Serpent's Egg

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Did Henry VIII’s Tudor ‘Brexit’ lead to England’s trading glory, or a century of depression?

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Our Tudor Brexiteer, by Hans Holbein the Younger CREDIT: ALAMY

Nomura has a sober warning for Brexiteers. The last time England defied the European order in such a drastic fashion, the schism was followed by a century of economic stagnation and simmering conflicts that culminated in the Civil War.

The Japanese bank says the “obvious precedent” for Brexit is the English Reformation of 1534. “King Henry VIII passed the Acts of Supremacy making him ‘supreme head in earth of the Church of England’ and repealing any ‘usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority’.”

This act of petulance or patriotism – depending on your point of view – failed to usher in the golden age of Elizabethan prosperity that we have mostly come to believe. Or at least, that is Nomura’s reading of the reconstructed data on the real GDP per capita. There was no rise in living standards for the next hundred years. It was a depression.

The parallels with the Reformation are certainly striking. Church law was under the foreign jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church, enforced by a clerical apparatus that asserted supremacy and was widely resented. Church taxes were paid directly to Rome.

The fact that Henry was acting impetuously – in pursuit of Anne Boleyn –  is irrelevant. Such a break with Rome was possible only because the authority of the papacy was already draining away across Northern Europe, eroded by rationalism, and morally discredited by its sale of indulgences and the tourist trade of relics.

Martin Luther had already nailed his 95 theses to the chapel door of Wittenberg Castle in Germany. The Catholic Church had become unreformable, just as today’s EU is trapped by its post-War ideology,  by bureaucratic vested interests, by the rigidities of the Acquis Communautaire, and by constitutional inability to make monetary union work. Though in fairness to the EU, there is no parallel in today’s Brussels to the court of the Borgias.

Printing had taken off. The Pelagian humanist Erasmus had wickedly mocked  the papacy’s mechanical christianity in his best-seller, In Praise of Folly. He sold over a million copies of his works by 1530, translated and made available to an urban intelligentsia by presses in from Venice, to Geneva, and Utrecht.

The censors lost their monopoly over manuscripts. They struggled to control opinion, just as the European elites today struggle to counter eurosceptic revolts, even in countries where the media (often subisidized quietly by the state) cleaves to the pro-EU line.

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Erasmus of Rotterdam was the first best-selling author of the print age. In Praise of Folly exposed the corruption of the 16th Century Papacy

Whether Nomura is right about the grim economic fall-out from Henry VIII is an open question. You could equally make the opposite case. The dissolution of the monasteries and the dispersal of Church lands – a quarter of the total – freed up resources, just as emancipation from Rome freed England from the reactionary suffocation of Habsburg absolutism.

The Reformation specifically freed the English from papal bulls allocating the North Atlantic as a ‘mare clausum’ to the Spanish empire in perpetuity, along with the Caribbean and swathes of the new world, until that point closed entirely to English traders. This was to have seismic consequences. Habsburg determination to crush the protestant revolt and restore papal hegemony forced a war on England and Holland that was the making of our mercantile ascendancies.

In other words, the flowering of British trade with the Americas – and the strategic lockholds that came with it – could never have occurred without the traumatic break from Rome. The coastal cities of Northwest Europe would not have become the richest hubs on earth.

Whatever the GDP data purport to show – and we cannot even measure GDP accurately today – it was already clear by the mid-Elizabethan age that England was undergoing an economic and psychological revolution.

The fifteen years or so from the early 1570s to the Armada in 1588 was a time of astonishing vitality and can-do confidence, the moment when a backward, sleepy nation broke onto the world scene with ventures and exploration in all directions. The courage of these men is described vividly by A. L. Rowse in his ‘Expansion of Elizabethan England’.

“Nothing is more untrue than the Victorian saying that empire came into being in a fit of absence of mind: nothing much is apt to come into being that way. It was the result rather of a conscious, deliberate and tenacious campaign, in the face on constant disappointments, on the part of the elect spirits of the nation,” he wrote.

The oceanic voyages of Drake, Raleigh, Frobisher, and Hawkings  were backed by fraternity of geographers, mathematicians, navigators, – and guided by the strategic minds of the Hakluyts, father and son. Missions were sent to Muscovy, Persia, and the Moghuls. English ships appeared in Istanbul, Basra, the Moluccas, and the River Plate.

“The truth is that it gradually became a national venture. Public interest was aroused, as never before, by the Virginia enterprise: people felt, not obscurely, that the future of the nation was involved, as it was,” he said.

By the end of the century, England and Holland had fought the imperial armies of the Counter-Reformation to a to a standstill, bankrupted Spain, and broken Habsburg power. They had won the seas.

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Elizabethan England underwent an economic and psychological revolution CREDIT:GEOFF PUGH

The lesson is that it may take a very long time to assess Brexit. Historians pay little attention to the ephemeral details of who lied about what in the referendum campaign, and will probably conclude that if it had not happened on June 23 2016, it would have happened sooner or later anyway.

They will give more heed to the deeper forces at work, an whether Europe’s fateful decision to launch the euro at Maastricht implied British withdrawal.

Monetary union changed the character of the EU profoundly. It leaves the non-euro ‘outers’ in an untenable position, and its centralizing logic cannot be reconciled with the self-governing nation state. The fact that the euro has gone horribly wrong – as admitted this month by founding father Jacques Delors – may have sealed the matter.

Much the same is true for the Lisbon Treaty, which turned the European Court of Justice into a supreme court with greatly enlarged jurisdiction. Claims to legal supremacy are even less compatible with the nation state, and the ECJ’s forays into foreign policy, intelligence, and domestic tax law through the Charter are a particular provocation.

It impossible to judge how much well-informed opinion crossed into the Brexit camp as result of this legal clash, but if the rupture had not happened this year, historians are likely to judge that it could hardly be avoided at some point. It all comes down to who calls the shots, and where authority ultimately lies.

Whether Brexit is a success or failure will not be clear for decades, and perhaps centuries. When Chinese premier Zhou En-Lai was asked about the impact of the French Revolution on western civilisation he famously said it was “too early to tell”.

We have since learned that he misunderstood the question. The point still holds.

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This entry was posted on September 25, 2016 by and tagged , , .

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