Gone to the dogs

Barking in east London was once such a Labour stronghold that the party barely needed to canvass. Now the BNP threatens to seize control. Daniel Trilling follows both far-right and anti-fascist activists on the campaign trail.

 

As gap-year activities go, canvassing for a far-right party is not on most teenagers' wish-list, but that's what George, 18, has volunteered to do. With his public-school quiff and Union Jack tie, and armed with a clipboard, he is spending Saturday afternoon working his way along a street of squat 1920s semis on the Becontree estate in Barking, Essex. He is joined by Phil, a 34-year-old mental health worker from Lincoln. They have both answered the British National Party's nationwide call for activists to help the party's leader, Nick Griffin, seize a Westminster seat on 6 May.

After winning two seats in the European Parliament last June (Griffin in the north-west and Andrew Brons in Yorkshire and Humber), the party is putting up a record number of parliamentary candidates - more than 200 at the last count. It may have little chance of winning outside Barking and Stoke Central (where Griffin's deputy, Simon Darby, is standing), but by campaigning it has been able to influence mainstream debate - not least on immigration. "The rhetoric of the Express and the Mail could come from one of our own newsletters," George tells me. "But then they have to say, 'Don't vote for those fascists!' It's ridiculous."

In a neat cul-de-sac, two men in their thirties are sitting on the front step of a house, drinking lager in the sun. "Is it true the BNP want to get rid of all the Gurkhas?" one of them asks, referring to the retired Nepalese soldiers who have been granted the right to settle in the UK. "No," George says. "In fact, our chairman Nick Griffin said he'd gladly replace 100,000 British-born Muslims with 100,000 loyal Gurkhas who fought for this country." The man looks impressed. "Yeah, I'd go for that."

Back on the main road, George and Phil are given a shout of support from a man across the street: "You're doing a good job, boys! Get rid of all those niggers." A black mother and her two daughters who are walking past at that moment quicken their pace. George and Phil exchange an awkward look. "He's probably had a bit too much to drink," George says.

Barking has become the heart of perhaps the most bitter battle of this year's election. Located on the eastern fringes of London, its high street is a mix of shops run by black, white and Asian people; you hear eastern European languages as you walk through the market crowds. Yet immigration has increased more recently here than elsewhere, and it has become a source of resentment among the white population.

The BNP has won support by exploiting local concerns. In 2006, it published two leaflets that claimed "various Labour councils are giving Africans grants of up to £50,000 to buy houses under a scheme known as 'Africans for Essex'". It wasn't true, but the BNP now has 12 seats on Barking and Dagenham Council and there are fears that the party may take control here in May's local elections. Anti-fascist groups and local Labour activists are making frantic efforts to ensure it doesn't win the 14 extra seats it needs to make that happen. The Hope not Hate campaign has temporarily moved its base of operations to a warehouse in Dagenham.

There was a time when Labour was so dominant in the area that it barely needed to canvass. When the Barking MP Margaret Hodge was first elected in 1994, she won with 72 per cent of the vote; in last year's European elections, Labour's share across Barking and Dagenham was 31 per cent. This mirrors a drop in Labour support nationally, but because neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems have ever had much presence here, the BNP has stepped in to fill the vacuum.

In an attempt to regain support, Hodge is hosting a question-and-answer session in a school hall with the former EastEnders actor Ross Kemp. But despite the star guest, there is little enthusiasm for Labour in the audience. Ann Steward, a member of a Becontree tenants' association, tells Hodge: "The only politician who attends our meetings is Richard Barnbrook [a BNP councillor] and that's why the BNP do so well. They come round and trim our hedges. Now the elections are looming we see Labour, but where have you been? We need your presence."

Steward, like many of her neighbours, has lived in Becontree her whole life. "I still have my mum's old rent book from the 1930s," she says. "For two weeks, she paid 8s and 6d." A vast estate built for skilled workers who were moved from the East End slums after the First World War, Becontree remains the largest such development in Europe. People here have never been wealthy, but they could once count on at least one certainty: a home provided by the council.

Since the Conservative government's Right to Buy scheme began in the 1980s, however, the number of homes provided by the council has been in decline - from 26,969 in 1990 to 19,303 today. Many former council houses have been sold on and the plentiful supply of properties has made Barking one of the cheapest places to rent or buy in London. As a result, it has become an attractive destination not just for immigrants, but for people across the capital pushed eastwards by rising house prices.

Yet it is also one of the most deprived places in the country, and the growing population puts an extra strain on public services. The problem is compounded by other London councils being allowed to place their own tenants and homeless people in private rented accommodation in the area. Even Tory-controlled Westminster - located on the other side of London and with some of Britain's most expensive streets - has placed 56 families here.

There are 11,695 families on Barking and Dagenham's housing list and local anger has been directed at the new faces they see down the street. As I follow Hodge canvassing, complaints about housing crop up again and again. We hear tales of families that have had to wait three, five or even more years to get a home. One man has spent eight years living in a one-bedroom flat with his wife and four children. Hodge and her team patiently explain that this is because of the Right to Buy, but few seem convinced. Many seem to have accepted the BNP's line that immigrants are the problem. A young mother says she's considering voting BNP because she likes the party's insistence that "local people get local housing". She adds hurriedly: "I'm not racist, though - half my family are black."

Hodge, who has been dashing between doorstep conversations with a bright "Hello, I'm your MP", turns to me and grimaces, as if to say: "You see what we're up against?" Hodge has made an effort to turn around Labour's fortunes in the borough. She has moved her office here from Westminster and last year oversaw moves to rejuvenate the local party and boost recruitment. Several councillors were deselected and the party has taken on a wave of younger, ethnically diverse members.

But is Hodge dealing with a problem partly of her own making? In 2006, shortly before that year's local elections, she told the Daily Telegraph that eight out of ten of her constituents were considering voting for the BNP. "They see black and ethnic-minority communities moving in and they are angry," she said. "They can't get a home for their children."

The BNP went on to win 12 seats on the council and the GMB trade union called for Hodge to resign. A year later, she said British families had "a legitimate sense of entitlement" to housing. The then education secretary, Alan Johnson, said her words were "grist to the mill" for the BNP. In February this year, Hodge argued that migrants should be made to wait up to 12 months before they could get access to the benefits system.

“The left don't like what I've been saying," she concedes. "But I think you can puncture racism by dealing with the feeling of unfairness that people have." But don't her statements - particularly given the dominance of anti-immigration newspapers - simply encourage racism? "Politicians always shy away from talking about immigration and the difficult issues that are associated with it. If we don't address those issues, we allow that territory to be captured by the extreme right."

This talk of "capturing territory" is a reminder of Hodge's intimate role in the New Labour project (in 1994, she co-nominated her Islington neighbour Tony Blair for the party leadership). Over the past 13 years, senior Labour figures from David Blunkett to Gordon Brown - with his speech on "British jobs for British workers" - have tried to sound tough on immigration in an attempt to head off criticism from the right. The 2010 Labour manifesto even carries a section titled "Crime and Immigration", as if the connection was obvious.

Yet none of this has stopped support for the party ebbing away in its former heartlands. Under pressure from figures on the left of the party, including the Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas, Labour has in recent months begun to address the lack of affordable housing. But is it too little too late? "Both main political parties should have invested far more in affordable social housing much sooner," Hodge admits. "But social housing is not universal, it is something that has to be rationed, and socialism has always been about the language of priorities."

Her team knocks at another door. The white-haired man in his fifties who answers says he'll vote "for whoever is going to stop all this
immigration. I drive a bus, and no one on it speaks English any more."

“Well, they all should speak English," Hodge replies.

In her 2006 interview, Hodge claimed that Barking had undergone "the most rapid transformation of a community we have ever witnessed", and she echoes that view during our conversation. But Ludi Simpson, a leading social statistician based at Manchester University, observes that between the 1991 census and the one in 2001, Barking and Dagenham's boundaries were redrawn to include 9,200 people, mainly from nearby Redbridge. So the "rapid" change is partly a statistical anomaly.

Simpson points to the most recent evidence, the 2008 School Census, which indicates that Barking and Dagenham still has a lower proportion of ethnic-minority pupils than most other London boroughs. "Hodge is wrong," Simpson tells me, "if she suggests that her constituents' local services, community spirit and jobs will be raised by restricting immigration or by diminishing immigrants' rights as citizens."

Josephine Channer, a 31-year-old small business owner, is one of the Londoners who have been attracted to Barking by its cheap property prices. She is also a Labour council candidate, but sees things differently to Hodge. "With a lot of the white community, I think support for the BNP is just plain racism," she says.

In the five years she has lived in Barking, Channer has seen her estate change from being largely white to a more typical urban mix. "Barking and Dagenham is experiencing what the rest of London experienced 50 years ago. I'm of West Indian origin and my mum had all this rubbish when she first moved to Britain. People say they're worried about housing and jobs, but they don't like to see a black face around here." She claims to have encountered prejudice within the Labour Party. "One councillor who was deselected said that they would run as an independent if they were going to be replaced by a black candidate."

Such attitudes would not have helped build support for Labour among Barking's black and Asian communities. In particular, Hodge has had difficulty winning over the area's African residents, even though they have been victimised by the BNP. Pastors in Barking's Pentecostal churches have been urging their congregations to vote for the fundamentalist Christian Party, whose leader, George Hargreaves, is also standing for parliament.

Hodge acknowledges this may split the anti-BNP vote, but plays down the threat. "I'm getting a mixed response. But I think the Christian Party is not about what I've done locally, it's about my attitude to abortion and stem-cell research." Channer takes a bleaker view: "We've pissed off the white community, the black community, the Asian community, and now we've got to try and mend it in four weeks."

In the garden of a Barking pub called the Cherry Tree, Nick Griffin is launching his party's campaign. Standing by the party's advertising bus - they call it the "Truth Truck" - he is giving interviews to television crews and wilting a little in the warm spring sunshine. He has been busy of late: aside from his duties as MEP for England's north-west (for which he receives a salary of £82,000), he has been trying to keep the lid on a crisis in his own party.

On 5 April, an urgent meeting was called to discuss an attempt at a "palace coup" by the party's publicity director Mark Collett. Police also took statements relating to an alleged threat to kill Griffin. The dispute is reported to have centred on money. An investigation by the anti-fascist Searchlight magazine this year found that many party members are unhappy about the extent to which the party's fundraising consultant Jim Dowson, a hardline Protestant Northern Irish businessman and anti-abortionist, now "practically owns" the party.

When we speak, however, Griffin tells me morale is "excellent", and he is bullish about his party's chances. "We're going to give Margaret Hodge the fight of her life. We want to win this seat, and we want to take control of the council." He seems to have borrowed some of Hodge's language, saying that the BNP offers "fair play for local people" and that "the key issue is housing". He tells me that a BNP council in Barking would build 5,000 new homes for "sons and daughters of local people". Presumably, for a party whose constitution commits it to restoring "the overwhelmingly white make-up of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948", this would mean housing for white locals. "Not at all," Griffin says. "We've had West Indians who have been here 25, 30 years, why should they be at the back of the housing queue?"

In fact, what BNP councillors in Barking and Dagenham have already proposed is to place people in urgent need of housing on a brownfield site "equipped with previously used caravans". ("That's a temporary measure," Griffin says, irritably.) Party election material promises to cut "politically correct projects" and translation services, while the party's 2009 county council manifesto declared that mixing white and non-white children was "destroying perfectly good local secondary schools".

Yet Griffin is adamant that the party has left its racist past behind. "The British National Party has changed already over the last ten years. We're here in the modern world, we listen to what people say. And the simple fact is that people who've come here and assimilated into our society and our communities aren't a problem; it's the recent incomers and those who want to change our country in some way foreign, that's the trouble."

Alby Walker, a former BNP councillor in Stoke-on-Trent, tells a different story. He describes to me the racist atmosphere that existed behind closed doors. "When you went to a social occasion, you'd get a feeling of what they truly believed. You'd have to be very careful how you talked about football, for example - you couldn't praise black players. I support Stoke City and they've got a good Jamaican forward, Ricardo Fuller. You couldn't say ,'Did you see that great goal Fuller scored at the weekend?'"

Walker is dismissive of Griffin's claim to have modernised the party. "He says that publicly, but when we stood for the Euro elections last year, we were given media training on how to avoid questions about the Holocaust.

“I realised then that it [Holocaust denial] went up a little bit higher in the party than I'd previously seen." Griffin says Walker's claims are "lies". But I press him on the issue of media training. Does it include the Holocaust?

“That subject does come up, yes."

I am hurried away by one of Griffin's bodyguards. In the pub garden, as the leader's wife collects empties and jokes with supporters, it is tempting to dismiss the BNP's campaign as a mere sideshow to the election. But now that British politicians across the board are talking about immigration as a threat, lasting damage has been done.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice

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