Brexit: Back to the 16th Century?

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth ILast Tuesday, there was a programme on BBC Radio 4 in which Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian columnist who was a strong Remain supporter, compared the present Brexit situation with the Elizabethan era, in which a Papal Bull basically slapped a trading embargo on England as a result of the separation of the English church from the Catholic one. As a result, British merchants were frozen out of trading centres on the Continent such as Antwerp, and as a result England turned to the Muslim world, selling metal recovered from dissolved monasteries to the Arabs and Turks who then used them to make arms to fight Catholic powers such as Spain. Eventually, the distance became too much of a disadvantage, and England made peace with Spain and began trading on the Continent again. Freedland was comparing that with the present situation of Britain exiting a large trading bloc on its doorstep and potentially having to cut deals with other countries much further away. But there was an obvious difference.

The situation of the Elizabethan era was forced on us: the Pope formally excommunicated the Queen with the Papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis (Reigning On High) in 1570, at a time when a number of powerful Catholics, including the king of Spain and the Duke of Norfolk, wanted to see Elizabeth overthrown and a rebellion was underway in Ireland, with foreign support. Europe was not a continent of parliamentary democracies but of kingdoms whose rulers all swore allegiance to the Pope. Britain today has chosen to take itself out of a union of parliamentary democracies, run mostly along the same lines as a parliamentary democracy. England then chose to trade with the enemy of its enemies when it could not trade with the countries on its doorstep. It also planted a colony in North America, initially named Virginia (after Elizabeth, the “virgin queen”) although parts of it are now the Carolinas and Bermuda. Today, the north African countries Britain traded with in the 16th century are clients of France, while those Britain favoured for trade before joining the EEC now have trade agreements with their neighbours. There are, of course, no new frontiers as there were then. There is one thing in common between the British approach to trade then and now: the sale of assets, in this case the metal from the dissolved monasteries, of which there was only so much.

Of course, England could not trade primarily with the Muslim world indefinitely, as the distance to Turkey in particular was prohibitive. While modern transport makes bringing manufactured goods from across the world easier than in Elizabethan times — for now — there is no guarantee that either the supply of oil (or its availability to us) or the openness of the seas, politically, will last; these things are a product of peace, the very thing the EU and its predecessors were set up to preserve. Having access to a ready supply of manufactured goods from across the world and having people across the world who speak the same language is no substitute for being able to trade on friendly terms with one’s neighbours, particularly when those neighbours are the source for most of our heavy equipment, such as vehicles (even those with Japanese and Korean brands are wholly or partly built in Europe). And while we import food from all over the world, we also import a lot of our fruit and vegetables from Europe. We are already seeing prices of those things increase as the Pound loses value; having a tariff imposed on them will make that problem a lot worse.

So, there really is no comparison between the situation now and that of the 16th century. Then, England faced a trade embargo intended to force it back into the Catholic fold and traded with those that were willing to trade with us. Now, we are of our own accord leaving an economic union that is of huge benefit to us in favour of international isolation, and against a backdrop of 70 years of peace, Tory politicians have been threatening war to a supposed ally, a war which will isolate us from the rest of Europe, which is likely to take Spain’s side, which will not be quick, whichever side wins, and will have huge ramifications for global trade, including ours (it will cut access to the Suez Canal from the Atlantic for the duration, for example). We cannot compare past adventures that were the product of necessity with the folly of Brexit and its consequences.

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