Brexit of Henry VIII ... and now

What the romantic English historiography is trying to tell us

Hans Holbein the Younger - Henry VIII
Hans Holbein the Younger - Henry VIII
7 SEP 2016

When leaders of Brexit decided to pull the UK out of the EU they may not have had in mind that they were closely replaying another, similar historical shift which pulled medieval England outside the then mainstream Europe. I am here referring to that one when Henry VIII decided to divorce and to pull the whole of England out of the realms of the Roman Catholic, Papal church then dominating most of Europe, and into the realm of the new, up-and-coming strand of Christianity commonly referred to Protestantism... well... at least that is what the romantic English historiography is trying to tell us.

What the historiographers are not usually raising our attention to is that the pursuit of the new, early, mercantilist and colonialisation [1] policies had already put England at odds with the newly-established colonial powers in Europe – Roman Catholic Spain and Portugal, but even less so, that Protestantism around Europe (including that of England) got in fact a lot of back-stage support from the contemporary money-lending families because it allowed charging interest on usury. Interest on these early forms of commercial loans is something that Roman Catholicism at least frowned upon if not outlawed (Webber, Jardine [2]). This acceptance of interest on loans by the Protestant movements has been, by the early account of Max Webber, one of the main factors in both the relatively faster and earlier development of modern capitalism in the Protestant countries such as Holland and England that became the leading investors and later, the leaders of the industrial revolution.

What followed the rise of Protestantism in many of those countries is a strict, iconoclastic Puritanism and its elements are still, to nowadays present in the everyday life of peoples of those countries, e.g. relative simplicity of decorations within their industrial or artistic designs, but less prominently so, behind the veils of the well-known simplicity of their and mostly English traditional cuisines too.

What that meant in those times (and, hence in modern times too), is that much less effort, resources or time was given to some of life pleasures such as the arts or the design of living environments even including the preparing of meals, leaving therefore more resources for economic re-investment for, the religion encouraged, charitable purposes. Thus, another aspect discussed already by Max Weber, was the discouragement of wealth accumulation encouraging its re-investment, for the mutual interest of the lender and employment in the community.

However, what puritanism achieved is also to test and define how low the substance levels can really be for a family following a puritan lifestyle. An additional aspect that has not been talked about much is that, after a relatively slow rise in inequality in medieval times (Bekar and Reed, 2011 [3]), another of the phenomena coinciding with the Protestant liberalisation of financial investment and the English state co-funded pursuit of the new, early, mercantilist and early colonialisation policies in the period between 1510 and 1650 was, according to Hoffman et al. (2006) , actually a rather sharp increase in income inequality and thus, even less egalitarian wealth distribution, despite the egalitarian appearances of its proto-socialist doctrine.

This sharp trend appears to halted around 1650, from the times of Cromwell which lead the so called republican revolution, a driving force for the new, anti-puritan English Restoration lifting the Protestant puritanism imposed restrictions on accumulating wealth.

English historiography is good at recording the names of key individuals and whose heads rolled down the drain during the political mess or ‘revolution’ facilitated by the help of the Dutch military invasion. But, what it meant, in real terms, is that the apparent coincidence of the anti-puritan and the parliamentarianist citizens movement was not entirely coincidental since it appears that the parliamentarist revolution was a drive to give both political power to the new, up-and-coming classes of investing entrepreneurs, and to back it up by the accumulated wealth of more liquid assets.

However, the history repeats and there are many more similarities between the Brexit of Henry VIII and the recent one. Already freed from wage and working hours EU regulations, driven by unleashed liberalism UK now can unleash even further Thatcherite policies of deregulations of its financial sector, industry and employment rules and cast its own trade agreements with other, non-EU countries (e.g. see FT article by Norman Lamont [4]).

There is however no reason other than EU stubborn resistance why Britain can not cast both its trade and co-funded science research cooperation agreements with EU without a need to make the free movement of the work-force a compulsory part of these agreements. Science research can be pursued and results and ideas exchanged by emails as they were by paper-mail in the times of 17th and 18th century Enlightenment while parts of commonly produced products and their final outcomes can be part of free trade exchange too.

However, it may argued that one of reasons leading countries object to restriction of movement is that they have been the biggest benefactors of migration of skilled work-force from less developed EU countries. Such migrants depleted their countries from skilled workforce whilst also depleting their education subsidising budgets too, for the benefit of the more developed economies which were the main migration targets for both EU and non-EU migrant.

Whilst English may stop being an official EU language, like Latin remained common language of the science and the intelligentsia till early 19th C, English is likely to remain the main language of the modern science for some time too. One may argue that it was the world-wide popularity of English language one which probably both, provided the highest benefit and put on of the highest immigration pressures of both skilled and less skilled immigrants on UK as a favourite emigration target country where one can use the already learned, or to learn and improve that language.

However, like in 1500s, when French Catholic Mary Queen of Scots intended to undermine power of English courts aiming to foster links with Catholic Europe, we nowadays again hear rather that loud voices of Scotland reconsidering its separatist moves to achieve its own European re-integration are finding a quiet but strong support among its traditional supporters in Europe.
[1] I.e, the colonialisation of already occupied and/or colonisation of the un-occupied territories.
[2] Max Webber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods
[3] Cliff T. Bekar and Clyde G. Reed, 2011: Land Markets and Inequality: Evidence from Medieval England
[4] Norman Lamont: Brexit gives us a chance to finish the Thatcher revolution, Financial Times, 6th September 2016: