In suburbia: aerial view of Sunbury, Surrey, which straddles London's commuter belt. Photo: Rex Features
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Bryan Appleyard: in defence of the British suburbs

Bashing the ’burbs has been a common currency of artists and the intelligentsia, the right and the left, for over 150 years. But they are now undergoing a quiet renaissance.

The ’hood is cool – listen to Wu-Tang Clan, Boyz n Da Hood, JAY Z and just about every other black rapper. The ’burb is uncool – see Arcade Fire, Blur, Nirvana, even the Beatles, and probably a hundred other white rockers. To be young and/or hip almost always means you hate the suburbs and love the neighbourhoods.

’Burb loathing is not just a matter of age and race; it’s also politics. When seeking the most damning possible phrase to describe Margaret Thatcher, Jonathan Miller alighted on “odious suburban gentility”. The implication was that the lives of suburban dwellers were constricted, small, secretive and spiritually shrivelled. “The future,” J G Ballard wrote, “is just going to be a vast conforming suburb of the soul.”

Confronted by suburban “Metroland” development in the 1930s – mostly semi-detached houses, often with dubious glued-on antique detailing – Graham Greene spoke of “something worse than the meanness of poverty, the meanness of spirit”. And the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster waved aside the style he called “bypass variegated”.

In Coming Up for Air in 1939, George Orwell was revolted by the same “long, long rows of little semi-detached houses . . . The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue.” From the right, the poet Hilaire Belloc went even further – “Miserable sheds of painted tin/Gaunt villas, planted round with stunted trees/And, God! The dreadful things that dwell within.”

The British suburb, it was clear, had become an equal opportunity victim, available for kicking by the right and the left, the up and the down. Such sentiments have been a common currency of artists and the intelligentsia for 150 years. John Ruskin was appalled by the first signs of spec-built urban sprawl – the rather modest Victorian houses we later came to love. Suburbs, by drawing attention away from city centres, were thought to undermine civic pride.

In the mid-20th century this theme in particular was taken up by progressive urbanists. The movement of people from the inner city to suburban estates was seen as the destruction of communal values by a cold individualism. In 1955 in an article entitled “Outrage”, Ian Nairn, the architectural critic, wrote of “the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns. This death by slow decay is called subtopia . . . the world of universal low-density mess.” Nairn favoured the civic grandeur of city-centre developments such as the Bull Ring in Birmingham.

Mention of the Bull Ring, however, alerts the contemporary imagination to the problem with all of this. Civic pride and communal values are no longer associated with the destruction of old city centres and their replacement by all too rapidly spalling concrete blocks. In the cities now we sometimes look in vain for the unplanned, riot­ous warmth of the ’hood. The ’burbs, meanwhile, have been undergoing a quiet renaissance.

In his book Suburban Century (2003), the historian Mark Clapson aimed “to rescue suburbia from the enormous condescension of the rich, young, and trendy”. He wrote of the variety, rather than the uniformity, of the suburbs and defended them against both the feminist charge that they favoured men because they isolated their wives at home and the view that they were alienated places – in fact, suburbanites are enthusiastic joiners. In The Thirties (2010) Juliet Gardiner, another historian, even defends Metroland as a liberation for the lower middle classes: the housing boom between 1919 and 1939 produced four million new homes, of which three million were for private sale rather than council rent.

This form of defence of suburbs is not entirely new; it is rooted in some of the more nuanced Victorian reactions to urbanisation. In Garden Cities of To-morrow, first published in 1898, Ebenezer Howard created a bridge between the urban and the rural, softening the noise and crowds of the former with the greenery of the latter. Howard’s catchphrase has, in fact, just been given a new lease of life – Policy Network has advocated building garden cities to alleviate Britain’s perpetual housing cycle of bubble and bust, and the government has taken up the idea.

But the suburb itself found salvation in one place – Chiswick. There, just north of Turnham Green Station, in 1875, a developer named Jonathan Carr bought 24 acres of land on which he established Bedford Park. John Betjeman described this in 1960 as “the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably the most significant in the western world”. It had also been endorsed by the German architect Hermann Muthesius, who has come to be known as one of the great prophets of modernism.

“There was at the time,” Muthesius wrote in 1904, “virtually no development that could compare in artistic charm with Bedford Park, least of all had the small house found anything like so satisfactory an artistic and economic solution as here. And herein lies the immense importance of Bedford Park in the history of the English house. It signifies neither more nor less than the starting point of the smaller modern house, which immediately spread from there over the whole country.”

With its “Queen Anne” styling and picturesque “dendritic” – root-like – planning, Bedford Park influenced and continues to influence suburban design. Todd Kuchta, an American historian of the British empire, has argued that our suburbia replaced empire, using imperially exotic and nostalgic imagery. Maybe that is true of Bedford Park, a little paradise of British aspiration at home as well as abroad.

But, most importantly, it was a rural-urban compromise, deliberately designed to offset the stress and dirt of the city with the calm green of the country. Indeed, Carr advertised his housing development with the claim that this was “the healthiest place in the world (annual death rate under six per thousand)”.

Bedford Park was built among green fields, although it has since been enfolded by London. This raises the question of whether it is now, technically, a ’hood rather than a ’burb. It seems to matter because of a stylistic and cultural prejudice imported from America. Most British suburbs have been organic outgrowths of cities, spreading slowly and awkwardly out into the limited tracts of available land, held back by planning restrictions, nimbyism and the sheer expense of acquiring land in such a small and densely populated country. American suburbs have none of these restrictions. Land is in effect limitless and cheap.

In the US, suburbs were genuinely built outwards into wilderness. They were settler communities, and the buildings were almost certainly the first on the sites. The cities spread outwards into nothingness. Americans were more or less forced to live there by cheap cars, cheap fuel and assorted financial incentives. The American dream of the 1950s was of a big house, a huge yard, a garage and a slick car in the drive. The ’burbs were good and, for a time, untroubled by social prejudice – the British could never give a car the name “Suburban” but that is what Chevrolet called one of its giant SUVs. The typical city became a clump of downtown towers surrounded by vast concentric rings of urban development.

There were dissenting voices, of course. Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes”, immortalised by Pete Seeger, trashed the endless, empty uniformity of suburban homes: “Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,/Little boxes on the hillside,/Little boxes all the same.” The Beats and the folkies who colonised New York in the 1950s and 1960s were all on the run from the anonymous hell of the suburbs.

But it was the very extremity of these US developments that was to start a new anti-suburb movement. They had gone too far. “No other country,” writes Leigh Gallagher with evident distaste in The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, “has such an enormous percentage of its middle class living at such low densities across such massive amounts of land.”

The ’burbs, it became clear, were not green. They ate up land; they increased commuting distances – between 1969 and 2009 the average mileage of a household in the US jumped 60 per cent. That, combined with the higher fuel costs of houses rather than flats, made the ’burbs especially bad for the planet. Also, the argument ran, suburbanites tend not to mingle; in this way, they lose the face-to-face contact that makes urbanites so cool and creative. And as the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argued in his book Triumph of the City, if you want to save the planet, then you should move at once from the ’burb to the ’hood and stop destroying ever more wilderness with your bungalows, gardens and golf courses.

At the end of this litany of complaints, the financial crash of 2007 was a particular catastrophe for the American suburbs. Sub-prime lending had sold suburban houses to people who could not afford to repay and who simply abandoned their homes, leaving vast tracts of empty properties across the nation. Now much of suburbia has become an embarrassment.

In 2010, Gallagher says, suburban growth stopped, prices started falling and numbers in the cities started rising. The Millennials – those born between 1977 and 1995 – seem to hate the ’burbs and, according to a 2011 US study, 77 per cent say they want to live in urban areas. As a result, there is forecast to be a surplus of 40 million “large lot” homes in the US by 2020.

The further counter-intuitive argument for the ’hoods and against the ’burbs is that they are more natural. As the sociologist and architectural critic Lewis Mumford observed, neighbourhoods tend to form organically around human societies and their needs. There is no “theoretical preoccupation or political direction”; they grow like forests or meadows, acquiring newsagents, dry-cleaners, chemists, Indian restaurants and so on.

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You want to be sure, if you’re moving back to the city, that the place you choose is, indeed, a ’hood. You don’t want to go back to dwell in urban anonymity, you want to belong there, you want a proper ’hood. Dumbo – it stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass – is a chic little part of Brooklyn and it is where the suburban developers Toll Brothers decided to build an apartment block (prices up to $2m) using cracked concrete and carefully preserved graffiti. It was a follow-up to the “graffiti fence” that the architects Herzog & de Meuron had put up at 40 Bond Street – a Manhattan block with prices up to $27m. The fence consisted of cast aluminium made to look like graffiti. That’s the cool thing about the city – it looks lived-in, a bit wrecked, a bit dangerous.

This, of course, is inauthenticity, bad faith, rap style without the oppression. But it’s a lot more fun than London’s mindless destruction of neighbourhoods with dark, armoured buildings for the very rich, such as One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge.

There is also a reverse process going on for those still stuck in the ’burbs or having to move back there because of expanding families. Suddenly suburbs are being urbanised. This creates a new category of settlement that the New York Times called “hipsturbia”. “Here,” wrote Alex Williams, “beside the grey-suited salarymen and four-door minivans, it is no longer unusual to see a heritage-
clad novelist type with ironic mutton chops sipping shade-grown coffee at the patisserie . . .” Hipsturbia has happened in Britain, too, with bearded hipsters infesting coffee houses in every suburban centre.

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Fashion, for the moment, seems to be supporting the environmentalist view that cities are greener than the countryside, as well as the prophetic vision of a future of densely populated hi-tech cities around which the wilderness is allowed to return.

Well, maybe in America. It is a mistake to conflate US and British conceptions of suburbs. We simply don’t have real wilderness on which to build and neither is our conception of home so closely associated with size – American ’burbies competed with the size of their home and their cars. Our suburbs are usually marked by a variety of styles and sizes, usually because they have been built over longer periods. The difference between a neighbourhood and a suburb is also much more ambiguous because the gradations between city centre and outlying areas are not so rigid. So, moving out in south-west London, Fulham is neither city centre nor suburb, Putney feels like an almost suburb and Wimbledon is 100 per cent suburban. But the lines are never quite clear and I don’t doubt that the Millennials in each of these places yearn for the authenticity of the true city-centre ’hood.

Furthermore, our suburbs are not places condemned for ever to be the same rigid developments lost in the vast open spaces. Britain’s suburbs were never imposed upon the wilderness. Many were once towns in their own right – think of Epsom, or Chiswick. They were simply annexed by the cities nearby that were expanding, not into nothingness, but into land that already had a human history.

There is also, in spite of the distaste of the intelligentsia for the ’burbs, a distinct suburban intellectual and artistic tradition. Hampstead dwellers might not think of themselves as suburban but, in shape and form, the place is much more a ’burb than a ’hood. Its name became, in the 1950s and 1960s, a label for a distinctive left-wing, dissident view of the world.

But Hampstead was nothing compared to Bedford Park for the simple reason that the latter was born and flourished at a time of unprecedented (and never-to-be-repeated)greatness in British cultural life. From 1914, we ceded our global status to the Americans and the world would no longer feel it had to read English literature and learn of our ways. But, just before that moment, we were the cultural centre of the world, spawning and importing genius. Henry James, W B Yeats, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Edward Thomas, Stephen Crane, D H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, H G Wells, Edward Elgar, Camille Pissarro, George Bernard Shaw, G K Chesterton and many, many more passed through or settled here. A fair number of them passed through Bedford Park. It even had its own pet revolutionary and murderer in “Stepniak” – Sergey Mikhailovich Kravchinsky – who had killed the chief of Russia’s secret police in St Petersburg in 1878.

As with Hampstead, its intellectual pretensions were often comical. Chesterton gently made the point at the opening of his 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday, set in Saffron Park, a lightly disguised version of Bedford Park. As he wrote, “It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, though it never in any definable way produced any art. But although its pretensions to be an intellectual centre were a little vague, its pretensions to be a pleasant place were quite indisputable.”

After 1918 Bedford Park went into decline and, by the start of the Second World War, it was known as a profoundly impoverished place. Postwar, this all began to change and its buildings are now fiercely protected by statute and local passion – new homeowners are given a handsome green logbook with the complete history of their house in order to make them feel suitably pious and proud. The area should, in my view, be a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its design is beautiful and globally unique and it is associated with genius. What more could they ask?

The point about the place was that it was built as both a ’burb and a ’hood and that is what it still is. It unites what we have come to think of as opposites and, in doing so, Bedford Park created a distinctly British solution to the problems of the city. It is now a pricey place – not least because the City people it was originally built to serve have actually moved in. But it retains that feeling that Chesterton detected, of being a well-meaning little paradise, a kindly and fantastical backdrop for the living of the urban life.

Bryan Appleyard’s novel “Bedford Park” is newly published by Phoenix (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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