Authors Richard Simmons and Nigel Culkin explore Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s (1533 – 1540) “Legal Brexit” and the lessons we can learn for today’s Anglo-European quandary. 

After Tuesday’s epic House of Commons defeat will this be the end of Mrs May’s Houdini Act or the start of another attempt to follow Uri Geller in bending reality to her will? How much does this Parliamentary Reality Show have in common with the public’s Brexit aspirations and daily challenges? We turn to a previous Brexit to see just what happens when Parliament and Governing Party politics move out of line with national aspiration as a whole.

Open a newspaper today and it is full of a parliamentary reality show of plots and counter struggles to establish some unique vision of Brexit or “non-Brexit”. Is this on-going tussle reminiscent of the lead up to the English Civil War; with an apparent “divine right” of Mrs May wrestling with “divine right” of Mr Speaker, the European Research Group, Mr Corbyn, “Remainers”, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all?

How can we reconcile this pantomime with the 2016 Referendum aspirations for a post Brexit Global Britain? Instead of healing, divides are deepening, language is more bitter and there is a sinister hint of violence. Is this a modern “London Mob” expressing frustration at an elite, conspiring to rearrange the deck chairs rather than delivering the bright Brexit future the 2016 Referendum promised?

Could an over focus on law making (and managing party interests) be occurring at the expense of vision and solutions that engage and inspire real people outside the “Westminster Bubble” to embrace their aspirations and knowledge in a way that overcomes differences to bring national healing? Elizabeth I faced similar difficulties with her Brexit (1558 -1603), but instead of hiding in legislation and Royal Court politics she avoided dogma, embraced pragmatism and enabled the entrepreneurs of her time to drive the change. Privateers, buccaneers, wool merchants, adventurers; all had a Ruler who gave them the space they needed to change things on the ground with law and diplomacy partnering their efforts.

What a contrast to today’s Brexit that seems to follow in the footsteps of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s (1533 – 1540) “Legal Brexit”. This was a success legally and embraced the political elite, whilst opening the country to discord and insurrection, demolishing existing welfare systems and opening the way to decades of political and economic dislocation. The divides continued to grow right up to the English Civil War.

Here are a few simple lessons for all todays actors from the 1530’s Brexit.

1. A clear objective is needed to deliver a result. Cromwell had to enable Henry VIII’s change of wife, and achieving this meant breaking the power of Rome; consequently, his legislation drove a “clean break,” which ensured no requirement for Rome after the split had happened.

2. “Clean breaks” ignore negotiations and accept any resultant “turbulence”. Thomas Cromwell’s legislation created a rupture as it followed the failed negotiations for Henry VIII’s divorce. Is this not a 16th Century equivalent to today’s “Article 50” negotiations? Cromwell ignored Roman authority and unlike today did not look for a close continuing relationship.

3. Big change brings collateral damage, both political and economic. 1536 England was no longer the 1518 Great Power that had brokered the “Universal Peace”. Equally, once the wealth seized from the monasteries (which had the knock on effect of dismantling the medieval welfare system) had been spent; the government deficit re-emerged as post Brexit wars were fought and economic chaos, including the Great Debasement, followed.

4. Draconian treason laws, state proclamations against rumour and multiple executions failed to stop informal “social networks” (the 16th Century gossip chain) spreading unhelpful rumour and “fake news”. In generality (with the exception being Ketts’ popularist Rebellion of 1549) rumour only turned into sedition and revolt if supported by the local Gentry, many of whom were remote from court.

5. Unsettled by change, alienated by remoteness from the London Court and facing the consequence of a dismantled welfare system, areas of the north of England rose up in the 1536 “Pilgrimage of Grace”. This revolt required a 1541 personal visit by the ageing and unwell Henry to York to finally quell it. Crucially the revolt was led by the local Gentry, alienated by the London Court failing to understand local needs.

6. 1530’s Brexit morphed previous English anti-clericalism into the Reformation and opened up deep religious divides that later underpinned the Civil War and arguably persist in Northern Ireland until today.

7. For Mrs May, the destiny of Henry VIII’s Brexit architect is hardly reassuring. Thomas Cromwell fell spectacularly and was executed in June 1540 as the unanticipated consequences of his successful Legal Brexit finally caught up with him. Forensic attention to legal detail combined with careful manipulation of Court (today’s Governing Party?) politics were not enough to save his neck.

How will ordinary citizens view today’s Brexit? Perhaps, all Parliamentarians need to ask themselves if today’s Brexit manoeuvres are likely to become the “Duck Houses” that so alienated the public in the MP’s expenses scandal.

The 1530’s teach us that Brexit only sticks when it engages with ordinary people and delivers real tangible improvements. Doesn’t Elizabeth I’s Brexit show how entrepreneurial success drives economic improvement and that such success grows national pride?

Which is better? Elizabeth I’s Brexit or today’s parliamentary theatre?

Richard Simmons and Nigel Culkin, authors of the newly published Tales of Brexits Past and Present: Understanding the Choices, Threats and Opportunities in Our Separation from the EU (Emerald Books, Dec-2018, PB, £12.99)

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