Spies and their lies

British intelligence has long used clandestine "deniable briefings" to release information real and

My secret life began, as if scripted by P G Wodehouse, with an invitation to tea at the Ritz.

The call came at the end of the first week of May 1992. I was the Observer's home affairs correspondent, and at the other end of the line was a man we shall call Tom Bourgeois, special assistant to "C", Sir Colin McColl, the then chief of the Secret Intelligence Service. SIS (or MI6, as it is more widely known) was "reaching out" to selected members of the media, Bourgeois explained, and over lunch a few days earlier with McColl, my editor, Donald Trelford, had suggested that I was a reliable chap - not the sort, even years later, to betray a confidence by printing an MI6 man's real name.

Would I like an informal, off-the-record chat? You bet I would. "I make no apologies for the cliché," Bourgeois said, "since we do need a way to spot each other. I will be in the lobby, with a rolled-up copy of the Times."

Over the eclairs and Darjeeling a day or two later, Bourgeois explained that while the service - "the Office", as it is invariably termed by insiders - had always had a few, very limited contacts with journalists and editors, it now felt the need to put these arrangements on a broader and more formal basis. After eight decades in which the very existence of MI6 had been an official secret, the Tory prime minister, John Major, had just avowed it in the House of Commons for the first time - part of a process of incipient glasnost, Bourgeois said.

From time to time, he went on, it might be possible to "give me a steer", and if things worked out we might progress from meeting for tea to luncheon. Of course, he would be extremely constrained as to what he might ever be able to say about real, individual spy cases. If potential MI6 sources started to think their handlers might start blabbing about them to the papers, the Office's work would soon become impossible. Nevertheless, there would be things I might find interesting that would not compromise sources or security. Anyway, here was his number.

As a youngish, ambitious hack, I was enthralled. Bourgeois, a tall, slim man with an air of effortless urbanity, seemed to exude clandestine glamour - and future scoops. He was also refreshingly upfront about why the Office was taking steps to open up; as I put it in a somewhat breathless Observer feature that weekend, with the end of the Cold War, it recognised "its place in society" was going to change. "For the first time, the service is aware that it needs to protect its image, and that as it prepares to move into new and expensive postmodernist offices on the south bank of the Thames, it needs public relations." Or, to put it more cynically, it needed the media to trumpet its continued usefulness, lest the Treasury respond to the vanishing of the Soviet threat by slashing its budget.

Even then, the conditions that Bourgeois laid down struck me as odd, and perhaps a little onerous. Our conversations would not merely be off-the-record, and hence attributable in print to an unnamed MI6 official. In public I would have to pretend they had never happened, and if I wanted to quote or paraphrase anything Bourgeois said, I would have to use a circumlocution so vague as to make it impossible for any reader to realise that I had spoken to someone from the Office at all. Should I breach these conditions, Bourgeois made clear, I could expect instant outer darkness: the refusal of all future access. MI6, in other words, would maintain a priceless advantage, a quality regarded as essential in intelligence operations of many kinds - what spies call "plausible deniability". And if, heaven forfend, the service told me something that turned out to be mistaken, or even tried to plant sheer disinformation for who knows what purpose, there would be no comeback, no accountability. I could put up, or shut up.

At the time, I pushed my misgivings to the back of my mind, accepting Bourgeois's assurance that eventually MI6 would like to have an ordinary public press office like the Home Office or Department of Health. After all, as he pointed out, "the friends" across the Atlantic, the US Central Intelligence Agency, had long had such a bureau - an entire public affairs division - without apparent harm.

Fifteen years later, this promised development has not come to pass, and both MI6 and MI5, the Security Service (whose deniable press officer I also came to know), maintain exactly the system that Bourgeois described at the Ritz.

Every national paper and broadcasting outlet has one - and usually, only one - reporter to whom each agency will speak, provided they observe the niceties. For these fa voured few, there will be access likely to grow as the journalist proves his or her "worth", along with considerable perks.

One of the things that made me uneasy about my lunches with MI5 and MI6, which usually took place at very expensive restaurants, is that, in a reversal of usual journalistic practice, the agency men insisted on paying, often with wads of cash, presumably to protect their "cover". Later, there were boozy dinners at headquarters with C or MI5's director general, flanked by their brightest and best; briefings not just from the deniable PR man but officials involved with operations; and, most useful of all, a mobile phone number in case of urgent need at evenings and weekends. (To my chagrin, I never got as far as one reporter colleague who was plied with champagne and strawberries as a guest of MI6 at the centre court for the Wimbledon men's semi-final.)

Underpinning the link between the spies and coalface hacks is further contact with editors. As befits editors' status, the spooks try a little harder to impress them. One editor told me how, a few weeks after he first occupied his chair, he was asked to lunch with the then MI6 boss, Richard Dearlove. Not for him a taxi, or a frisk by security in order to get in: his hosts sent a limo to pick him up, then whisked him from Britain's most secret underground car park direct to C's suite.

Full disclosure: both agencies decided to stop speaking to me several years ago, in circumstances that at first I found infuriating. (Quite why MI6 cut me off, I never found out, but I have been told that MI5 objected to several interviews I carried out with Britons released from Guantanamo Bay who said that MI5 staff had been complicit in their treatment and interrogation while in US custody. It wasn't that this was untrue, but it was apparently regarded as "deeply unhelpful".)

This article is not, however, the product of sour grapes. It is my honest belief that the way Britain's spooks deal with the media has simply become untenable, gravely damaging journalists and spies alike.

Questionable motives

In 2004, the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, the only independent body with powers to call the agencies to account, announced that it planned to hold an inquiry into the relationship between the spooks and the fourth estate, suggesting it was time for a wide-ranging debate. In the event, few journalists offered to give evidence, and the committee's conclusions, published in its 2005 annual report, were disappointingly bland: "The government is trying to balance the need to inform people about issues that affect them, such as the terrorist threat to the UK, whilst still protecting the agencies' work. This is a difficult balance, which requires further thought." Indeed, it does.

Twenty years ago, the Independent, led by its now much-missed political editor, the late Tony Bevins, began a campaign to reform the Westminster lobby by withdrawing from the twice-daily briefings to correspondents by the then prime minister's spokesman, the doughty Bernard Ingham. Since then, political reporting has changed beyond recognition. When Labour came to power in 1997, Alastair Campbell's comments on behalf of Tony Blair became attributable to "the prime minister's spokesman" and, eventually, to him and his successors by name. But in 1987 the lobby rules were essentially the same as those that govern briefings from MI5 and MI6 today. Like them, lobby meetings were then not merely off the record, but deniable, and those who broke the rules risked expulsion from future sessions - so making it impossible, it was believed, for transgressors to do their jobs (though Bevins and his colleagues soon demonstrated otherwise).

The old system's drawbacks had long seemed obvious, and were often canvassed, especially in magazines such as this. The lobby rules were a licence to manipulate coverage and a way of settling political scores, a game in which journalists and voters held few cards. "Lobbies of all kinds are a conspiracy against the customer, the reader," says Peter Preston, who as editor of the Guardian also campaigned for reform. "They enable the reporter to say, 'Look how clever I am. I've got this amazing source, but I'm not going to tell you who it is, so you're just going to have to trust me.' The trouble is, the in formation may well not be trustworthy at all - from either a prime ministerial spokesman or MI6."

By definition, a reporter cannot publicly question information from a deniable briefing. They must swallow it whole, or not at all. As Andreas Whittam Smith, the Independent's editor when its campaign began, pointed out in an article he wrote looking back in 2002, the old lobby rules tended "to enforce a consensus". This suited everyone: while the PM's spokesman got his message out unmodified, "When a repor ter writes along the same lines as everybody else, he or she cannot be blamed if things turn out differently." Unfortunately, he noted, "Reporters as a group are often completely wrong." As spies can be . . .

My unhappy part

To my everlasting regret, I strongly supported the Iraq in vasion, in person and in print. I had become a recipient of what we now know to have been sheer disinformation about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and his purported "links" with al-Qaeda - claims put out by Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. I took these stories seriously because they were corroborated by "off-the-record" intelligence sources on both sides of the Atlantic. I am certain that those to whom I spoke at MI6 acted then in good faith. I remember one particular conversation I had with an official in the early summer of 2003, not long before Andrew Gilligan's BBC broadcast about the government having "sexed up" its dossier on Iraqi WMDs in September 2002. Already it was becoming apparent that the threat had probably been a chimera. "Don't worry," my source said soothingly. "We'll find them. We're certain they're there. It's just taking longer than we expected. Keep your nerve."

Since then, the cloak of plausible deniability has allowed those same spooks to claim they never believed in WMDs at all, and that they were the victims of neocon and Blairite pressure. One source in particular I find particularly hard to forgive - a very senior US official who told me time and again that Saddam really did have operational links with al-Qaeda, only to state very publicly much later that the CIA had never properly endorsed this view, and that its dissemination was all the fault of the Bush administration and Chalabi.

MI5 also told me deniable codswallop in the febrile weeks after 9/11. At one lunch, an official insisted that the preachers Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada - now said by the same agency to have been Britain's most dangerous men throughout the 1990s - were "harmless rent-a-gobs" who might have a high public profile, but had no hard links with jihadist terrorism.

More recent media briefings seem equally questionable. After the 7 July 2005 London bombings, MI5 told its stable of reporters that the bombers had all been "clean skins" who had been completely unknown to them; later they said there appeared to be "no connection" between the 7/7 cell and the failed 21/7 group who tried to repeat the atrocities a fortnight later. Only two years later, thanks to evidence given in criminal trials, did it become clear that both claims were false. In fact, the two leaders of the 7/7 gang, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shazad Tanweer, had been observed by MI5 surveillance officers at least four times, and were known to be connected to another, now convicted, terrorist cell. But MI5 had decided to leave them alone while both men had apparently trained in Pakistan, at the same time as the 21/7 group.

By misleading journalists, and thereby delaying these disclosures, MI5 bought time. Had the truth come out in the immediate wake of the attacks, the Security Service might well have been much more sharply criticised, and the demand for a public inquiry might have become irresistible.

On other occasions, spook briefings have often seemed related to questionable policy goals, such as tougher legislation in the name of counter-terrorism. There may well be arguments for such measures, just as there are strong civil libertarian arguments against them. But, for years now, the agencies have tried to load the scales of this debate with a torrent of deniable briefings about blood-curdling threats from al-Qaeda which, thankfully, have yet to materialise, from dirty bombs to plots to "take down the internet", to say nothing of a long series of stories about Iran's nuclear weapons programme.

The 7/7 attacks proved that the terrorist threat was not chimerical. Yet, for many months before, it seemed barely a week passed without the BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner broadcasting items that had clearly been briefed by MI5 and could be reduced to a single sentence: "Be very afraid."

Spy agencies, Preston says, "are always on a war footing, and almost nothing they ever say is checkable or necessarily true". In this sense, their present relationship with the media is more dangerous than the old lobby system: under that, at least, there were other accessible sources through which Downing Street's claims could be measured. Usually, Preston says, with spies there is none. "That doesn't mean it's always all spin and propaganda. But it could be, and some of it will be. It's often there for a reason we know nothing about - internal feuding; inter-agency rivalry; being pissed off over something with the Americans - it could be anything."

Pure disinformation

It's easy to see why deniable briefings hurt the cause of reliable journalism, and make it much easier for the agencies to manipulate the media. Less obviously, they can damage the agencies themselves. It doesn't take long for a journalist to pick up the codes through which the comments of MI5 and MI6 are attributed, such as "Whitehall security sources". Over the years, I listened as the spook spokesmen expostulated about national reporters who used such tags and attached them to quotations and stories that, they insisted, were pure fiction, saying that their authors had never spoken to officers at all. Alas: unable to confirm anything on the record, the agencies could not issue denials, either.

Why have the media put up with this situation without protest for so long? One reason, aside from the lunches and limos, is that editors are extremely reluctant to lose the access they have: the spooks' stories may be unreliable, but they often make good copy, and if everyone else is peddling the same errors, it doesn't much matter if they turn out to be untrue. Another, as a seasoned BBC correspondent put it to me, may be a judgement that if MI5 and MI6 sometimes peddle disinformation, many viewers and readers may not very much care, as "we're all on the same side".

Yet there are powerful counter-arguments and, says John Lloyd, the former NS editor who is director of journalism at the Reuters Institute at Oxford, they have become stronger as the agencies have shifted roles. "During the Cold War, their main concerns were remote from most people's lives," says Lloyd. "Now, when they're concentrating on domestic terrorism and subversion . . . their public exposure is much greater. This kind of secrecy becomes more objectionable the more they become part of daily life. It will always be difficult for reporters to verify or refute secret intelligence, but we should at least be able to state openly what the source of a story is. Increasing their accountability will also increase the confidence the public has in the agencies."

Time for a change

Some in the intelligence world itself agree. One senior, recently retired MI6 officer says that, from the spooks' point of view, the disadvantages of the present system now far outweigh any benefits: "The need is for a properly staffed, formal press office. Then, if there is a trashy story, we can put our heads above the parapet and say: 'This is rubbish.' It's a basic professional service that we should be providing, and it can be very easily done in a way that eliminates the risk of revealing damaging information about our sources and methods.

"As for talking only to a select few reporters, it's simply wrong in a democratic society where we're supposed to be accountable - and also counterproductive, because it's going to make the rest instinctively hostile. America, Australia and Canada have managed with on-the-record press officers for years. Unfortunately, the current chief [Sir John Scarlett] seems to take the view that no news is good news. Given our current preoccupations, that's not only wrong, but naive."

A normal press office might, the former officer reflected, have saved the life of David Kelly, the weapons expert who killed himself after being exposed as having talked to Gilligan before he broadcast the claim that Alastair Campbell had "sexed up" the Iraq dossier. "What people forget is that Kelly briefed a lot of reporters about WMDs, not only those we thought were held by Iraq, by tacit agreement with his employers. Much of the fuss and speculation that followed the invasion, and maybe his death, might have been prevented if there had been an on-the-record press officer available."

Adopting the US model may not be the answer. Milton Bearden, the former head of the CIA's Soviet and eastern Europe division who also led the CIA's covert campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, warns that journalists' relationships with spooks leave much to be desired. "The energy in the UK seems to be devoted to keeping the media at bay," Bearden says. "In the US, our style has been to spin them into submission. You don't want to get starry-eyed about the way we do business [at the CIA headquarters] in Langley, Virginia." He says he knows of cases where reporters have been taken into agents' confidence - and spun pure disinformation, no less pernicious for being on the record. "There is a structural problem here. The interests of journalists and those of secret intelligence agencies just don't always coincide."

What seems certain is that the debate heralded by the Commons intelligence committee two years ago is long overdue. Meanwhile, I would like to extend a standing invitation to the staff of MI5 and MI6 to join me at the Ritz, or any other London eatery of their choice. In the unlikely event that anyone decides to accept, I make only one condition: I'll pay.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies

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