Listen to this article
Sovereignty at stake? Hatred of a costly, self-appointed continental bureaucracy? Scaremongering about the effect of a break with the European status quo?
No, these are not headlines from the run-up to the UK’s EU referendum. These were the hot issues of the early 16th century, when Henry VIII led the last campaign to leave Europe. Brexit 1534: for Rome then, read Brussels now.
The striking similarities do not end there. Both campaigns began with protracted negotiations that delivered little — in the 1530s, fruitless attempts to seek papal approval for the annulment of the king’s marriage; and today frustrated entreaties to our EU partners to limit the free movement of labour.
In the 16th century, scaremongering was evident on both sides. The Remain campaign threatened excommunication for the whole country, thus the removal of contact with God and everyone’s eternal damnation in hell. The Leavers threatened their opponents with beheadings.
Like today, others in northern Europe had concerns about rule from abroad — but none had threatened an exit by a whole state, led by the monarch.
Finally, both campaigns feature leaders with significant personal agendas. In Henry VIII’s case, it was his need for a legitimate son to inherit power. For Boris Johnson, the leading Out campaigner and former London mayor, it is a bold bid to be champion of the governing Conservative party’s grass roots, and thus presumably to gain the keys to 10 Downing Street after a post-referendum leadership battle.
While the similarities between the two periods are tantalising, there are also stark differences that will have consequences for this week’s decision.
The campaign of 1534 and the subsequent break from Rome shaped so much of what we think of as England that I suspect that this subconsciously adds impetus to today’s Outers. “We can go it alone, as we have done successfully before” would seem part of the promise in 2016. Back then, after a period of near bankruptcy, constant war and disruption, the breach was a trigger for economic growth, for the emergence of a thriving middle class and for the rapid expansion of London. By 1600, with a population of about 250,000, it was one of the largest cities in the world.
This long-term success was driven by the confiscation of Church and monastery assets by the king himself. Henry VIII was committed, as a matter of doctrine, to fiscal stimulus through levels of profligacy not even a Labour government would dare espouse.
But Leavers should note, first, that no such mighty Keynesian-style injection is available now. Any net saving on our EU contribution would be small relatively to the religious assets on which Thomas Cromwell laid his hands.
Second, the handling of immigration would be very different. Following Henry VIII’s breach, there was an influx of refugee Protestants and then Huguenots, bringing their labour and skills. But there was also dramatic suffering among the lower orders. Never mind the destruction of much of our ecclesiastical architectural heritage — the confiscation of Church assets took from the poor their primary source of income support and welfare. Those that did not starve were forced to move to the cities in search of work. The population of London, about 60,000 in the 1520s, had increased more than fourfold by the end of the century. The suffering was considerable.
And it was only as the City of London’s livery companies, buoyed by this economic surge, took up the mantle of educational support and charitable giving that some semblance of humanity returned. By 1600, for example, almost 60 per cent of all the charitable support given by the City as a whole derived from a small group of merchants, led by the pre-eminent company of the day: the Grocers’ Company.
Today’s Brexiters are unlikely to welcome the kind of social inequality that drove the economic restructuring necessary for success in the 1530s. So, while today’s Leavers may be driven by echoes of 1534 — and by the adrenalin rush of achieving emancipation from Brussels, in the role of a latter-day Rome — the same level of economic stimulus is probably not available today. And the attendant social disruption is no longer politically palatable. Finally, it is hard to imagine today’s refugees being welcomed to our shores as they were then.
There is, however, one last similarity. Henry VIII did not control Scotland, a nation allied historically with France. If Mr Johnson’s campaign does win, one has to anticipate that he will then lose control of Scotland, taking us back to where we started in 1534.
The writer is a commentator and impresario. He is writing in a personal capacity
This article has been amended to reflect the fact that London was one of the largest cities in the world
Get alerts on Europe when a new story is published