Keep the black flag flying: a show of strength in northern Raqqa province, Iraq, to celebrate the declaration of the caliphate, June 2014. Photo: Reuters
Show Hide image

From Bin Laden to Isis: Why the roots of jihadi ideology run deep in Britain

From Riyadh via London to Damascus, Baghdad and Isis – the jihadist surge.

Had Osama Bin Laden lived to see the present state of the Middle East he would have been rather pleased. The realisation of his ultimate ambition is gripping the Levant with the announcement of a caliphate straddling parts of Syria and Iraq. Controlling a piece of land roughly the size of Jordan and bigger than either Israel or Lebanon, Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is demanding international attention unlike any of his predecessors.

Islamic State is perhaps the most aggressive invading force in the Levant since the Mongols. Moreover, it is being given a free hand to recast the contours of power in what remains one of the world’s most sensitive (and volatile) geostrategic locations. This is no accident. The implosion of both Syria and Iraq, coupled with western reluctance to intervene in what is seen as yet another Arabian calamity, has fuelled the sudden rise of Baghdadi’s millenarian militia.

This is precisely what Bin Laden always envisioned. His main thesis on the failure of the Islamist project was that western interference in the Middle East prevented the rise of Islamic governments. Weaken the west’s sphere of influence, he argued, and a caliphate would emerge.

Events helped crystallise this view. Shortly after the Afghan mujahedin’s unlikely victory over the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and King Fahd turned to the United States to defend Saudi Arabia against his Ba’athist neighbour. Bin Laden was left embittered by the experience after the House of Saud scuppered his hopes of using the mujahedin to repel Saddam from Kuwait.

The humiliation for returning jihadists did not end there. Many from North Africa and the Gulf found themselves imprisoned and persecuted on their return. It was soon clear that going home was not an option and many of the Afghan alumni subsequently began to congregate in Sudan under the patronage of the chairman of the ruling party, Hassan al-Turabi, who had formed a Sunni Islamist movement at the time.

For the Arab fighters it was a comedown from their intoxicating victories in the mountains of the Hindu Kush against one of the great superpowers.

In Sudan, these fighters largely continued pursuing Islamo-nationalist aims. The Egyptians focused on Egypt, the Algerians on Algeria, and the Libyans on Libya. However, Saudi Arabia captured everyone’s attention. The arrival of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula – home to Islam’s most holy sites and regarded as sacred soil by Islamists – assaulted the imagination. This is when the gear shift occurred, redirecting the focus of jihadist anger from the metropolis to the periphery.

In an interview with the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi in 1996, Bin Laden explained: “. . . we believe that the US government committed the biggest mistake when it entered a peninsula which no non-Muslim nation has ever entered for 14 centuries . . . [America’s] entry was arbitrary and a reckless action. They have entered into a confrontation with a nation whose population is one billion Muslims.”

Having settled in Sudan, Bin Laden campaigned for Islamic revival in Saudi Arabia by establishing the Committee for Advice and Reform. This organisation had registered offices in Holborn, London, and was led by another veteran of the Afghan campaign, Khaled al-Fawwaz, who acted as Bin Laden’s representative in London.

Between 1994 and 1995 Bin Laden used his London address to send a total of 14 letters to the Saudi government. All of these urged the Saudi state to end co-operation with the United States. What he wanted instead was a more isolationist and self-assured form of Islam – a purer interpretation of sharia law, an end to western economic influence and a more Muslim-centred foreign policy.

Another letter by Bin Laden to King Fahd explained: “It is not reasonable to keep silent about the transformation of our nation into an American protectorate which is defiled by the soldiers of the Cross with their impure feet in order to protect your crumbling throne and preserve oilfields in the kingdom.” He continued:

Is it not right for the [Islamic] nation to wonder about who is behind instability and turbulence in the country? Is it the system that delivered the country into a state of chronic military debilitation in order to justify bringing the Jewish and Christian forces to defile the holy lands? Or is it the people who call for the preparation of the nation, arming it to be strong enough to take matters into its hands, protecting its honour and religion, defending its holy sites, its land and dignity?

Fawwaz sent all of these letters on Bin Laden’s behalf until he was indicted by the US for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden himself was implicated in the attacks.

Although a rationale of revenge was the primary argument Bin Laden put forward to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks, he also argued that confronting the US directly would undermine and weaken Arab regimes back home. Indeed, this is how al-Qaeda has sought to credit itself with the Arab-world uprisings of 2011, otherwise referred to as the “Arab spring”.

“The abandonment of America’s allies one by one is the fallout of its diminishing pride and arrogance after receiving the blows in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania,” argued Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s second-in-command, shortly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in February 2011. The 9/11 attacks had “directly caused America to lose influence over the [Arab] people because its grasp over the [Arab] regimes was weakened”.

Fantastical though such a view may be, it explains al-Qaeda’s grand strategy for effecting change.


Nowhere was the policy of direct confrontation with the US more apparent than in Iraq. Led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq launched a deliberately brutalising campaign aimed at shocking the west. From Iraq, Zarqawi sought to traumatise western societies into ever more reticence about intervention. His campaign struck directly at those who had supported “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, claiming 4,486 American lives in the process and a further 318 from allied forces. The civilian death toll was immeasurably higher.

Traumatising as these casualties were, it is the broader cultural ramifications of the conflict that have left an indelible scar on both our society and politicians. Large sections of the Arab world – not just those already consumed with a deep suspicion of the west – erupted in a fit of anti-Americanism after the Iraq war. Every death of a western solider was cheered, every suicide bombing applauded; a Nelsonian eye was turned to the excesses of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

This perversion enveloped the entire region, from the trendy guests at Lebanese beach parties to the chattering classes of Dubai’s bevelled hotel lobbies. It is this cultural disengagement by ordinary Arabs, otherwise wholly unaligned to jihadist groups, that has proved so shocking.

While the west recorded uneven results in Iraq, the campaign was broadly a success for the global jihad movement. Zarqawi not only achieved a small foothold for his fighters in Iraq but also successfully redefined the balance of power within al-Qaeda. By 2005, his brutal campaign across Iraq had begun to alienate much of the regional support al-Qaeda previously enjoyed. This worried the central leadership. Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi, chastising him for two things in particular: executing hostages and pursuing a bloody, sectarian conflict with the Shias. “Many of your Muslim admirers among the common folk are wondering about your attacks,” he wrote. “Don’t lose sight of the target.”

The overtures had no impact. Zarqawi rebuked Zawahiri by insisting that he was on the ground and therefore best placed to decide what strategy the group should pursue. This prompted a lasting shift in the internal dynamics of the jihad movement – proximity now confers legitimacy. Those on the periphery could never be better placed than Zarqawi to dictate the prevailing strategy.

That precedent directly fuelled the rise of Islamic State today. Since Zarqawi’s death in 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq has drifted into greater autonomy, renaming itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) that year. Although still nominally tied to al-Qaeda, the ISI was a largely independent group.

Relations finally unravelled with the onset of the Syrian civil war. Syrian fighters from ISI led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani moved back into the country and established Jabhat al-Nusrah. They were supposed to serve as al-Qaeda’s official representatives on the ground, though ISI could not resist direct involvement. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi eventually ordered his own men into Syria, rebranding his group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) and ordering Jabhat al-Nusrah to disband.

Zawahiri was furious. He insisted that Baghdadi limit his ambitions to Iraq and leave the Syrian campaign to Jawlani. It was not only the Qaeda leader who suggested this. Notable jihadist ideologues from around the world echoed these sentiments, including Abu Qatada, the radical Muslim preacher who was deported from London back to Jordan last year.

The disagreement opened up a chasm in the global jihad movement. Both al-Qaeda and theoreticians associated with the group had urged Baghdadi to fall into line, only to be rebuffed. Invoking the primacy of proximity, as Zarqawi had done, spokesmen for Isis strongly rejected suggestions that the group was acting ultra vires. “The wars in Syria and Iraq are the same,” explained Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, a leading spokesman for Isis. In both cases, the group insists, it is protecting Sunni Islam against Shia forces.

What is significant is how Isis has sought to justify itself to the broader community of jihadi supporters. It is al-Qaeda and its ideologues – not Isis – that has betrayed the true spirit of what Osama Bin Laden always envisioned. And Isis is the rightful heir to his legacy, exploiting the power vacuum in the Levant to create an Islamic state.

The Isis leaders’ frustration is understandable. They regard the current US inaction in the region as stemming directly from the Americans’ confrontation with them during the Iraq war from 2003. The spectre of that engagement continues to cast a long and enveloping shadow over western societies. It is precisely what Bin Laden had predicted would happen, which makes Zawahiri’s reluctance to capitalise on it all the more inexplicable.

Withdrawing to Iraq would signal an acknowledgement of the boundaries set in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a false aberration imposed on Muslims by “crusaders”. Moreover, Adnani accuses Zawahiri of prioritising politics over jihad. Only this could explain why al-Qaeda did not exploit the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The corollary is clear: al-Qaeda has lost its way under Zawahiri.

In many senses, Islamic State has now surpassed al-Qaeda altogether. Whereas al-Qaeda is a terrorist organisation committed to confronting the west violently, Islamic State has grander ambitions. Once a terrorist group, it morphed into a sophisticated insurgency, and now operates its own state.

The organisation is also investing heavily in winning public support. It operates a broad range of social services, ensuring that people under its authority have access to basic necessities such as health care, education and fuel, as well as other public services. In July, during the Muslim festival of Eid, it hosted recreational events, including pie-eating contests for children and a tug of war for adults.


When Khaled al-Fawwaz came to London as Osama Bin Laden’s representative in the late 1980s he was just one of many Islamists pouring into the country. Others such as Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed followed and, in the process, they established a sophisticated Islamist network across the UK.

In 1994 a major international conference promoting the caliphate was held in London, gathering radical clerics from around the world. Some early adherents of Islamism even went on to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya. Others pursued more esoteric aims in states such as Yemen.

It is telling to chart the evolution of British Islamist discourse through the 1990s. When the 1994 caliphate conference was convened, a large part of proceedings was dedicated to discussing what the caliphate is and whether it is obligated in Islam. By the end of the decade, the idea of the caliphate was entrenched and the debate moved on. What Muslims discussed then was precisely how – not whether – the caliphate should be revived. Seen in this way, it is clear that the roots of Islamist ideology run deep in some parts of British Muslim life.

The caliphate is a broad concept bound up with another set of ideas, too. At its core lies an alternative identity, the umma – a fraternity of the faithful, in which loyalty and allegiance are defined through confessional affiliation over civic ideals. It is the belief in the umma that has inspired as many as 500 British men (and a handful of women) to pack their bags and migrate to Syria.

British jihadists are not in Syria to melt into the background. They are full and fervent participants in the conflict. In the past 12 months British fighters have volunteered to be suicide bombers, executed prisoners of war, and tortured detainees in their care.

Fighters from groups as diverse as Jabhat al-Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army have all told me of their concerns over the extremism of British jihadists. They are regarded as some of the most vicious and vociferous. The issue emerged in sharp relief this past week with the murder of the American journalist James Foley, seemingly by a British executioner with a London accent.

Pressure is mounting on the Prime Minister to address the flow of British fighters into groups such as Islamic State. The challenges are many, not least because there is a perception in some parts that the battle against Islamism has been won.

The main institutions promoting an Islamist agenda in this country – the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain and the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, among others – have been beaten back. So, too, have the most prominent preachers of radical ideology. At the same time, hardline organisations such as al-Muhajiroun and Hizb ut-Tahrir have fallen into obscurity.

To an extent, it can be said that there has been a decline in Islamist agitation in the public sphere. Yet this success does not represent the whole picture. Because Islamist ideas have flourished in parts of the UK for more than two decades they remain a potent and pervasive force. That explains how a generation of men not even born during the 1994 caliphate conference has come to embrace the Syrian jihad so eagerly.

In 2011 David Cameron issued one of the clearest statements by any politician of the need to inflect British values in the public sphere. In what popularly became known as the “Munich speech”, the Prime Minister spoke of the need to build a strong civic identity to which all members of our society could subscribe. A few months later, Lord Carlile published his review into the Prevent counterterrorism strategy, adumbrating a new vision for the initiative.

Both the Prime Minister and Lord Carlile identified the role of Islamist ideology as a primary driver of radicalisation. It was a marked departure from the cosseted approach adopted by their Labour predecessors in government, though much work remains to be done in this regard.

Dissuading young men not to join jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq is proving to be an arduous task. Where it was once thought that the domestic terrorism threat was being managed down, the revival of jihadist fortunes in Syria has extended its lifespan by another generation or two.


The Islamic State surge is not the first time a jihadist organisation has succeeded in taking swaths of land. It has happened before. Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces held significant parts of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. In Somalia, al-Shabab has established itself in certain parts; Ansar Dine asserted itself over a significant area of northern Mali most recently.

What distinguishes Islamic State from its predecessors is that in every one of those cases there was international momentum to unseat the jihadists. Western coalition forces worked with Pakistan to uproot militants from the tribal areas, while the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), backed by the UN, pushed back al-Shabab. In Mali, the French committed ground troops to overcome Ansar Dine and its affiliates.

There is no comparable momentum arrayed against Islamic State. Neither the Iraqi nor the Syrian army is capable of overcoming it. Regional actors led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are unwilling to act and favour arming other rebel groups instead, a policy that has failed to deliver any meaningful results so far.

The western world looks on and sees only a conflict within Islam – Sunni pitted against Shia – and asks why we should intervene. The post-9/11 campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq appear not to have been worthwhile. This cognitive dissonance has allowed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to revive a caliphate in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world.

But public opinion is beginning to take notice of Islamic State. With the execution of James Foley and the prominence of European (especially British) fighters in the conflict, it cannot be ignored. And yet, the belated approach of western policymakers has made Islamic State an entrenched entity. It is a state in every sense of the word. It maintains a treasury of billions of dollars, provides social services and has an army of skilled fighters with combat experience.

All this points to one conclusion, however depressing: Islamic State will not be overcome without some form of western military intervention. 

Shiraz Maher is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London and at Johns Hopkins University

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

Show Hide image

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?




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.




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.




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