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Brexit, the backstory: poets, princes and an island apart

To many who voted “Remain” in June, the Leavers’ insistence on British or English exceptionalism was chauvinistic and deluded. But reflecting on how our great writers and rulers over the centuries would have voted reveals that conflicted attitudes towards Europe are nothing new. Besides, don’t you want to know how George Orwell would have voted?

Henry VIII

Joanne Paul

In the run-up to the referendum, Henry VIII, founder of the Church of England, was touted as the quintessential Brexiteer. The “Historians for Britain” campaign plastered his puffy shoulders and teeny Trump-mouth across their website—all hail the man who threw off the shackles of an oppressive continental institution, and declared national independence! The parallels are, indeed, hard to ignore.

Although Henry considered his supremacy over the Church a fact, parliament was critical to legitimising it. After parliament passed the Royal Supremacy Act in 1534, opposing Henry’s “Brexit” from the Catholic Church was declared treason, which felled resisters including Thomas More. On conviction, More argued that such a small council as the English parliament, representing only one small realm, didn’t have the authority to oppose a much larger representative institution, that of the General Council of the [Roman Catholic] Church. In other words, if England wanted to leave, all the members of the Church (read: European Union) would need to approve it: it could not just be a matter of English whim.

Henry disagreed, but this was the Henry of the 1530s, clear in his desire to break with Rome (read: Brussels) and annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In the 1520s, he had written a book about his support for Catholicism, earning him the title Defender of the Faith. If he had been about in summer 2016, we might presume that he’d have been the sort of prominent Brexiteer who would be capable of writing a newspaper article in praise of the EU, shortly before performing an about-face and campaigning to leave.

Thus to be sure how Henry VIII would have voted in the referendum, we have to know which Henry and when—self-interest being the only constant principle. Henry joins others who follow the vacillations of their own whims, roundly condemning those who take up positions they themselves had held only moments before. When those people hold positions of power and influence our world begins to break apart.

Joanne Paul is the author of “Thomas More” (Polity) published this month

William Shakespeare

Andrew Dickson


“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle…” Going by these words in Richard II, it’s easy to believe that William Shakespeare would have been out there campaigning for Brexit on the doorsteps of Middle England. At least that seems to be the view of numerous Tory politicians—here’s looking at you, Gove and Johnson— for whom John of Gaunt’s stirringly patriotic speech is second only to the Frog-bashing bits of Henry V as bedtime comfort reading.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues that Donald Trump was born to be a campaigning demagogue, but will he be too bored to rule? Ed Miliband and Michael Gove debate whether parliament should have a binding vote on the terms of Brexit and Christian Wolmar examines the driverless car delusion. Also in this issue: James Harkin examines the situation in Syria, focussing on Raqqa Ruth Dudley Edwards explores the battle in Ireland since the UK’s decision to leave the EU—will the border become a division? And Michael White looks at the life of Alan Johnson, the Labour MP and former postie.