As Britain prepares for the Brexit vote, a major referendum on U.K. membership in the European Union, historical comparisons have framed the debate.
References to the Second World War loom large in the Brexit debate. Prime Minister David Cameron and other pro-E.U. membership advocates have frequently cited Winston Churchill and British engagement in World War II as offering a sterling example of Britain’s embrace of the idea of Europe. Meanwhile, some in the anti-E.U. campaign have likened Cameron to Neville Chamberlain, who infamously agreed to the Munich Pact with Adolf Hitler.
Yet, another powerful historical period is also framing the debate: the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. “If you ever wondered about the origins of English Euroscepticism, look no further than the Protestant Reformation,” wrote Adrian Pabst in 2009.
The sweeping changes of the English Reformation and the European Wars of Religion seem to provide numerous metaphors of a Britain both disconnected and connected with “continental” Europe. Henry VIII’s dramatic break with the Latin Christian Church and Act of Supremacy forged a Church of England with the king as its head. The ensuing Wars of Religion included a period of re-Catholicization under Queen Mary, known by her Protestant enemies as “Bloody Mary” and a series of English military interventions in France and the Netherlands to support fellow Protestants. The Spanish Armada of 1588 aimed at a military occupation and conversion of England, but Elizabethan resistance arguably helped forge an early form of English nationalism.
Some politicians and intellectuals involved in the Brexit debate now draw directly on this Reformation history. A number of historians have directly entered this public debate. “David Starkey, a Cambridge historian critical of the European Union, has drawn a direct parallel with the modern battle for the nation’s soul,” according to The New York Times.
Starkey argues that “England’s semidetached relationship with continental Europe is neither new nor an aberration … Instead, it is deeply rooted in the political development of the past 500 years.”
The Reformation era debate over papal versus royal authority over religious institutions “was couched in strikingly ‘modern’ terms,” suggests Starkey, who claims that defenders of papal supremacy acted much “like a contemporary europhile.”
The New York Times underlines that “then, as now, the notion of sovereignty was central to the discussion, and the implications were enormous. By breaking with Rome, some historians argue, the English came to see themselves a nation apart — a self-image magnified by the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 and by centuries of colonial expansion.”