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Does the monarchy still matter?

Will Self, Eric Hobsbawm, Stephen Bayley, Peter Tatchell and others discuss whether we should call t

Richard Eyre, theatre director
It’s hard to deny our resemblance to devout worshippers of a cult: we crook the neck, we bend the spine, we bob and curtsey, we metaphorically cross ourselves towards the altar of monarchy. And just as religious faith defies the light of reason, so we are reluctant to examine the monarchy with anything more than an irritated shrug. No government will seriously tamper with the “constitution” (whatever that is), so we end up with the monarchy in the position of the monkeys on Gibraltar: a superstitious charm against the decline of our territorial integrity. But we won’t grow up as a democracy until we resist the consolation of the English religion.

AS Byatt, novelist
The monarchy itself is faintly absurd. When I express republican sentiments my husband points out what a huge expenditure of money, parliamentary time and national energy would have to be diverted, from other urgent causes and concerns, to abolishing the monarchy. The other thing I have observed is that the European democracies I find most sympathetic are in fact monarchies – Holland, Norway, Sweden, modern Spain, even Belgium, for all the tensions. So I don’t think about it much, most of the time. There are more important things to get excited about.

Peregrine Worsthorne, journalist
If a majority of the nation wanted to put an end to monarchy, then, of course, it ought to go. But most emphatically a majority does not want that. While a majority would want to kick out the present lot of self-serving politicians, bankers, mandarins and BBC executives, for the Queen they still have great affection and respect. Which is not surprising since of all our great institutions, the monarchy is the only one which actually works. Unlike aristocracy, which divided the nation, monarchy holds it together. In other words, today’s haters of the monarchy are little more than bigots.

Peter Tatchell, human rights activist
Monarchy is incompatible with democracy. According to the elitist values of the monarchical system, the most stupid, immoral royal is more fit to be head of state than the wisest, most ethical commoner. Monarchs get the job for life, no matter how appallingly they behave. The alternative is not a US-style executive president. We could have an elected president, but a low-cost, purely ceremonial one, like the Irish. This would ensure that the people are sovereign, not the royals. And we get an important safeguard: if we don’t like our head of state, we can elect a new one.

Susie Orbach, psychotherapist
A monarch serves a symbolic purpose, as the overarching figure on to which we project the capacity to care for us and go before us as a representative. But that is an idealisation. The monarchy is the representative of a society still riven with class inequalities and the need to position oneself, always. The monarchy creates insecurities in all, of whatever background.

Eric Hobsbawm, historian
Can we disentangle the effect of the monarchy in general from the effect of having lived for almost 60 years under one Queen? In fact, most of the arguments about it take for granted that she is an element of continuity in Britain and a way for most people to identify with the country that is more effective than a national football team, because she is reliably on top all the time. The arguments about monarchy are therefore mostly about the future. Like Queen Victoria, she has seen off republicanism as a serious political force, maybe even in Scotland. There is no reason to believe that constitutional monarchy will be less viable in the 21st century than in the 20th, when it proved to be the most reliable framework of liberal democratic states (Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Japan and, since 1976, Spain).

Stephen Bayley, critic
I’ve no gripe with constitutional monarchy, but I’m not so very keen on the House of Windsor: I’d love the chance to redesign the whole glum family. Their public face is sullen and anti-intellectual; their values seem more suburban than royal. I suppose there’s something deadly accurate in that observation: you don’t find much wit, optimism or style in the suburbs. Nor, as it happens, in Buckingham Palace.

Amanda Craig, novelist
Monarchy keeps nostalgia high on our cultural agenda: historical fiction dominates our literature, drama and the kind of architecture Prince Charles admires. We turned to modernity too savagely in the 1950s, ripping out much that was good, and to some extent the retro values ascribed to monarchy did help to preserve an essential Britishness that I love. That said, the monarchy invests nostalgia with an authenticity I resent, artistically. As a taxpayer, I think any further financial support and police protection for the Queen’s other children and many grandchildren, plus her request for a new private jet or a pay rise, should be funded by the sale of a palace or two.

Michael Rosen, poet
The monarchy makes fools of us. It demands and receives deference for reasons of birth. This skews our ability to devise ceremonies and honours for ourselves and blights the running of the state with silly bowing and scraping. More seriously, the politics of monarchy creates a false unity of nation even as our real rulers play roulette with billions while millions of “subjects” worry about their homes and bills.

A L Kennedy, novelist
When I was invited to meet the Queen at a garden party, I felt that I couldn’t go, because the monarchy represents so many awful things – not that I think the Queen is an awful woman. She does the best job that you probably could do.

Darcus Howe, journalist
For former colonial citizens, the monarchy has irretrievably declined in status, ever since the international struggle for independence. In Trinidad and Tobago, where I was born, the anti-colonials’ slogan was “massa day done”, meaning the role of the master is over. We came ashore in the mass immigration of the Sixties with a strong republican sentiment, which resides in our heads and hearts until this day. Bring on the republic.

Roy Hattersley, politician
The monarchy has three detrimental effects on society: it epitomises and encourages the idea of a social hierarchy; it is based on the belief that blood and birth, rather than personal merit, are enough to justify respect or even admiration; it encourages nostalgia for the past, in which it is firmly rooted, rather than hope for the future. It is also very expensive. But that is a trivial detriment compared with the other damaging effects.

Catherine Fieschi, think tank director
I’m no natural monarchist, but the monarchy has made two huge contributions to British culture and identity. The first is via parliamentary politics, by maintaining a monopoly on pomp and circumstance, which encourages a relatively open political sphere. The second, perhaps paradoxically, is to the UK’s capacity to remain outward-looking and confident. The risks associated with a fast-moving and globalised 21st century seem to be offset by a clever little patch of adaptive timelessness and the reminder of a culture that is eminently resilient.

D B C Pierre, novelist
Monarchy remains the only metronome in the land not fibrillating at a thousand beats per second. It’s our keeper of continuity, anchoring us to a historical identity impervious to the next Windows upgrade; and that in an age when much that was culturally familiar has gone, been disconnected, or usurped for profit. While for now monarchy may seem more a pathway into the past than the future, there’s a sense that it’s a contingent blessing yet to find new definition, in a similar limbo to the culture itself, between empire and whatever comes next. This century is one of bold rolling of the dice, and for now the monarchy sits tight. But history is despotic – and the Crown still has its dice to play.

Will Self, novelist
Despite people’s general willingness to accept the monarchy uncritically – as a species of constitutional wallpaper, the alleged undercoat of our tolerant settlement – the fact remains that it lies at the very apex of a pyramid of hierarchy, one that is mostly comprised of people who have unearned wealth, undemocratic power, undeserved prestige – or all three. Anyone who accepts an honour from the British government, or an invitation to tea at Buck House; anyone who shows deference to the monarchy, or even subscribes to an institution with royal patrons, partakes of this mass delusion: that the only way a modern democracy can be governed is by profoundly anti-democratic means; that the only way to treat citizens is as subjects. In my view, the British people will only come of political age with the abolition of the monarchy.

Melissa Benn, writer
The monarchy reflects and reinforces a paralysis at the heart of our political culture. The charm or idiocy of individual royals is merely a distraction from this, although royal antics feed very conveniently into an increasingly trashy culture. We rant against the dodgy expenses claims of MPs but say nothing about millions shelled out by taxpayers to this unaccountable institution. Just ask Richard Rogers if the monarchy wields only token power.

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster
The royal family has very little impact now. They contribute a sense of background continuity simply by being there, and that reassures many people. But what is really dynamic and important in today’s world passes them by.

Marina Lewycka, novelist
I think the monarchy has become a sort of beloved national soap opera, along the lines of an ermine-trimmed Corrie, but a bit more expensive to run. I must confess to finding it highly entertaining, despite my aspirations to high-mindedness. It presses all the right (very British) buttons: social class, inheritance, wealth, family intrigue and bad behaviour, among others. But it gets a bit repetitive and it can’t be very nice for the actors, who are stuck in roles they can’t escape from. Maybe it’s time to draw the series to a close.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director, Kids Company
Blooming marvellous, and why not.

Roger Scruton, philosopher
The monarchy has been effective in providing a focus of loyalty above politics. It has made it possible for people who disagree radically about how the nation should be governed nevertheless to share an object of affection by which the nation as a whole is symbolised. In a world of mass media and screen addiction, however, in which visible celebrities attract more attention than invisible royals, monarchy finds it hard to compete. In a crisis, things might change, and it is certain that there will be plenty of crises in the years to come during which symbols of national loyalty will be needed. In such crises Americans turn to the constitution; we turn to the monarchy, which is our constitution-substitute. It seems to me to be a better solution, since it has the vagueness, and open-ness to interpretation, of history itself.

Agnes Poirier, journalist
It may have learned to live in harmony with a solid parliamentary regime, but the monarchy in has had many pernicious effects on British culture: most of all it has infantilised its subjects who think very little about citizenship in general and what it is to be a citizen in particular. The fact that the head of State, the monarch, is also the head of the Church has entailed a culture where religion pervades every aspect of society: it is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It is high time the British grew up and abolished once and for all the Ancien Régime under which they live.

Billy Bragg, musician
The most pernicious effect of the monarchy on our society is to be seen in the concept of the Crown in Parliament. It allows the Prime Minister to declare war, sign treaties and appoint cronies to the legislature, among other things, without first consulting MPs. A new constitutional settlement is needed to remove the monarchy from the legislative process and make the people sovereign in their own parliament. Would this necessitate the abolition of the monarchy? I don’t think so. Living in a multicultural society means that you have to show respect for beliefs and practices that you yourself may not adhere to. That includes the monarchy, morris dancing and the Church of England.

Maggie Gee, novelist
If the monarchy didn’t exist, you might not invent it, but in these islands it has evolved its rituals and its constraints through a long history of popular struggle. I definitely prefer what we have – a wise and rather witty female head of state who is part of our global identity, recognised in Africa, Asia, the Americas – to the boredom of, say, a President Kinnock or President Clarke. Elizabeth II has tried to be the Queen of all the people, and Charles is serious about the big things: education, global warming, conservation. Would we be better off with a series of heads of state tied to the barren two-party system?

David Cannadine
In The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot famously distinguished between the ‘dignified’ parts, which were largely ceremonial, and the ‘efficient parts’, where governing was actually carried on. In the former category came the monarchy and the House of Lords, in the latter the Cabinet and the House of Commons. It’s a perceptive formulation, which describes many aspects of British institutional life, but scarcely our constitution in these febrile times. The ‘efficient’ part no longer seems efficient (and is certainly not dignified), while the ‘dignified’ part still seems dignified (and is also quite efficient). Whatever would Bagehot have made of that?

Alain de Botton, philosopher
The monarchy is an embodiment of history. In this sense, it runs entirely counter to the pace of the media and of technology; which scours relentlessly around for symbols of modernity and advance. It is also a somewhat irrational institution, something for which it seems loved and hated by different sections of society. It asks us to entertain the idea that people could rule over us not because we voted for them, but just because they and their descendants put their stake in the ground before we appeared on earth.

Johann Hari, journalist
Having a hereditary head of state has a warping effect that runs through British politics and culture. Huge powers remain invested in the Crown - and we now have an heir to the throne who says he intends to be a "political King", using the "responsibility" and "wisdom" of his position to promote his own agenda. Of course, passing through Elizabeth Windsor's womb gives Charles no more "responsibility" or “wisdom” than the next mad person you see screaming at the bus stop - but he doesn't seem to know it. The powers he will have to promote his ignorant anti-scientific, anti-Enlightenment agenda are enormous. To name just one: if we have a tie-break election - a Bush vs Gore - the monarch picks the Prime Minister. It’s hardly minor, is it?

The cultural effects are just as toxic. Having an unchosen aristocratic head of state – surrounded by braying toffs – sends ripples of snobbery throughout the culture. It strengthens the most backward, disempowering parts of Britain against the rest of us.

Chuka Umunna, Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Streatham ­
The monarchy endures and is still relevant for many but I do wonder about its longevity. There is a strange paradox: the ‘Firm’ clearly sees its salvation lying with the next generation - Wills, Harry and co - bicycling towards the Scandinavian model of royalty, whilst showcasing a sense of duty through their service in the armed forces. The Court around them has also allowed their charges to appear in the tabloid media, spilling out of clubs, bleary eyed like so many other young people.

However, deference has long sustained our monarchy too. People still curtsy and bow to the Queen – up to now it has been instilled in us - but I cannot see my generation doing the same to a King William: “why should we, he’s no different to me”, many might claim, and that’s before attention is turned to the cost of the ancient institution.

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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?




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