Brexit

What we can learn about Brexit from the English civil war

Britain's history provides some stark parallels about what to expect post-Brexit

BY Graham Henderson   /  18 November 2016

The current constitutional crisis in the UK has many similarities with the crisis which triggered the English civil war or (more accurately) the British civil wars which affected all parts of the British Isles and Ireland in the 1640s and 1650s. Considering these similarities may help us to understand the causes and consequences of Brexit.

At first sight the comparison may seem far-fetched. The crisis of the 17th century was triggered by fundamental differences of opinion concerning religion and the use of Royal prerogative powers, and occurred in an era when people thought and behaved very differently. However, if you compare the areas of England that supported the King with those that voted for Brexit they are startlingly similar. In particular, the South West, Wales, the North and Lincolnshire all supported the King. So did Kent, although it was occupied by Parliament throughout the war. All of these areas voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. In contrast, Parliament’s power base lay in London and the South East, and in various other towns and cities forming part of the ‘new economy’.

Areas controlled by the King at the start of the civil war in 1642
Areas controlled by the King at the start of the civil war in 1642
Areas with a majority vote for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum
Areas with a majority vote for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum

As with Brexit, this earlier crisis pitched areas of prosperity and change against areas which felt left behind and which burned with resentment at years of dominance by the metropolitan elite. In his book Revel, Riot and Rebellion David Underdown showed the close correlation between areas where puritan elites had destroyed traditional social structures and customs (such as May poles), and areas that subsequently supported the King. A similar map now, showing areas of industrial decline and cultural marginalisation, would probably correlate just as closely with support for Brexit.  Seen in this light the Brexit vote is grounded not only in anger but in nostalgia for an England which is felt to have been lost. Future historians of Brexit might take this emotional response to decades of change led by the metropolitan elite as a useful starting point for their investigations. It has been widely noted how Brexit has divided friends and families along partisan lines and emotionally it certainly does feel like a ‘civil war’, with passionately held opposing viewpoints grounded in entirely different visions of what the country should be.

The similarities do not end there either. The crisis that engulfed Charles I’s government was sparked by a crisis in Scotland in 1637-39, where the right of England to determine Scotland’s religious and political settlement was resoundingly rejected. In 2016 the constitutional fault line once again runs along the Scottish border, and that country is once again dominated by a party which insists that Scotland has a right to go its own way. It is surely right to regard the seismic shift in Scottish politics in the 2015 general election as part of the same unfolding constitutional crisis which has now spread to the whole British Isles.

And then there is Ireland. Despite the protestations on all sides that nothing will be allowed to jeopardise the hard won gains of the Anglo-Irish peace agreement, there is mounting concern that the effective repudiation of open borders represented by the BREXIT vote will inevitably provoke a return to violence. Again the parallels with the civil war are unavoidable. It was the Irish rebellion in 1641, with its savage attacks on protestant settlers, which precipitated England into civil war. At the very least the historical parallel should provide a warning of the potential for sectarian violence in Ireland to deepen existing divisions in England.

Just as in the 1640s, the crisis in the British Isles cannot be viewed in isolation from European affairs. The insularity of British history has concealed the extent to which the civil war in the 1640s was part of a much wider pattern of civil and religious conflict raging all over Europe. The Scottish resistance to the King was emboldened by the participation of many Scottish mercenaries in the protestant armies fighting in Germany’s Thirty Years’ War, and in France the 1640s witnessed a series of conflicts between the King and the regional Parlements known to history as The Fronde. Events in Britain and Ireland mirrored religious and social conflicts taking place all across the continent. Once again it is clear that Brexit is not a uniquely British phenomenon, but is part of a broader reaction against political elites across Europe finding expression in Pergida in Germany, the Front Nationale in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain and other populist insurgencies. Like it or not, the current crisis, like that of the 1640s, is international in its nature and its implications.

It would no doubt be foolish to make any predictions about post-Brexit Britain based on events in the 1640s. However there are a couple of facts that might give us pause for thought. It has been calculated that MPs who supported the King were on average 11 years younger than those who supported Parliament. Whilst it was Parliament which prevailed in the civil war, this simple demographic fact suggests that the future belonged to the royalists. Support for Brexit is even more starkly divided along age lines, with 75% of the under 25s supporting Remain.  At some point the future will belong to these young people, who may well seek to reverse their defeat in the next generation. Passionate supporters of Brext might be wise to bear this in mind in constructing the shape of our constitutional and political settlement outside of the European Union.

Finally, the constitutional crisis in the 17th century suggests that a grand realignment in British politics is likely. In the 1640s the old political divisions between court and country quickly dissolved as politics became polarised around the stark choice of support for, or opposition to, the King. In a similar way the traditional political parties appear increasingly fragile, with the only important division now being that between Leave and Remain. Nor can shifts in opinion be accurately predicted. Even as the fortunes of Parliament prospered on the battlefield the support of its MPs drained away. By 1643 there were more MPs sitting in the King’s version of parliament at Christ Church in Oxford than remained in Westminster.  And by the time Cromwell had purged parliament of his opponents the body that had fought and won the civil was reduced to a rump, no longer representative of popular opinion. A mere 5 months after the Brexit referendum we are already seeing defections from both sides as new positions take shape. It is by no means certain that support for Brexit will continue at its current level as the consequences of economic and political isolation begin to be felt.

In 1660 it fell to George Monck, one of the generals in Cromwell’s New Model Army, to restore the monarchy. Imagine, if you like, an elderly Boris Johnson in 2035 leading the UK back into a new reformed version of the European Union.

Graham Henderson is the CEO of an arts charity.