Poor Henry VIII. Remembered primarily for being obese and a serial monogamist, the father of Elizabeth I last weekend had to endure the supreme indignity of a codpiecing by Jeremy Corbyn on national television. “I don’t think the record of Henry VIII on promoting democracy, inclusion and participation was a very good one,” he told Robert Peston, explaining his opposition to the Government using ‘Henry VIII clauses’ to rewrite EU legislation into the Great Repeal Bill with minimal parliamentary oversight.
To which the answer is: ‘you don’t say!’ In a period when Parliament was far weaker than it is now, and democracy was a largely forgotten ancient Greek practice, Henry stood out even amongst Tudor monarchs as a bit of a despot. The analogy is something of a misnomer, though, even though ‘Henry VIII clauses’ are an accepted part of parliamentary nomenclature.
The clauses, which allow ministers to repeal or amend a Bill once it has become an Act of Parliament, are named after the Statute of Proclamations, which was passed by the Reformation Parliament in 1539 and essentially allowed the king to make his word law. Not quite the same as swapping the names of regulators around, then.
But it is apt that Jezza should have invoked Henry VIII on the eve of Article 50 being triggered, given Henry was the first monarch to establish this country’s sovereignty over a supranational continental power. For all his numerous vices and failed military adventures, the great achievement of his reign was to establish England as a truly independent nation in the Break with Rome. For the first time, England had “no superior under God” but the English king, the English parliament, and the English judiciary. Papal bulls had no authority and the English monarch could never again be considered – or consider himself – a vassal of the Pope, as King John did in 1213. While triggering the English Reformation, the Break was primarily a political move over an ecclesiastical one; major breaks with Catholic doctrine would not occur until the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI.
But while the Act of Supremacy is often still characterised as a religious phenomenon, and the EU referendum an anti-immigration one, the motivations behind both were the same; taking back control. Henry’s break with Rome and assumption of ‘imperial’ power was arguably the defining act in establishing the concept of the modern nation state; a shift across Europe which marked the beginning of the modern era. It also ensured that, unlike the Ming, Mughal, and Ottoman empires, Europe’s enterprising and innovative civilisation would never wither under the mandarins of a centralised, bureaucratic power. As a man who has opposed Britain’s subordination to such a centralised and bureaucratic power for most of his career, Corbyn should give Henry VIII more credit.
This article was originally published by Conservatives for Liberty.