A break with Europe, an economic crisis, and a government on the brink of collapse. It's just like the late 16th centuryby Matthew Dimmock / August 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
Facing a clamour of demands for a vision of post-Brexit Britain and its place in the world, the beleaguered prime minister might find instruction in her favoured period of England’s past. When asked by the Observer 13 years ago which historical figure she most identified with, Theresa May chose the indomitable Tudor queen Elizabeth I, a woman “who knew her own mind and achieved in a male environment.” More recently, the press have been quick to invoke Shakespearean ideas of a sceptered isle and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and more diffuse golden-age mythologies, all of which will rouse cynicism in suspicious minds. But the late Tudor age really does have deeper lessons to teach us about the dark arts of Brexit.
Elizabeth I did, after all, come to the throne facing her own Brexit moment. In reconstituting the Protestant Church of England, she reinstated the break with Rome and papal authority that her father Henry VIII had initiated earlier in the 16th century, but which her sister Mary had bloodily sought to reverse. This move rendered her heretical for the Catholic bulk of Europe. At a stroke, England was once again severed from the community of European Christendom.
New strategies were needed. In 21st-century Britain, the imperative is somehow to open up new markets, to boost exports; in 16th-century England, the same drive was given added urgency by a seething conflict with Spain, the dominant Catholic power and the standard-bearer for an aggressive Christian imperialism. By the 1580s a creeping embargo was initiated to cut off England’s continental trading partners, generate internal dissent and -governmental collapse. Elizabeth needed new allies, and fast.
The way all this played out seems remarkably prescient. It suggests five Elizabethan lessons for Brexit:
I: Division in government doesn’t end well
The cabinet and the wider Conservative Party are of course currently deeply divided over the nature of Britain’s future relationship with Europe, a split which was—until he flounced out of the Foreign Office—focused on the opposition between prime Brexiteer Boris Johnson, and the Chancellor Philip Hammond, a cautious remainer.
If it is any comfort to May, the late-16th century Privy Council was similarly split over England’s role in the world. The queen was often forced to arbitrate between two groups. The first advocated getting aggressively stuck into Europe,…