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Mexico’s disappeared women

Since 1993, hundreds of women have been murdered in the desert city of Ciudad Juárez. There is no cl

On 6 January, the poet and activist Susana Chávez was found murdered outside an abandoned house in the city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Her left hand had been sawn off. In the late 1990s, Chávez coined the slogan "Ni una muerta más" ("Not one more death") to protest against the incompetence of the Ciudad Juárez authorities in finding the killers of the hundreds of women who had been murdered there since 1993. The killings continue. The victims are usually from poor families. Before being murdered, they are raped and tortured, then their bodies are left in the desert surrounding what has become one of the world's most violent cities.

Before it was dumped, Chávez's body had been dragged 20 metres. A trail of blood led police to the missing hand and the murder site. Her parents identified the body of their daughter in a morgue after several days of searching. According to the local media, the authorities had attempted to conceal her identity, fearing public outrage and protests.

No one is certain of the motives for the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez. Some say that the killings are a form of blood sport for the city's elite, but there are also stories of satanic cults, snuff films and organ thieves looking for easy prey. Perfunctory investigations by the Mexican authorities have yielded nothing. The killers are not relenting.

It is hard to come by an accurate number of victims. One estimate by the city's El Diario newspaper has 878 women in total killed between 1993 and 2010; some locals put the figure in the thousands. It can take months for bodies to be discovered - if they ever are - because the desert surrounding the city is so vast. Often by the time the remains are found, the heat has mummified them. Many more women are reported missing than are confirmed dead.

Mexico's main fight is with the drug cartels. This war has been going on for decades but it intensified following the demise of the Cali and Medellín cartels in Colombia in the 1990s.

After President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, the crisis grew even worse. He believes that Mexico can beat the drug barons by waging an all-out war and is unwilling to enter into negotiations, at least in public. Since he came to power, nearly 35,000 people have died in drug-related violence, and the figure increases rapidly each year - more than 15,000 of those deaths occurred in 2010. Many blame Calderón's strategy for the culture of violence. They would rather have a president who engages in back-door negotiations with the cartels than one who has no control over them.

As the largest city in Chihuahua State, and located on the border with El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juárez is a prime spot for the trafficking of narcotics into the US. The drug war in Mexico has both overshadowed the "femicides" and become intertwined with them: it fuels the lawlessness apparent on every street here. Ciudad Juárez is the site of a feud between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, waged by gangs battling for control of a lucrative gateway into the world's largest consumer of recreational drugs.

As US businesses opened assembly plants, known as maquiladoras, in the city in the 1960s, it began to grow and develop. The new factories took advantage of the cheap labour that could be found south of the border, especially from the 1980s onwards. Then, as now, they would hire mostly women to work long hours for low wages, far away from home.

The maquiladoras boomed in 1994, and so did the killings. That year, more factories were opened as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which offered strong incentives to US businesses. "Maquiladoras are the cause of all our social ills in Juárez because of the problems they have generated in the family," says Marisela Ortíz, a former teacher and activist against the femicides.

I meet Ortíz in the kind of shopping centre one would expect to find in any flourishing western country. However, the mood is uneasy: a day earlier, a police officer was killed at a nearby mall as he attempted to prevent a robbery. A bystander was filmed punching and kicking a wounded gunman as he lay dying in the mall's entrance - an expression of the anger that many residents feel towards the criminals who they believe have destroyed their city.

Ortíz became involved in the anti-femicide campaign when one of her students, Lilia Alejandra García Andrade, went missing ten years ago. She helped the Garcías search for their daughter until her body was found, a week later, in late February 2001. Since then, Ortíz has been campaigning against the killings; she also co-founded Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa ("may our daughters return home"), a charity that helps the families of victims. "There are many different reasons why Ciudad Juárez has become the most violent place in the world," she tells me. "There's bad government and corruption. We are the biggest port of entry to the US and we have a state that is very machista and does not give women their proper rights."

Machista - or male-chauvinist - culture is dominant in Mexico and is particularly pronounced in Ciudad Juárez, which has the highest levels of domestic violence in the country. It allows men to blame women for their struggles and misfortunes. Some local officials have denounced the murdered women as prostitutes, responsible for their own deaths for the simple reason that they were out alone on the streets. The maquiladoras, too, perpetuate the machista culture by hiring mainly women: one worker described the bosses as "players".

Among the companies running factories in Chihuahua are some of the most powerful in the US. Ford, General Electric, General Motors, RCA and Chrysler all run maquiladoras in the state. They have created an abundance of jobs. The opportunity to work and the proximity to the US have attracted ever more arrivals in the state, and in Ciudad Juárez in particular. "There has been some tearing of the social fabric by the workplace conditions and the desire to have young women working at the maquiladoras," William Simmons, a political scientist from Arizona State University, tells me. "But I think that the social fabric would have been torn at anyway by the movement of people. The maquiladora is just one more factor."

The authorities have been accused of ignoring the impact that maquiladoras and the huge population growth since the 1960s have had on the city. "No one builds schools or parks for the kids," says Judith Torrea, a journalist who runs the blog Ciudad Juárez, en la sombra del narcotráfico (". . . in the shadow of the drug trafficker"), for which she won an Ortega y Gasset prize - the Spanish-language equivalent of the Pulitzer - in 2010. "These kids are now members of drug cartels, so they don't have any future. The cartels are providing the jobs that the authorities are not creating."

Joining a cartel leads to a life of spiralling violence for the youngsters, who begin by running drugs but can end up as hit men, or even higher up in the chain, as commanders.

Not only are maquiladoras implicated in the city's broader problems, but often their own staff are victims of kidnapping and murder. The factories operate 24 hours a day. White buses move around the suburbs, collecting women for their long shifts. The lack of security on these routes has been blamed for many of the disappearances. The buses leave the women near their homes, not at or outside them. This obliges them to walk the unlit streets, where many are kidnapped.

Anapra, home to many of the maquiladora workers, is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Ciudad Juárez. Its houses are makeshift and there is no running water. The electricity supply is less than a decade old. The sandy streets of this area terminate at a ten-foot-high green fence: the border with El Paso.

Beatríz Contreras Rojas has worked in the maquiladoras for 20 years. Her jobs have included putting together capacitors and sewing up quilts. "Just last week, I was waiting for the bus at around half past four in the morning when I saw someone kidnapped," she tells me, sitting in one of the more precarious cantinas. "They just picked her up and left."

The woman has not been found. "I felt very bad, witnessing that. I usually leave my house at 5.15am and the bus gets there at 5.35am, so there's 20 minutes of being on the lookout. When you're waiting for a bus, you hide from every car that passes by. We are in fear."

The machista culture is pervasive in the factories, with their high female-to-male staff ratio. "The bosses hit on the women," Rojas says. The women are subservient to the male staff, who have cars and do not travel on the buses. "The women don't have cars. Because of this, relationships start. People become lovers so the woman doesn't have to ride the bus. I'd rather [a male factory worker] do something to me than a hit man.
At least I already know him!"

Jorge Pedroza Serrano, who has been executive director of the Maquiladoras' Association of Juárez for six years, is rather defensive when we speak. "The killings are on the street, not on the buses," he says. "The transportation here is very secure." This is not true: on 28 October last year, gunmen opened fire on three buses carrying maquiladora workers, killing three women and a man and injuring 15 others. No motive has been found for the attack.

Not all of the female victims in Ciudad Juárez work in maquiladoras or are from the poorer neighbourhoods. Mónica Janeth Alanís went missing in March 2009 when she was 18. She was taking a university course in business administration at the nearby Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez when, one Thursday evening, she failed to return home.

I meet Mónica's mother, Olga Esparza, at her comfortable house in a middle-class quarter of the city. Her husband and 17-year-old son join us, as well as friends who have also lost daughters. "I live in fear in Juárez," Esparza says. "I feel insecure because of the war that is going on here and because public safety does not exist for us. We have everything: insecurity, violence, homicides, unemployment and disappearances."

Esparza blames the police and politicians - as well as the kidnappers - for what has happened to her daughter. Like many family members of the vanished women, she has been forced to investigate her daughter's disappearance herself because of the indifference of the authorities. "They see these cases as numbers, but they are our lives and we need them back. The authorities know where this problem is coming from and there are people who know the places where these girls are being tortured."

These "places" are thought to be the strip clubs and brothels that can be found throughout Mexico. Esparza was told by another young girl who had been kidnapped (but who later escaped) that her daughter was alive and working in Puebla, just east of Mexico City, which is more than a day's bus ride away from Ciudad Juárez. She and her husband went to Puebla to search for Mónica; they are convinced that she is being sexually exploited.

Esparza has received little assistance from the police. "The authorities have not the slightest interest in finding our daughters," she tells me. "Everybody's scared to speak up."

Norma Laguna Cabral's daughter disappeared in February 2009. The family is poor and lives in a notoriously dangerous part of Ciudad Juárez known as Altavista. Her daughter, Idali Juache, worked in a launderette and went missing when she was 19. "It's the mothers who do the investigating," Cabral tells me.

The climate of impunity encourages these crimes. The culprits know that there will be few repercussions, if any. Many have accused the authorities of failing to look into the murders and disappearances, especially when the offences bear the hallmarks of the drug trade. Organisations such as Amnesty International have challenged the Mexican government to do more to intervene; so has the United Nations.

“An environment has been created that is extremely conducive to committing crime and it allows many of the perpetrators to go free or to avoid being held to account," says Rupert Knox, Amnesty International's leading researcher into Mexico. "The quality of the police and prosecutor investigations in 2003 was terrible," he adds. "It is hard to conceive of how bad they were and how reliant they were on torture and other abuses. The worst aspects of this seem to have declined."

Knox suggests that the quality of forensic work and the effort being put into probing the crimes have improved. "But this has all come to nothing," he says, "in part because the violence and related institutional weaknesses have mushroomed, and in part because much of the state apparatus only ever responded to the issue of violence against women because of pressure, not because there was a profound commitment to address the issue.

“As everything has become dominated by gang-related violence, the limited changes that were made have been exposed, leaving in place the same culture in which misogyny and violence against women can flourish."

Marisela Escobedo Ortiz was killed outside a government building on 17 December. She had been campaigning against crime in the city following the murder of her 16-year-old daughter, Rubí Frayre Escobedo, whose burned and dismembered remains were found in a rubbish bin in Ciudad Juárez on 18 June 2009. She had been missing for nearly a year. Her mother, despairing of the inept official investigation, had said three days before her own death that she would not move from outside the office of the state governor, César Duarte, until investigators showed some progress in her daughter's case. In a video circulating on the internet, masked men pull up in a car in front of Ortiz and begin talking to her. She flees across the street but is pursued and shot in the head.

Just before her death, Ortiz had told El Diario that her daughter's ex-boyfriend, Sergio Barraza, had threatened to have her killed. Barraza is the prime suspect in the murders of both mother and daughter. He was arrested in 2009, and prosecutors say that he admitted to killing Frayre and led the police to her body. But during his trial, he insisted on his innocence and claimed to have been tortured into confessing. Judges ruled in April last year that the prosecutors had failed to present material evidence against him. The case was thrown out.

Judges in Mexico must follow the letter of he law. Often an unwitting or corrupt official makes a trivial error in some paperwork and this leads to the case being dismissed.

Few are optimistic about the future of Ciudad Juárez and its women. "The issue is lost in the Mexican congress," says William Simmons. "The president is not giving it priority and the murders are overshadowed by the drug war. You have this sense that the women [in the city] feel abandoned. I don't see much progress. I see the structural violence and the conditions that have fuelled all of this growing worse."

Wherever you go in Ciudad Juárez, you see photographs of the missing women pasted on storefronts, house walls and lamp posts. You also see the words of Susana Chávez, "Ni una más", emblazoned on pink crosses commemorating the women who have died.

Many people in the city see life as pointless and worthless. Gangs of teenagers drive around, waiting for instructions about their next hit, for which they are paid as little as £10. Calderón's term as president will finish next year. When he goes, however, he will leave little behind to combat the rising crime that afflicts Ciudad Juárez and the whole of Mexico.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

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