Historian David Starkey’s comments are often a cause célèbre in their own right and this was no more true of the remarks he made on this morning’s Today programme. By insulting both presenter and guests, the gist of what Starkey said today was overlooked. This is a shame, because in his comparison of Brexit and the English Reformation, he was absolutely spot on.
On 3 November 1534, The Act of Supremacy was passed by parliament, formally separating the Church in England from the Catholic Church in Rome and therefore replacing the Pope with the King of England as its supreme head. Under King Henry VIII, England had taken back control from Rome and established sovereignty over its Canon Law. The process that formally brought about the English Reformation then, has a very familiar ring to it.
And the similarities continue. Just as the English Reformation didn’t start with the Act of Supremacy (its seeds were sown many years prior), British euroscepticism didn’t start with last years referendum. Whether it be the ‘splendid isolation’ of the late 19th century or Winston Churchill’s post-war ‘United States of Europe’ without Britain ‘at its heart’, euroscepticism has underpinned our political culture for many years, regardless of the particular stance of successive governments.
Tomorrow, the government will publish a white paper on the Great Repeal Bill; legislation that will provide for the transfer of EU law into British Law. Provisions known as the ‘Henry VIII clauses’ will allow government ministers to amend or repeal any of those laws, without the approval of parliament. Here is where the Tudor comparisons start to take a more sinister turn. These clauses, which allowed Henry VIII to simply legislate by proclamation, are symptoms of a ruler becoming increasingly despotic as his reign progressed. 500 years on, the democratic merits of using such measures to amend legislation without scrutiny, debate or accountabiliy, is highly questionable. On this Theresa May has form, having tried albeit unsuccessfully, to trigger Article 50 without the approval of parliament. There’s a bitter irony seeing the sovereignty we voted to take back control of, being abused so quickly and readily by the government of the day.
Brexit may be our modern day Reformation but this is where the similarities need to end. What followed the Reformation were centuries of Anti-Catholic sentiment and a prolonged period of general political instability (until the Act of Union in 1707 at least). In short, a divided and unstable nation. Today, Britain already feels divided along the lines of leave versus remain, and nationalism versus unionism; divisions which only serve to destabilise us. The challenge now is to steer our country away from the mock Tudor course we find ourselves on.