‘Europe is no blessed realm of sanity’

David Starkey on sovereignty, democracy and Henry VIII’s ‘First Brexit’.

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As Britain struggles to extricate itself from its 40-year relationship with the EU, celebrated historian and broadcaster David Starkey is touring the country, lecturing on a similar schism from some 500 years ago – Henry VIII’s equally fraught, but eventually successful, break with Rome. In fact, this ‘First Brexit’, Starkey argues, laid some of the foundations for the clashes over sovereignty that are animating the Brexit debate today. spiked caught up with Starkey to find out more about the two Brexits.

spiked: What can the ‘First Brexit’ tell us about the failure of the current Brexit negotiations?

David Starkey: We are in the most extraordinary mess. The behaviour of everyone from the prime minister to the speaker and half the cabinet has been appalling. The point of my talk, suggesting that Henry VIII is the First Brexiteer, is to nudge us to do better.

This is not to be in any way starry-eyed about Henry VIII. On the one hand, he was very destructive, but on the other hand, he brought about a national rebirth. And actually, for the first two years of Henry VIII getting his divorce, Henry behaves in a fashion that is astonishingly similar to how our leaders have behaved since the EU referendum. He uses a minister, Cardinal Woolsey, who, like Theresa May, doesn’t want the divorce to happen, and he plays Rome’s own game. And just like us, he comes horribly unstuck. In the summer of 1529, his arguments for divorce are turned down by the pope’s emissary, who does a very good impersonation of Monsieur Barnier.

The great difference is what Henry does next – which is what a sensible person might say we should do now – he pauses, he rethinks, he regroups, he reconsiders. He sets up a think tank and reconfigures the Royal Library to his own ends. And instead of playing the pope at his own game, instead of abiding by the texts of canon law and trying to argue for divorce on those narrow grounds, he rejects the validity of Rome entirely. He argues his case on the broadest principles of Biblical morality and he challenges the very notion of the pope having power. This fundamental shift then becomes the basis for England’s break with Rome.

The resemblances continue in the most spooky fashion. Henry has already worked out that he wants to split with Rome by 1530, so why on earth does it take him until 1533 to do it? The answer, believe it or not, is that he can’t get it through parliament. He then has to do what poor Theresa May has been trying to do for the past two years: he has to bully, cajole, persuade. Of course, Henry has much more powerful instruments than May!

I try to argue that what Henry is doing is intellectually the same as the break with the EU. On the one hand, what Henry is arguing for is quite narrow, just the divorce, but he is also essentially arguing on the grounds of sovereignty. He is clarifying the notion of the sovereign state. Ideas of parliamentary sovereignty that we’ve been talking about for months are really a product of Henry VIII’s reign. Parliamentary sovereignty is there not so Mr Bercow can strut around; it is there to provide the necessary underpinning to the sovereign state. In other words, the prattle of Remainers who talk of parliamentary sovereignty to keep us in the EU is a willful perversion of the concept.

spiked: Where do democracy and popular sovereignty come into this?

Starkey: There Henry is no help. Henry is the last person to believe in democracy. The sovereign is definitely him. But the point is a very similar one. The king acquires augmented powers when he sits in parliament. And this goes right back to the 13th century, in the aftermath of Magna Carta, with the idea that parliament should be representative.

Of course, that has always been the crux with parliament, to what extent does it actually represent everybody? And what we’ve seen since the referendum is this enormous gap between a public that voted clearly, if narrowly, for Leave and a House of Commons which is overwhelmingly Remain, and a House of Lords which is almost entirely Remain. There is now an enormous gap of representation between parliament and the people. But because we have no written constitution, the idea of popular sovereignty has no legal standing in England.

spiked: How did parliament come to be so unrepresentative?

Starkey: A whole series of things have been changing, particularly with the Blair government and its aftermath: the nature of the political parties, the relation between the parties and their members, and the gap between the attitudes of the elite and public opinion, for instance. Because of the conservatism of the political system, whether it is our first-past-the-post electoral system or the tribal loyalty of voters, all of these changes were hidden. But the referendum has acted like a dose of acid, revealing all the changes that the hoary encrustations of ivy had concealed. And suddenly, we see ourselves naked. We see things that looked like they were working for a long time, they have changed fundamentally.

I take the view that if there is to be any respect whatsoever for our system of representative democracy it has to follow through on delivering Brexit. Look at all the public statements before the referendum, the solemn pledges that the result of what we voted for would be implemented, David Cameron’s resignation in the wake of the result, then the election in 2017, when both parties pledged in their manifestos to respect the vote. It seems that to go back on all of that would make a mockery of democracy.

spiked: Can our current system withstand this tension?

Starkey: There will have to be desperately hard questions asked. The sense that I get, with my ear to the ground, is that certainly within the Conservative Party, there are movements afoot that are going to hold anti-Brexit MPs to account. Just as there has been the struggle in the Labour Party between the Corbyn faction and the Blairite centre, different factions of the Tory party will fight for control of the party machine. It is by no means clear who will win, and it is not even clear if the parties can withstand the strain. Perhaps there will be a major realignment. Nobody knows. I’m a historian – I can comment on the past, I can’t predict the future.

I think a lot of what has gone wrong is the collapse of a political class. The calibre of MPs, the calibre of the speaker, the calibre of the prime minister… we know that tremendously talented people exist, but they are in other careers. There has been this hollowing out from politics.

spiked: How do you see political developments in Europe?

Starkey: The EU and politicians like Macron carry on with this blind arrogance. Okay, our politics are a bit of a mess, but compared with the thought that, once every weekend, Brits could be burning down Bond Street… that’s effectively what has been going on in France. In Eastern Europe, the structures of liberal democracy are collapsing. Look at Italy, look at Greece. The typical Remainer idea that Europe is some blessed realm of sanity is preposterous.

It’s a phenomenon that runs throughout the Western world. I was born in 1945. Between then and now, we’ve had unbelievably benign circumstances for the most part. It was a Goldilocks period. You had the combination of mass industry and the mass market. Ordinary people, semi-skilled workers were able to earn good wages in places like the car industry. And now all of that has suddenly fallen to bits. We’re now in a world in which a handful of people, those who are brilliant at tech or performers like me, for instance, are doing well. But the ordinary plodder is in a hellish situation.

spiked: Are there any causes for optimism, in your view?

Starkey: It’s very interesting that in Brexit Britain we have just recorded our highest ever employment figures. There’s a cynic in me that thinks the fact that government hasn’t been able to do anything at all for the past two years is one of the reason’s we’re enjoying some growth. The more you tie these wretched people in knots, the less they can fiddle!

David Starkey was talking to Fraser Myers.

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