Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader of the Conservative party (from 2001–2003) and current MP for Chingford and Wood Green, recently published an opinion piece for The Telegraph entitled ‘The Reformation was the making of modern Britain. Brexit is a similar opportunity’. His article is but one part of a larger trend of comparing historical English (and British) events to its departure from the EU. Those in support of Brexit seem, however, to have a particular obsession with the Henrician Reformation of the 1530s and ’40s when it comes to historical comparisons. The problem they face is the incompatibility between the two events, 500 years apart, which they mask using cunning omission and ludicrous vagueness which seeks to reduce the Reformation down to ‘the Papacy was powerful like the EU and we got rid of its power like we should with the EU’. In the course of this argument, the true causes, ongoings, and effects of the Reformation in England are conveniently ignored.
Duncan Smith has rightly been subjected to much ridicule as a result of his silly argument. Many have focused on the violence which surrounded the Reformation under the Tudors as although Mary I is known as ‘Bloody’, it was under Henry VIII that the legislative bedrock was established to justify execution on the grounds of heresy. Whilst it is true that trying to ignore the violence of the Reformation, which made up such a large part of it, is foolish, Duncan Smith and other Brexiteers see the analogy as a bit more nuanced. The core of the argument is that England’s break from Rome under Henry VIII (and his children) is similar to the UK’s current plan to withdraw from the European Union, as both will grant more sovereignty to the country. In this very vague sense, the analogy isn’t actually incorrect. The Pope, Clement VII at the time, did have a significant amount of power as a result of England’s Catholic allegiance. The clergy paid the pope some of their annual revenue through annates and the Pope even had his hand in the law, as various crimes were dealt with in ecclesiastical courts. And, yes, the UK will undoubtedly gain more sovereignty from leaving the EU, which also has a hand in UK law. This is where the similarities end, however, and very quickly we see problems with the comparison.
Firstly, comparing the sovereignty of 16th-century England and the 21st-century United Kingdom doesn’t make much sense. The average person in Tudor England had no say in anything, let alone who should be Pope or what they should be allowed to do. In contrast, all free adult citizens of the United Kingdom can vote in the EU elections every five years and are able to vote in the Prime Minister who appoints various other officials. Perhaps the greatest irony of the comparison is that the very nature of Brexit shows it to be entirely different from the Reformation. The Reformation was not voted on as the Catholic Church (and the English Crown) had no interest in the wishes of the general populous whatsoever, unlike the EU. After all, who was it that was supposed to benefit from the sovereignty gained from the Reformation? Not the general public, that’s for sure. The Reformation was almost entirely a bid for power by Henry VIII who saw the Catholic church as a barrier to the dictatorial control he most desired. With this in mind, a comparison can only be drawn if you’re of the opinion that Brexit is also an attempt by the powerful to gain more control with no consideration for the freedom or benefit of the British people. Perhaps the analogy isn’t so bad after all…
In fact, the Reformation had relatively little effect on the religious practises of the average person early on. Following the Act of Six Articles in 1539, Catholicism was re-established as the foundation of English religious custom and the French ambassador wrote that the Reformation seemed only to manifest itself in more money and power for the King — through the dissolution of the monasteries in particular — with very little effect on the day-to-day lives of the average Joe. Henry was also himself a Catholic at heart — as is Iain Duncan Smith, interestingly enough — and so he was going against his own values in a quest for power and riches. The Reformation was clearly a messy and turbulent process of political and legal change which didn’t seek to help the people of England but rather aims to concede power to the Crown. If you think that a comparison can be made between that and Brexit then you’re probably not in favour of leaving the EU.
However, even if Brexit and the Reformation seem to have some similarities — which don’t look on either favourably — it’s important to recognise that they’re still very different. As historian Simon Schama of Columbia University pointed out on Twitter, the Reformation was both a pan-European phenomenon and had devastating consequences which lasted two centuries (and arguably continue into the present day). Even though Duncan Smith is technically right that both Brexit and the Reformation saw the UK (or England in the case of the former) lashing out against a force which had some dominance over it, to reduce the Reformation down to that level is disingenuous. Duncan Smith claims in his piece that ‘freed from the shackles of what had become a corrupt organisation, the concept of our island nation emerged, supreme and self-governing.’ This is complete codswallop. The EU may have its issues, that much is undeniable, but to call it corrupt and compare it to the Catholic Church at the time, which was rife with money-making schemes at the cost of moral standards, is simply unfounded. Moreover, the concept of England as an island nation didn’t arise as the result of the Reformation. Duncan Smith also goes on to assert that ‘[England] was given free rein with astonishing results as the UK grew to influence the rest of the world. On everything from free trade to parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, Britain was truly a nation that led the globe.’ He refers to England as the UK which didn’t exist until at least 1701 and he doesn’t back up his claims because he can’t. The UK’s growth was in no way impeded by the Pope but rather by foreign alliances and domestic policy. One of England’s greatest explorers (although of Italian nationality) was John Cabot, who Henry VII commissioned to explore areas of Nova Scotia well before Martin Luther constructed his 95 Theses. The idea of a ‘British Empire’ began under Elizabeth I — coined by Jon Dee — and although the Reformation saw unprecedented use of parliament to pass legislation, the Crown still retained ultimate authority until the English Civil War a hundred years later.
All in all, Iain Duncan Smith’s argument is unsound. It demonstrates a lack of historical knowledge — and a lack of care for it — which is reinforced by the fact that he actually makes little reference of the Reformation in his article as there is so little to say about the two by way of comparison. Ultimately, any act of English (or British) political upheaval can be used to support Brexit. The English Civil War, Norman Invasion, Wars of the Roses, and other historical events all shaped the country but that doesn’t mean they can be used to justify Brexit. And if you’re going to use the Reformation — a bloody, tumultuous process which cared not for the well-being of the English people — as a mirror for the UK’s exit from the European Union, you’re probably not a Brexiteer.