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How I learned to stop worrying and love Amazon

The online retailer has reshaped bookselling since it entered the trade in 1995. But Amazon’s aggressive and “anti-competitive” tactics, especially for selling ebooks, are raising hackles in an industry under stress. What is the future of the book busines

Photo: Ralph D Fresco / Reuters

I have a confession. I like buying books online. From Amazon. Such an admission may seem unremarkable, indeed banal, to many book buyers, but offering it in the presence of book industry folk would be the equivalent of informing New Statesman readers that one admires Donald Rumsfeld or Rupert Murdoch. One cannot exaggerate the fear and loathing that Amazon inspires among publishers and rival booksellers. “I hate them,” one publisher who deals with Amazon regularly told me the other day, and many others have offered similar views – off the record, of course.

The story of contemporary publishing is largely that of what Amazon has done to it and of what it threatens – in publishers’ and booksellers’ nightmares – to do. It is the story of a huge contrast between the perceptions of readers, authors and Wall Street, and those of publishers and booksellers.

At first, in the 1990s, Amazon seemed cool – no doubt it still does to a good many people. There was romance in the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, typing a business plan while his wife drove him in a Chevy from Texas to Seattle, and in his setting up a web retailer in a garage where the computers were powered by extension leads from the house. He was a geeky guy, with a weird, explosive, humourless laugh, but nevertheless came across as more personable than most executives.

In the book world, which Bezos had selected as the ideal entry point for his planned giant operation, Amazon’s cool image lasted only until the first of his company executives took the floor at an industry conference and spouted what was to become a familiar litany of unilluminating corporate jargon. Amazon, we realised, was remote and secretive. In a friendly industry, it had no interest in being collegiate. It played hardball. Fail to grant it the discounts it wanted, and it launched a battery of unpleasant correctives, chillingly outlined in Brad Stone’s recent book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Bantam Press). And, as we also learned, it was a tax avoider. (Amazon.co.uk accounts for its sales in Luxembourg.)

Worse, it appears to have ravaged the industry’s ecosystem. Because Bezos has so successfully trained investors to wait for returns, he has been able to offer loss-leading discounts beyond the scope of companies with the conventional imperatives of making profits. When Amazon arrived in the UK in October 1998, the leading specialist booksellers included the newly merged Waterstone’s (as it was then known) and Dillons (with 500 branches), Borders and Books Etc, Hammicks, James Thin and Ottakar’s. Now the only one left is Waterstones, with fewer than 300 branches – and recently it laid off 200 of its managers. There were 1,535 independent bookshops in the UK in 2008 and now there are 1,028. The rate of attrition in the United States has been similar.

The digital reading revolution, which Amazon kick-started by introducing the Kindle, has accelerated this process. Ebooks now account for a third of fiction sales in the UK, and by the end of 2014 the proportion will go up to half. These sales have mostly left terrestrial bookshops and gone to Amazon, whose Kindle has become the generic term for all e-reading devices. Furthermore, customers who have migrated to Amazon to buy ebooks there have bought more print books on the site, too. Amazon has at least 90 per cent of ebook sales in the UK. Overall, its UK book sales are worth roughly the same as the value of sales through all terrestrial bookshops put together.

Booksellers are crying foul. Tim Godfray, the chief executive of the Booksellers Association, has called for the Office of Fair Trading to re-examine Amazon’s dominance of the ebook market. Quoted in the Bookseller, he argued: “Booksellers are finding it impossible to compete against such a huge player that has such a stranglehold on the book market . . . Consumers are being left with a reduced choice of book suppliers and communities are losing their bookshops.”

To adapt the words of the sports commentator Chick Hearn, Godfray has two chances of getting what he wants: slim and none, and slim just left the building. It left when regulatory authorities on both sides of the Atlantic ruled against leading publishers in disputes over pricing policies that they had adopted, seemingly in an effort to curb Amazon’s discounting, following the opening of Apple’s iBookstore. All the evidence we have is that the authorities look benevolently on Amazon and its aggressive competitiveness over prices, and treat with hostility most attempts to blunt the retailer’s edge.

Digital publishing threatens to undermine their power. The first sign of danger, or confirmation of it, came when Amazon promoted its new Kindle device by pricing New York Times bestsellers at $9.99 – less, in most cases, than it was paying the publishers for each sale. Sure, Amazon was taking the hit; but what if it gained the power in the future to get publishers to lower their wholesale prices? At the same time, Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing, encouraging many thousands of aspiring authors, by no means all of them talentless, to self-publish their work. Many did so at very low prices and some, trying to build an audience, gave their ebooks away.

It was horribly apparent to publishers that readers expected ebooks to be cheap. When the US publisher of a novel by Ken Follett tried to give the ebook roughly the same price as the hardback, readers bombarded Amazon with one-star reviews. Ebooks cost nothing to print and distribute, readers reckoned. Publishers would reply that most of their other costs remained the same, and that they had many additional costs, too: digitisation in various formats, software and hardware updates, constant monitoring of the internet for copyright infringements. Plus, they were still bringing out print editions. But this argument has not found a sympathetic audience.

The arrival of Apple as a seller of ebooks, following the launch of the iPad, seemed to offer a chance of alleviating the problem. Under the “wholesale model” by which publishers sold to Amazon, the US publisher of a potential New York Times bestseller put a price on the ebook of $25, sold it to Amazon for $12.50, and allowed Amazon to sell it for whatever price it liked.

However, Apple had sold everything on iTunes through an “agency model”: the manufacturer set the price, from which Apple took a 30 per cent cut. So now the publisher could ensure that the book sold at, say, $14.99, from which Apple took 30 per cent. Yes, the publisher, and the author – whom we shall discuss later – earned less (the publisher got $10.50), but it was worth taking the hit in order to preserve the perceived value of ebooks. Otherwise, Amazon would keep slashing prices until there was no publishing industry left. Publishers negotiated agency deals with Apple, and then some of them went to Amazon and insisted that Amazon switch to the agency model, too.

These deals looked highly suspicious to the US department of justice, which in 2012 sued five of the six biggest publishers in the country for collusion. The European Commission, too, investigated agency pricing in the European Economic Area. Offices were raided and computers seized. Unfortunately, the late Apple boss Steve Jobs aided the regulators’ case, telling his biographer Walter Isaacson in an unguarded moment: “We told the publishers, ‘We’ll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30 per cent, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway . . .’ They went to Amazon and said, ‘You’re going to sign an agency contract or we’re not going to give you the books.’”

This did not look good. In both the UK and the US, the big publishers – while furiously denying that they had done anything wrong – nevertheless reached settlements with the authorities, agreeing to renegotiate contracts; in the US, publishers have paid more than $160m (£98m) to consumers to make up for the higher prices charged while agency deals were in place. But Apple fought on, and lost. Passing judgment in July, Judge Denise Cote of the federal district court in Manhattan was scathing: “With Apple’s active encouragement and assistance, the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition and raise ebook prices, and again with Apple’s knowing and active participation, they brought their scheme to fruition . . . Through their conspiracy they forced Amazon (and other resellers) to relinquish retail pricing authority and then they raised retail ebook prices. Those higher prices were not the result of regular market forces but of a scheme in which Apple was a full participant.” Apple has lodged an appeal, bringing to mind again the phrase concerning slim and none.

Amazon, above the fray, was the victor in these cases, though in negotiating new contracts with publishers it does find itself landed with some restrictions on its ability to discount. While governments may amend the rules that allow Amazon to pay only minimal corporation tax, no authority is going to curb competitive aggression. The authorities are unconcerned about what share Amazon takes of the book market, provided book buyers continue to have choices. Those choices include bookstores at Apple and Google, which are unlikely to persuade anyone that they require protection from a predatory rival.

Of course, Tim Godfray was talking about protection not for the likes of Apple and Google, but for businesses that may achieve not even a six-figure turnover in a year. Independent bookshops were struggling before Amazon came along, however, in part because of their inability to compete with chains such as Waterstones, and in part because of trends – superstores, rates and rents, parking restrictions, and so on – which have been hostile to so many high-street businesses, and which prompted the government to call in the retail expert Mary Portas to see if she could conceive a plan to revitalise them. Chain booksellers were growing, but largely by opening branches and merging with each other. It was a bubble, and Amazon’s market share was still relatively modest when Waterstones and the book/stationery/enter­tainment retailer WHSmith became the only chains left standing.

The best bookshops have found ways to remain attractive. They stage readings and festivals. They incorporate coffee shops. They recommend distinctive titles that you don’t see on the front tables at Waterstones or Smith’s, or on the Amazon home page. Mr B’s in Bath offers “reading spas”: one-on-one chats in its “bibliotherapy room”. It has also commissioned bespoke editions of books. Daunt Books has its own small publishing operation, which has brought back into print the kinds of literature that a chain of shops in well-heeled areas of London can sell. In September, the Booksellers Association launched an initiative called Books Are My Bag, which consists of only a slogan and a supply of canvas bags, but which the BA hopes will gain enough currency – as “Go to work on an egg” once did – to promote the joys of browsing and buying in real bookshops.

That Amazon has taken business away from these shops – well, that’s competition, and, as we’ve seen, we are going to have to live with it. The other day, I decided I wanted to read John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?. I looked on Amazon and I looked on the rival ebookseller Kobo; Amazon’s price was £4.63 and Kobo’s was £7.07. I bought the Amazon Kindle edition, with a single click; when I switched on my tablet, my book was there. My nearest bookshop, a Waterstones, is a 20-minute bus ride away, and it is not always guaranteed to have the book I want. If it does, it may be selling it at the recommended retail price – £8.99, in this case.

Price and convenience point me towards Amazon. I enjoy reading ebooks, and if the print equivalents are bulky and have small type, I prefer to read them on a lightweight device with adjustable fonts. I love browsing in bookshops, but I love browsing online, too, and get a small thrill every time I make an order that enables an instant download or a posted parcel. Furthermore, Amazon’s service is superb. Its website is the best, its Kindle Paperwhite is by reputation the best e-reading device of its kind, and its prices are usually the lowest.

My point is that this is what the overwhelming majority of Amazon’s customers feel about the company. Yes, we disapprove of its tax avoidance, but we have learned that every multinational will behave in this way, given the opportunity. It is for governments to sort out. But giving publishers a hard time? Why should we care about that? And if we felt that Amazon did not deserve to take business from the terrestrial bookshops, we would click on those Buy buttons less frequently.

The consolidation of power in retailing is in part responsible for a consolidation of power in publishing. Penguin and Random House confirmed their merger this summer, creating the largest publisher in the world; industry insiders expect there to be further mergers at the top – Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins are names that are often put together. Penguin Random House, which is home to a significant number of the most celebrated authors in the English language, has clawed back some of the negotiating power that Amazon had assumed. The company also believes that, thanks to “efficiencies” (cost-cutting) in its merged operations, it will have more resources to put into the acquisition and promotion of books and into “discoverability”, a buzzword that has become an obsession as book buyers have moved online. How do you ensure that people see your books? Publishers are desperate to be the facilitators of this process. They do not want Amazon to control it.

In addition to the power of Amazon, they have three significant fears. The first is piracy. Once, pirating a book involved printing it. Now, all you have to do is copy a computer file and you have an edition that is no different from the authorised version. The pirates have created jobs in the book industry: the leading publishers employ people whose sole responsibility is to trawl the internet searching for illegal editions. Fear of piracy is responsible for digital rights management, the annoying code that prevents you from reading an Amazon ebook, say, on anything other than a Kindle-enabled device. It also lies behind publishers’ wariness about allowing their ebooks to be lent through libraries.

The new wave of digital entrepreneurs is, on the whole, sceptical about copyright, in a bedrock of industries ranging from publishing to football (think of the importance to football of TV and image rights income). Google, which no government can ignore, scanned millions of in-copyright books without bothering to ask the rights-holders’ permission. The British government is planning to introduce copyright exceptions following a 2012 report into intellectual property by a panel under the leadership of Professor Ian Hargreaves; its draft proposals have alarmed bodies including the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association. “Fair dealing”, which Google cites in its defence, may be fair to the people who want to use the material, but is less fair to those who created it.

However, publishers could relax a little. People want to get things for free or cheaply, but they are also happy to pay what they see as fair prices. Getting most of my books free when I was young did not dissuade me from becoming a book buyer, and listening to pirated music did not prevent my purchasing records. My daughters, who no doubt consume illegally shared material, spend fortunes through iTunes. When I began reporting on the book industry, Delia Smith featured in ubiquitous ads for book clubs that were offering her Complete Cookery Course for a nugatory sum. Yet the same book, at full price, appeared in the bestseller list week after week. Free or cheap does not necessarily undermine paid-for. Imagining an ideal world in which every consumer would pay a recommended price for every cultural item is futile.

The second significant fear, though, is the lowering of the recommended prices that consumers are prepared to pay. The average price paid for an ebook in the UK is about £3. The average price paid for a bestselling paperback novel is about £4.20, and the average price paid for a bestselling hardback novel is about £11. As ebooks take a larger share of the market, will publishers suffer a decline in revenues, and will they find, as booksellers did in the 1990s, that the only way they can grow is through mergers? Penguin Random may be an early symptom of such a trend.

The third fear is of becoming irrelevant. The rise of the publishing conglomerates has not been as hostile to independent houses as many had feared, partly because distribution has become more egalitarian (smaller houses have more chance of getting their authors discovered now, through Amazon and other sites, than when their only way of selling was by begging booksellers’ support) and partly because there are so many successful titles that the conglomerates miss or never see. But all publishers must be aware that authors have what appears to be the increasingly viable choice of self-publishing. Since internet distribution has vastly reduced the cost and difficulty of getting a manuscript into book form, self-publishing has lost its reputation as exclusively the last resort of the hopeless and deluded. Every week, it seems, one reads a story of an unknown author who has sold tens of thousands of copies of his or her self-published books, particularly through Amazon. Amanda Hocking, an author of paranormal romances, earned $2.5m from Amazon sales in under two years; even more famously, E L James first published online the story that became the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

Publishers hope that the self-publishing world can become a training ground for writers, and last year Penguin’s parent company bought Author Solutions, the world’s largest self-publishing service (which at that point had a mixed reputation). Hocking and James went on to sign conventional publishing deals. Yet some self-publishers have not, while others have signed print book deals but retained their ebook rights. Few authors can have failed to notice that self-publishing offers higher royalties. Kindle Direct Publishing can pay up to 70 per cent of the returns from sales, and offers at least 35 per cent. Until recently, publishers were distributing to authors just 15 per cent of the returns; only under pressure, and not universally, have they raised these royalty rates to 25 per cent.

While publishers may have good arguments to explain why their royalties should remain at this level, they have not succeeded in making their case to authors and agents. At present, most authors crave the imprimatur, the editorial expertise, the marketing and the distribution that established imprints can provide. But publishers’ claims that they “add value” to the publishing process – value that self-publishing services cannot replicate – are not as incontrovertible as they once seemed.

In the ways described, the disruption that Amazon has caused the book industry has been welcome for readers and authors. Culturally, the picture is more confused. Some authors who might never have seen their books in print a few years ago have thrived through self-publishing, but others – who enjoyed a brief period when advances rose, as the big publishers grew bigger and the book chains expanded – are in trouble. They can no longer afford to spend a year or longer writing books, because no one will pay them to do so. Fashions are changing quickly, and many authors who were under contract a few years ago can no longer get their manuscripts accepted.

It is a harsh world, but whether it is barbaric, as some disillusioned authors believe, is debatable. Pitifully low sales of literary fiction are not a new phenomenon: George Orwell’s early novels sold only a few hundred copies each. When one reads of the long exile from print of Barbara Pym in the 1960s and 1970s after Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape had decided that her novels were hopelessly old-fashioned, one recognises a story with contemporary resonances. It is very hard to determine whether an industry that produces more than 100,000 titles a year is lowering its standards. Regular reading of the literary pages, and scanning of book-prize shortlists, suggests that there remains plenty of quality about. I once heard someone say that Paul McCartney, an acquaintance of his, was “as nice as you’d expect him to be”. Amazon is certainly no nicer than you would expect a Wall Street-quoted giant with a market capitalisation of $135bn to be. But I don’t feel guilty about being its customer.

Nicholas Clee, a former editor of the Bookseller magazine, is the joint editor of BookBrunch, a book industry news service

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.
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