January 15, 2020


The English Reformation: England's First Brexit (BRAD LITTLEJOHN, 1/15/20, American Conservative)

Last month, the political and cultural earthquake of 2016's Brexit vote produced another powerful aftershock. Once again, pundits and prognosticators were shocked by the British people's determination to assert their sovereignty by electing Boris Johnson as prime minister. They shouldn't have been. Nor should the broader nationalist awakening that has since swept the Western world occasion the astonishment and angst that it has. This is nothing new.

Searching for analogues to explain this sudden preoccupation with national sovereignty, our intelligentsia have reached about as far back in history as our culture still seems able to remember, to the clash of Great Powers in the First World War and the clash of civilizations in the Second. But to understand the motivations driving the tectonic realignment of our politics today, and the long-awaited Brexit that now seems set to rapidly become reality, we must look a bit further back--to the original Brexit that helped birth what Yoram Hazony has called "the Protestant construction of the West" and the order of sovereign nation-states that anchored it.

In the spring of 1533, the Parliament of England, meeting in an extraordinary fifth consecutive annual session, passed a landmark piece of legislation that profoundly altered the course of the island-kingdom's history: the Act in Restraint of Appeals. Striking a decisive blow against the Pope's supremacy over a host of legal and fiscal matters across the European continent, the Act forbade any further judicial appeals beyond England to Rome, and asserted the supremacy of the Crown and Parliament in English law. 

But what prompted this bold declaration of independence? The standard history books have a ready answer: so that King Henry VIII could divorce the aging Queen Catherine of Aragon and marry the fetching young Anne Boleyn! This explanation may tickle our fancy for scandal, but it hardly suffices as an explanation of the most significant constitutional reform in English history, one which required the consent of Parliament and ultimately the support of a whole people. How did a divorce case lead a devout Catholic monarch and nation to renounce their allegiance to the supra-national authority of the Papacy and to chart their own national course, establishing the legal framework for church, Crown, and Parliament that would anchor the development of British and American institutions for the next five centuries? 

Whether we explain this original Brexit from the perspective of its capricious but charismatic monarch, his exasperated subjects, or his shrewd advisors, we find ourselves presented with the central elements of nationalism--national security, economic nationalism, and legal sovereignty--which together shed light on our own contemporary Brexit and the broader nationalist awakening it represents.

Posted by at January 15, 2020 7:10 PM