow, are you in any meaningful way unwell?


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Just as sadness is natural but depression is an illness, most of the people I spoke to who suffered from anxiety instinctively drew a distinction between “good anxiety”, the nervous adrenalin that helps you get stuff done and meet deadlines, and “bad anxiety”, the destructive kind. Our common-sense interpretation of “bad anxiety” also suggests that the worries here should be disproportionate or irrational.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used today identifies anxiety disorders according to how severe and persistent the feelings of worry are, and whether these feelings are accompanied by elements from a list of secondary symptoms, including sleep disturbance, muscle tension, poor concentration and fatigue.

Although the anxiety should be “excessive” the focus is solely on the feelings, and not what caused them. This might go some way towards explaining the boom in prescriptions for mental illnesses; doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressants to someone who has suffered bereavement, something Oliver James described as “ludicrous”. The counter-argument is: if a short course of drugs can make it easier to cope with the painful but completely healthy process of grieving, why not take them?

At its most extreme, anxiety is a debili­tating, life-altering condition. I spoke to Jo, a volunteer at the charity Anxiety UK, and she told me that feelings of anxiety have “blighted” her life.

“It’s stopped me from doing so many things that I would have liked to have been able to do and it’s stopped me from living what I feel is a normal life, doing things like having relationships, perhaps getting married, having children, having a career. It’s put paid to all that,” she says bitterly.

Jo, who is in her fifties, has been overcome by anxiety since she was in her teens. She dropped out of school at 16, unable to cope with the pressure of exams, and when her anxiety peaks she is unable to work and is left isolated. Anti-anxiety drugs have helped ease the physical symptoms – such as headaches and irritable bowel syndrome – yet they’ve left her with “the same worries and fears”.

What does anxiety feel like when it’s at its worst? “It’s an overwhelming feeling of being out of control, and overwhelmed by everything.” Jo pauses, and then adds quietly, “It’s not nice.”


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While researching this piece, I was struck by how many friends came forward with stories of anxiety-induced insomnia, phobias and stress, though mostly this didn’t prevent them from working or socialising. I spent one strange dinner with a friend who is a lawyer. I noticed when we met that her hands were raw and bleeding slightly, and while we ate she repeatedly reached into her bag and disinfected them. Under stress from work, she had developed a huge fear of germs.

Another friend, a corporate lawyer, recently collapsed while out shopping after she suffered a panic attack. There’s a recognisable stereotype of the neurotic, angst-filled high-flyer – and it has a historical precedent. In the 19th century nervousness was seen as a mark of social standing, because only the new leisured classes could afford such sensibility. But how closely related are these manifestations of unease and anxiety to those feelings experienced by people who are incapacitated by their nerves or phobias?

The triggers for people’s nervous complaints can be idiosyncratic. I chatted about this to Andy Burrows, a musician and the former drummer of the indie band Razorlight. He says he has never felt overly anxious about performing to huge crowds at Wembley or the O2 Arena in London – a prospect that might make most people break into a sweat – but he has suffered from anxiety since his teens and is so freaked out by lifts and tunnels that he can recite from memory the average time that a London overground train spends underground. It takes 16 seconds to travel through the tunnel from Hampstead Heath to Finchley Road and Frognal Station “at regular speed”, he says – and sometimes he just has to get off the train and walk between the two.

Of course, phobias can seem funny to an outsider. I can laugh with friends about the time I leapt up from my chair, tipped over my coffee and ran out of a café because I suddenly couldn’t cope with being in a confined space with a pigeon. And yet, for a brief few seconds, as someone with a fear of birds, I experienced a terror so profound that it overrode my usual instinct not to cause a scene.


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In 2012, the National Health Service recorded 8,720 hospital admissions for acute anxiety. According to research for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 40 per cent of new claimants for disability benefits in the UK are suffering from mental illnesses, of which anxiety and depression are the most common. The effect of this is that Britain has a higher proportion of people claiming unemployment benefit for mental health conditions than any other developed nation. The estimated cost to the UK of mental illness is roughly 4.4 per cent of GDP, through lost productivity and health-care costs.

What is going wrong? One problem is that we are not doing enough to support people with anxiety. The first port of call for most sufferers is their GP, and the response they get can vary. I know this because a few years ago, when I experienced a bereavement and a break-up in quick succession, I turned from a natural worrier into an unravelled bundle of nerves. I was unable to sleep, read or concentrate.

After a strange few months, spent mostly wandering aimlessly in London, as if somehow I might lose my panic down a backstreet, I burst into tears in front of my doctor. “Patient tearful but able to maintain eye contact,” the GP typed on the large screen in front of us, leaving me feeling like some zoo exhibit. She advised me to book an appointment with someone who knew more about mental health.

In the end, I was lucky. The second doctor prescribed me a low dose of antidepressants (against his advice, I decided not to take these). Then, although the NHS waiting list for counselling was months long, my university counsellor could see me and within two months I felt almost normal again.

Even when they are very much aware of mental illness, GPs can often be constrained in the solutions they can offer. One in every ten people in the UK has to wait more than a year for therapy and 54 per cent have to wait for more than three months (people from black and ethnic-minority communities often wait the longest).

Anxiety is a broad, confusing label and is a condition with multiple causes. We are not the first generation to believe we live in an exceptionally anxious age, and yet in some ways, thanks to the development of drugs and talking therapies, anxiety is a peculiarly modern experience. Perhaps at the very root of Britain’s struggle with nerves – whether viewed in terms of its economic effects or from the perspective of plain, simple suffering, or whether one merely wonders why three million of us appear to be afflicted by a disorder we still can’t quite define – is that we don’t often talk about it.

In an odd way, it might be easier to admit in modern Britain that you’re deeply sad than that you are anxious or scared. Collectively we might be freaking out but most of us are suffering in silence.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for the New Statesman

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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