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The mystery president: How the Charlie Hebdo shooting saved François Hollande's reputation

François Hollande was elected on a promise to rule from the left, but proved an unpopular figure – until the January attack on Charlie Hebdo offered an unexpected reprieve.

On a late February night in Brussels, François Hollande was bleary-eyed after two days without sleep, but also jubilant. He’d spent 16 hours overnight in Minsk, Belarus, with Angela Merkel, extracting a Ukraine ceasefire from Vladimir Putin. From there he’d gone straight to a summit of EU leaders. Aides advised rest but the French president was determined to chat about the other triumph of the day: the sale of 24 Dassault Rafale jets to Egypt, the first export deal for the French fighter after 20 years of vain effort.

“India has confirmed the order – er, I mean Egypt,” Hollande said. “I could have said Qatar, given the confusion of being so tired.” With a characteristic giggle he stumbled on. “We’ve worked out payment that is within the means of Greece . . . er, Egypt. I think I’d better stop or we won’t know who’s bought what.”

Long-winded and self-mocking, the performance was pure Hollande. A back-room politician for most of his career, he has always enjoyed schmoozing with journalists. In Brussels he often rambles on after other leaders have left and the staff start turning out the lights. But on that February night, there was a touch of something else. Hollande was exuding a new self-assurance and was obviously enjoying himself. His first two and a half years of fumbled administration had felt like a succession of disasters, from rising unemployment to character assassination by Valérie Trierweiler, the betrayed former first lady. But in January, events had offered a reprieve.

After the Kouachi brothers committed their slaughter at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on the morning of 7 January, the most unpopular French leader in modern times had come into his own. Alerted by a friend’s text message from the scene, the unloved Socialist had ignored his security men and rushed from the Élysée Palace to the blood-spattered offices of the satirical magazine while the bodies were still on the floor. Rallying the nation in the days that followed, Hollande struck the right tone of solemnity and empathy. Leading the march of a million people through Paris on 11 January, he inspired a sense of communion around the republic’s values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The plump little 60-year-old who had won election as “Monsieur Normal” no longer seemed such a lightweight. He had finally assumed the stature expected of France’s monarchical presidents. “François Hollande has suddenly come together,” the veteran commentator Alain Duhamel wrote in Libération. “For the first time, he embodied the nation and made us proud.” Le Figaro, Hollande’s chief media adversary, voiced its admiration. “He has become audible again when most of the French had given up on him,” it said.

At every opportunity since then Hollande has been invoking the “spirit of 11 January”. But the “Charlie effect” has faded and France has fallen back into la morosité that has coloured the national mood for two decades. Hollande’s Parti Socialiste (PS) has returned to feuding. His approval ratings have fallen again after the January spike. He lost 6 points from mid-January, dropping to 26 per cent on 20 February, against a record low of 16 per cent in November, according to Odoxa polling. Meanwhile Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) made a strong showing in the first round of national county council elections that end on 29 March. The FN secured 25 per cent of the vote, beaten into second place only by the centre-right alliance led by Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Yet Hollande is sure that he has changed the way people look at him and is convinced he has transformed his presidency. Friends from his days at the École Nationale d’Administration (Éna), the finishing school of the governing elite, are unsurprised. “You wouldn’t think it, but François has always had an absolute belief in his destiny and it has remained unshaken despite the battering of the past two years,” a classmate from his 1980 year group at Éna told me after she visited him in December. This matches what Stéphane Le Foll, another member of the inner circle, told journalists in 2012 when he was helping manage Hollande’s campaign to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy. “People have always underestimated François,” said Le Foll, who is now the minister for agriculture and chief government spokesman. “There is a steel and clarity that you don’t see.”

 

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To most people in France Hollande remains a mystery: insaisissable, ambiguous and blurred. People thought they had him pinned down when he won office as president with a muddled, old-style leftist manifesto, declaring war on “the world of finance” and harking back to the 1980s, the statist golden age of his mentor and hero, François Mitterrand. “We don’t have to go the way of the markets. I try to be coherent. We can do it the French way,” he told me in an interview on a train in late 2011, six months before his election, during the first Greek euro crisis. Then after piling on new taxes for 18 months, with the economy stagnant, and after failing to fulfil unwise deadlines for cutting the jobless rate, he made a U-turn. The micromanaging president followed up last spring with pro-business reforms, dumping left-wing ministers and appointing as prime minister Manuel Valls, a Blair-style moderniser. In a reshuffle soon after that, Emmanuel Macron, 37, an Éna-trained merchant banker who had served on Hollande’s staff, was promoted to run the economy ministry, where he has become the bête noire of the orthodox left.

Yet, despite multiple interviews, speeches and news conferences on the subject, Hollande has still not explained what he is up to with the economy. Unlike Valls, who gleefully breaches socialist taboo and embraces business, his language remains that of a leftist technocrat whose software was set in the 1970s. Much of France may have signed up to globalised competition – but not Hollande, at least not openly. It is not surprising that orthodox colleagues, such as Arnaud Montebourg, the maverick industry minister who was sacked last year, accuse him of betrayal. The sharpest attack on his leadership has come from Cécile Duflot, a former Green Party leader who was dumped from her job as housing minister a year ago. “His chief quality is his calm. His main fault is not saying what he thinks,” Duflot, 39, wrote in an account of her time in cabinet, From the Inside: Journey to the Land of Disillusion, published in August. Hollande had failed the left, she said. “By trying to be president for everyone, he has managed to be the president of no one.”

Aiming for revenge in the 2017 presidential election, Sarkozy went on the offensive in February, using the Europe 1 radio breakfast show to denounce Hollande as a serial deceiver. “When you lie to the French, there is a moment when you have to pay the bill,” Sarkozy said. “When you say you are going to run the country from the left . . . and then you do exactly the opposite, you create the conditions for revolt.”

It may not have damaged Hollande that France has learned that he is far from being a genial Monsieur Petites Blagues, or “Mr Little Jokes”, as he was once nicknamed by Laurent Fabius, a party rival who is now his foreign minister. Hollande always used the “straightforward nice guy” image as a cover in his decades backstage running the PS while Ségolène Royal, his former partner and the mother of his four children, stole the limelight as a minister and political star.

Valérie Trierweiler told me about Hollande’s secretive side when I interviewed her a few days after his election in May 2012. “He puts everything in compartments and doesn’t always show what he’s thinking,” she said. I put down Trierweiler’s obvious insecurity to her well-known obsession with Royal, who had eclipsed Hollande, the party leader, by running for the presidency in 2007 (she lost to Sarkozy). Royal and Hollande ended their three-decade relationship a month after her failed presidential campaign. At the time, he was already seeing Trierweiler, a reporter for Paris Match. Royal nevertheless publicly supported him when he ran for president in 2012, upsetting the possessive new companion.

It later emerged that Hollande’s visible coolness towards Trierweiler during the 2012 election campaign sprang not from Royal’s presence but from another source. He was secretly courting Julie Gayet, the actress whose liaison with the president was spectacularly exposed when Closer magazine published photographs of him visiting her overnight at a flat in Paris in January 2014. “I did not know that Julie Gayet was already hanging around – like a snake in the grass,” Trierweiler later wrote in Merci pour ce moment, her exercise in literary revenge that became France’s bestseller of the year. “I did not see her coming.”

France got a glimpse of Hollande’s cold side when he shrugged off the Gayet scandal and dismissed Trierweiler from his life with a one-sentence communiqué that he dictated to Agence France Presse news agency. In another blow to Trierweiler, Royal was ushered back into the palace three months later as minister for ecology and energy. She holds number-two rank in the cabinet, where she enjoys a complicity with the president that rankles with other ministers.

 

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The publication of Trierweiler’s book on 5 September inflicted the only big emotional wound that Hollande has acknowledged suffering in office. As a man attached to modesty and discretion, he was stung by the scrutiny of his private life, both when his motor-scooter visits to Gayet exposed him to ridicule and when Trierweiler exacted her revenge. What really hurt, though, was Trierweiler’s portrait of him as a calculating cynic who loves luxury and mocks the poor, describing them as les sans-dents – the toothless people. (That was a play on the sans-culottes, the poor who wore trousers rather than fashionable breeches and who rose up during the 1789 revolution.)

On 8 September Hollande called in his biographer, the journalist Serge Raffy, and told him the story was “a lie that wounds me”. He added, “It hit me like a blow against my whole life. I have built my existence on the principle of helping others.” Although the son of a well-to-do Normandy doctor, Hollande had always felt humble because the family had been poor two generations earlier, the president said in his remarks, published by Raffy in the weekly Nouvel Observateur. “I have never cheated, never sought to make anyone believe I was someone other than who I am.” He was obliged to hide his emotions “because showing them would be deemed weakness on my part”, he said. “My character makes me keep steady, to be like tempered steel and at the same time humane.”

The claim never to have cheated might sound odd to Britons and other foreigners who have followed the palace soap opera, but this new, assertive Hollande has gone down well. The president has repeatedly turned to the theme of solid nerves, talking publicly of how the job has hardened him. It has not hurt that the man who seemed to have stumbled Forrest Gump-like into the Élysée after the disgrace of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the early PS favourite, is now being depicted by opposition leaders as rather mean. “Hollande is very nasty; he has behaved like a bastard towards me,” said François Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, speaking to Le Point in January. That outburst stemmed from a palace leak about Fillon’s alleged efforts to get Hollande’s team to raise the legal heat on Sarkozy, his rival, over past scandals.

The image of a tougher Hollande has reinforced his impressive performance on the foreign front as commander-in-chief and statesman. The most unmartial French president in decades has engaged troops for the past two years in a campaign against Islamist forces in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel region. Last year, he sent French bombers and special forces in to Iraq to take on Islamic State and earlier he had been ready to bomb President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria until events in London and Washington forced him to abandon imminent strikes.

In Europe, victory by the Syriza party in Greece and the rise of Matteo Renzi to prime minister in Italy have helped Hollande’s efforts to position France as a leading advocate for an alternative to German austerity.

After a frosty two years, Chancellor Merkel has started to treat Hollande as an equal, despite France’s continuing economic decline compared to Germany. Initially condescending, she now listens to him more in EU councils. Sarkozy, who prized his complicity with Merkel and privately derides Hollande as “pathetic” and a loser, was said to be envious when the chancellor invited Hollande to drive in the same Mercedes, with French and German pennants flying, to meet Putin in Minsk in February.

For all his satisfaction at winning respect at home and abroad, Hollande remains lucid over the outlook for his personal fortunes. Only the economy counts, as he knows. He dismayed his own circle by announcing in November that he would not stand for re-election if he has not managed to bring down unemployment. The jobless rate reached 10.3 per cent in December, falling back to 10.2 per cent the following month, against 9.7 per cent when he was elected.

Here, Hollande is hampered by his underlying failure: the refusal to clarify his course and ditch the left-wing rhetoric still beloved of the PS old guard and its clientele voters, dominated by civil servants, state-sector workers, teachers and the retired. They fault him from the left, demanding a return to protective socialism. Aurélie Filippetti, who was culture minister until she was dumped from the cabinet last summer, told RTL radio: “You can’t say in January, ‘France is under attack, France is at war,’ and then in February carry on the same policies that have led to a dead end, especially in employment.”

Filippetti is now one of the backbench mutineers making life tough for Hollande, Valls and Macron.

Being the product of his Éna, Mitterrandist background, Hollande still believes that France can prevail with its own model – a synthesis of enterprise and centralised administration by the state. That is the view of Dominique Reynié, an analyst who leads Fondapol, a centre-right think tank. “The conviction that you can change very little and the system will still hold is nearly unanimously shared in the governing elite,” he told me. Just as Mitterrand performed a pragmatic U-turn in 1983, imposing austerity to save the franc after two years of high-spending socialism, Hollande hired Macron and swung towards “social-liberalism” because he had no alternative. He has not undergone a conversion to the modern world, Reynié says. “The new direction in 2014 was useful and necessary but people don’t understand why he changed course. He hasn’t explained. Does it mean that what he said in the campaign wasn’t true? People on the left have lost their bearings.”

Like many in the commentariat, Reynié believes Hollande has finally grown into the presidency but he adds: “I don’t know how he will keep up this new trust from the people. What counts is unemployment and spending power and housing costs – things that affect people’s lives.”

The trouble is that, despite resentment against Hollande’s tax rises and general acceptance of the need for a competitive economy, much of France is still yearning for the reassuring state of old. Reflecting this, Sarkozy and his UMP have swung to a modernised form of Gaullist paternalism as they head towards the 2017 elections.

The biggest threat on the landscape is Marine Le Pen and the Front, who are busy stealing the old music of the PS along with its voters. The test in the local elections will be whether mainstream voters follow the old practice of crossing party lines in the run-off to block the far right, or whether the Front has gained enough respectability to win more than limited local power. A surge by the FN could set the stage for a presidential victory by Le Pen in 2017, a prospect that was inconceivable only a few years ago.

Dominique Reynié thinks France does not offer much of a model for left-wing parties elsewhere, such as Ed Miliband’s Labour, because the old statist creed has been rendered obsolete by globalised markets. “Time has run out for a European left that since the end of the 19th century has lived on the idea that you can mobilise the state and use taxes and public spending to organise social progress,” he says. That is certainly not the view of François Hollande and his nostalgic party. The young man who idolised François Mitterrand, the founder of modern French socialism, grew into a president who remains devoted to the creed of state-engineered social progress.

Charles Bremner is Europe editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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