Opinion & Features

Britain’s latter-day Reformation

Henry VIII was determined never to bow before a pan-European sovereign (PA)

The referendum campaign majored on the idea of “getting back control of our country”. It is quite unclear what that meant in a world where even the greatest powers accept some curbing of their sovereignty, but it clearly struck a powerful resonance in England and Wales; that was not the case in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The places where the English Reformation struck its deepest roots voted, once again, to leave Catholic Europe. Article 37 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England was revamped in a secular context – this time it was Brussels, rather than the Pope, that was excluded from power in England. The object might have changed, but not the mindset.

One of the many respects in which the remain campaign failed to say anything positive about the EU was its omission to emphasise its deep Catholic roots. The founding fathers of the EU were men whose values went well beyond the utilitarian considerations of market economics which dominated the public debate in the Referendum campaign. Their vision was profoundly influenced by their Catholic faith.

Alcide De Gasperi (whose canonisation is being considered in Rome), Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman were all inspired by the Catholic social teaching set out in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Speaking out against the excesses of what we would now call free-market capitalism, Pope Leo spoke to a higher vision of man’s purpose and the good life, which included not only protection for workers, proper holidays, decent pay and conditions, but also reflections on government.

In a Europe still dominated by empires, Leo pointed out the importance of subsidiarity – the principle that policies are best enacted at the most local level, and if a smaller structure (such as a national legislature) can perform a function, it should perform it instead of a larger one. As Benedict XVI wrote in 2007: ‘‘They were seeking a European identity that would not dissolve or deny the national identities, but rather unite them at a higher level of unity into one community of peoples.”

Deploring, as he did, the way in which the EU seemed to be moving away from its Catholic heritage, Benedict XVI sought to emphasise that only through reinvigorating its Christian roots could the EU project be renewed. The intellectual rupture between faith and reason ushered in by the Enlightenment needed to be healed, and he saw Christians as the “creative minority” who might be able to heal this.

Because of a much earlier rupture, the UK was not part of that Catholic heritage which produced the social doctrine beloved of the EU’s founding fathers. Where, in line with the Catholic tradition, the latter had sought to prevent an all-powerful state controlling the Church, the English opted for the state-church model in the 16th century.

The English nation was one of the first to emerge from the ruins of the Roman Empire, and the British state was one of the most centralised in Western Europe, a trend that increased in the last two centuries, with the welfare state pushing the churches out of areas of national life where they had always operated in partnership with the government and local authorities.

A nation with such history and with such a sense of its own manifest destiny was never likely to appreciate the cautious Catholic attitude towards the nation state and the need to ensure some balance of powers, nor to appreciate that “being governed by the French and the Germans” actually meant the latter also ‘“being governed by the British”; sovereignty was a zero-sum game for the Anglican confessional state, as it is for its more secular successor.

But England and Wales do not make up the whole United Kingdom, and denying the right to “take control” back to other constituent parts of it is likely to prove a losing game; ironically, the triumph of Ukip is likely to mark the end of the UK.

Both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis spoke hopefully of the EU recovering its religious roots. Well, it will now have to do that without England which has just emphasised its separateness from the Catholic roots of the EU.

The old Protestant suspicion of Catholic Europe and the power of Rome has simply been replaced by dislike of the EU and Brussels. The obsequies for “Protestant England” were perhaps premature; the religious element may have declined, but the spirit of the Act of Reformation is alive and well. “This realm of England is an empire entire unto itself”, it declared.

Henry VIII was determined never to bow before a pan-European sovereignty, and his modern fellow countrymen have pronounced the “amen” to that in what looks like a modern version of the Reformation.

John Charmley is Pro Vice-Chancellor designate at St Mary’s University, Twickenham