We have been here before…

The uneasy ghost of Brexit has been back in the news recently with hopes being raised that a solution can be found to the impasse in Northern Ireland. This problem – the details of which neither I nor probably anyone else fully understands – was triggered by the shock discovery after the referendum that a land border existed between the UK and the EU. Since then, various compromises seem to have been proposed, some of a complexity that would not be out of place in a Jesuit seminary.

Let us reflect for a moment on a dramatic severance of our country’s long-standing relationship with a pan-national European power in pursuit of a clear objective. A couple of years of preparation and cunning PR were followed by an unprecedented series of acts of parliament which at once stopped both judicial appeals and payments of money being made to this higher authority. In the longer term, it enabled us to forge our own path in matters which had previously been decided elsewhere.

I’m not talking about Brexit: God, no. The above is a description of the vastly more successful Reformation Parliament (1529-36) which engineered the break with Rome and facilitated, after a decade of alternating extremism, the Elizabethan settlement of 1559. The comparisons between the mid-Tudor period and the Brexit fall-out are many and various. Several people have penned their thoughts about them. Here are mine.

The break with Rome was principally caused by Henry VIII needing to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, partly for reasons of lust but mainly because his current wife seemed incapable of bearing a son to success him. A royal divorce could normally be obtained from an amenable Pope but Clement VII was under the thumb of the Spanish King Charles V, who happened to be Catherine’s aunt. Other advantages of getting rid of Rome’s interference in English affairs occurred to Henry as matters developed: but this clear goal was the starting point.

Brexit had no such obvious vision. The idea of “regaining sovereignty” and other glib phrases never really meant anything. However, due to the profoundly inept remain campaign presided over by the hapless David Cameron, these were allowed to gain traction. Anti-Brussels propaganda was stoked for all it was worth, creating the impression of a rapacious organisation hell-bent on imperial ambitions rather than a rather dull one trying to create harmony and integration amongst a number of often bolshy countries that, frequently with disastrous results, lived in close proximity to each other.

Anti-clericalism, the broad equivalent of this anti-EU sentiment, was a very live idea in the 1520s and one that Henry’s government was keen to encourage in the early stages of the Reformation Parliament. By an irony, this was partly due to the excesses of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief minister for the first part of his reign, who had gathered unto himself enough bishoprics and other honours as to make a host of enemies. Henry supported him, providing he could find a solution to the King’s marriage problem. This Wolsey was unable to do: so in 1529 he was done away with and a replacement installed in his place.

It was Henry’s good fortune that his successor, Thomas Cromwell, was perhaps the most effective and efficient minister the country has ever had. He masterminded the two phases of the Parliament, the first designed to cow the clergy and elicit support from the members and the second to remove the authority of the Papacy from English affairs. He drafted and re-drafted the legislation, managed the sessions, ensured the right results at by elections and generally ensured that the whole performance played out as planned.

The idea of “managing” parliament was a a novel one. The body had previously been used mainly to grant war taxes and recognise new monarchs not in the line of succession: this was not rare, as five of the seven kings before Henry VIII, including his father, had either gained or re-gained the throne by force. The legislative frenzy of the 1530s was, however, without precedent. Cromwell realised, even if Henry did not, that the process needed to be carefully supervised. With the Commons, the Lords and the Convocation of the Church all involved, there was little need to worry about wider public opinion, a situation many modern ministers would envy. A side-effect of this – which Henry’s successors would find progressively less welcome – was to raise the self-confidence of parliament so that within a century and a half it would become more powerful than the monarch.

Brexit, however, posed a problem for Parliament. The referendum had by-passed it and placed it in the unusual position of having to legislate to confirm something that had been decided elsewhere: in some ways the antithesis of the idea of parliamentary supremacy the whole divisive exercise was trying to create. Fewer than a quarter of MPs expressed Leave sentiments during the campaign and many, often in highly unlikely alliances, tried every trick they could to frustrate, dilute or delay the inevitable. This time, there was no Thomas Cromwell on hand to manage matters. Cameron jumped ship almost immediately after the referendum and May, whose premiership of less than three years saw no fewer than 33 ministerial resignations, was unable to get the job finished. It was left to the arch-opportunist Boris Johnson finally to get Brexit done, or as much of it could be. The Northern Ireland situation, for instance, remains un-done and the logical impossibilities this exposes means that it’s likely in some sense to remain so.

As to what the real effect of Brexit will be, future generations will need to judge. Its aims were disparate and nebulous. There was no overwhelming grievance or tyranny that could be pointed to, though the iniquity of EU law was presented as one. Since 1990, over 50,000 pieces of EU legislation found their way into the UK statute books, most very uncontroversial. The outcome that some Leave voters might have hoped for was a bonfire of oppressive EU rules that would somehow set us all free. In fact, most EU-inspired UK law has been corralled into a new category called “retained UK law” which will survive until the end of 2023. Thereafter, all such legislation will, if not otherwise preserved, be “sunsetted,”  a word I had never heard before.

“Any retained EU law that remains in force after the sunset date,” this document on Gov.uk declaims, “will be assimilated in the domestic statute book, by the removal of the special EU law features previously attached to it. This means that the principle of the supremacy of EU law, general principles of EU law, and directly effective EU rights will also end on 31 December 2023. There is,” the statement concludes, “no place for EU law concepts in our statute book.”

The distinction between a “law” and a “law concept” is too slippery for many to grasp, particularly as it many cases refers to the same legislation but now shorn of its original context. Any die-hard Brexiteer might feel that this was just the ultimate victory of the establishment, changing the label but leaving the contents unchanged. Is this a victory? Indeed it’s hard to point to a single tangible advantage which Brexit has conferred, and certainly no overwhelming one. Then again, none in particular were promised.

All this is in stark contrast to the far more effective revolution of the 1530s. This had very precise aims, all of which were accomplished with a rare single-mindedness. The legacy – including the monarch being the head of the CofE, the removal of Rome’s influence and the power of parliament – remain to this day. Will Brexit have such a legacy?

Contrary to what many believe, and despite its name, the Reformation Parliament did not introduce the Reformation (ie Protestantism) into England, although it did make it easier for this to happen. All the main players were at pains to avoid or refute any accusation of heresy. Henry VIII never became a Protestant (though the fact that his son, the future Edward VI, was educated as one showed that he saw this as likely way forward). By not messing with established and Roman-controlled religious observances – which had been in place for about a thousand years, about twenty times longer than the UK was a member of the UK – Cromwell managed to avoid any popular discontent, apart from the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536.

What he accomplished, mainly between 1532 and 1534, was remarkable. We still live in its shadow. Brexit has so far failed to accomplish anything remarkable. It’s unlikely that it ever will, mainly because no one can agree what exactly it was trying to accomplish. No one could be in any doubt about the ambitions of Henry VIII and Cromwell.

Brexit will produce, as many have warned, a long period of uncertainty (which was also not specified on the label). In the exceptionally turbulent mid-16th century, this happened too. Edward VI’s brief reign saw the interaction of extreme Protestantism and his half-sister Mary I’s an equally dramatic return to Catholic orthodoxy. When the Protestant but pragmatic Elizabeth I succeeded in 1558, she realised that this situation could not continue. The 1559 Act of Uniformity – which still informs the basic tenets of the Church of England – was a masterpiece of political compromise.

The significant point was that all the twists and turns needed to be confirmed by parliament. What the Reformation Parliament had done, only subsequent parliaments could safely undo, or re-do. It had thus become not only an invaluable tool for the monarch but also a powerful entity in its own right. These 30 years are thus a hinge on which our history swings. England was, in so many ways, a very different place in 1559 from how it had been when the Reformation Parliament first sat in 1529.

The eventual supremely of parliamentary, rather than despotic, government was by no means assured. Charles I ruled without Parliament between 1629 and 1640 and the country may have followed the prevailing drift towards absolutism had he not picked a battle with the Scots over a new prayer book. However, Parliament had by that time passed too many laws and assumed too many dignities to be lightly set aside, as its equivalent in France, The Estates General, was for nearly two centuries. It won the Civil War in the 1640s but lost the peace in the 1650s and failed to assert itself as it might have after the Restoration in 1660. Then another crisis offered itself in 1688. This it took advantage of in what is known as the Glorious Revolution. By the time George I acceded in 1714, Parliament was firmly in charge and has remained so ever since: apart, that is, when it was told what to do by the people in 2016.

All this can be traced back to the 1530s and the genius of Thomas Cromwell, a self-made man of no social standing from Putney, who managed to solve a serious succession problem for his King. In so doing, Cromwell not only immediately created a very practical form of national independence from what might, in retrospect, be seen as the Taliban of its time but also gave effective life to an institution whose power would increasingly render such dynastic accidents irrelevant. This seems like a decent legacy to me.

Whether Brexit will confer any such wide-ranging, long-lasting and beneficial changes to our country is moot. A hundred years hence the matter may still be being debated. I sense, though, that by then it will be seen as an irrelevance; an act of nationalistic vanity that will have been overtaken by more important issues. Climate change, financial crises, Russian aggression, international terrorism, cyber-crime, China’s belt and road – none of these respect national frontiers. Our departure from the EU may yet energise the UK into being something better or stronger but I can’t see how.

Cromwell and Henry VIII had one problem to solve and several advantages, such as the wealth of the monasteries in England, to grasp; and grasp them they did. Their signatures are confidently written on the 1530s and the impressions clearly show through on many of the pages of the years that follow. Brexit seems rather to be a disputed autograph, with two people trying to write different things, followed by a series of smudges, fudges and crossings out. Meanwhile, oblivious of these petty and regressive arguments, the world’s storm clouds gather…

Brian Quinn

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