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Ooops! Theresa May mislays the 17th century

Posted by Simon Parke, 20 February 2017, 5.35am

Steve Turner famously wrote, ‘History repeats itself. It has to. No one listens.’

And is Theresa May now guilty of closing her ears?

Last month, by eleven votes to three, The Supreme Court declared that parliament, rather than the government, is sovereign. Despite the referendum, a bill had to pass through the two Houses before Article 50 could be triggered.

Theresa May had fought hard for the opposite: for the sovereignty of government over parliament; but she lost, as did Charles 1 four centuries before. He also imagined parliament to be of small consequence, viewing MP’s as little more than a fund raising body for his private plans and schemes.

Then, as now, it is all about governance and Charles was clear on the matter. As he explained from the scaffold, ten minutes before his beheading, people should know their place:

‘This I must tell you plainly,’ he said. ‘Your liberty and freedom consist in having a government and laws…but it does not consist in having a share in that government, for that is nothing pertaining to you. You are to enjoy government, rather than be the government. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.’

Parliament is the bedrock of English democracy, gained through the blood, sweat and (constitutional) fears of our forebears; so May’s opposition was surprising. Has she forgotten that in the 1640’s, the English conducted a brutal civil war over the question: king or parliament?

And it was brutal. One hundred thousand civilians and soldiers died in the conflict, which was a larger proportion of the population than died in The Great War.

The king’s tunnel vision and endless lies had created a binary climate in England in which the talking stopped and extremism flourished. Charles was demonised as ‘The Man of Blood’, while he in turn disdainfully referred to Cromwell as ‘The farmer’.

Meanwhile, the Ranters had their own solution, declaring that a king should be elected rather than hereditary.

Everyone, in short, was pulling hard in opposite directions. The king didn’t trust parliament or the army; parliament didn’t trust the army or the king and the army trusted neither of the other two. And no one trusted the Scots.

This all sounds familiar after a referendum campaign full of ‘alternative facts’. We are back in a binary world of two tribes and ‘the others’ are to blame.

The wonderfully-named Harbottle Grimstone called Archbishop Laud ‘the root and ground of all our miseries and calamities’ and such certain and negative declarations are common today.

Everyone feels lied to, everyone feels angry, the 48% (now a T-shirt) against the 52%, it’s all walls and no bridges – no civil war but an uncivil peace.

Theresa May has opted for a binary world, it suits her temperament and she perpetuates it with comments like ‘The nation has spoken,’ when it would be more true to say ‘the elderly have spoken’. Denying the existence of 48 per cent of the nation is a high-risk strategy, and one which didn’t work out well for Charles 1.

Some will say that Cromwell was a worse tyrant; the man does divide people. But for a tyrant, he was strangely un-binary.

During the remarkable debates at Putney, when the army gathered to listen to itself, he begged for unity: ‘Let us be doing but let us be united in our doing.’ As Lord Protector, he would even include Jews in his embrace – though not Roman Catholics, there were limits to his toleration.

He certainly suffered agonies of indecision before the king’s trial, and at different times joined hands with the king, with parliament and the army. Some called this the opportunism of dark ambition but it wasn’t… it was simple doubt. He wasn’t as sure as everyone else about governance.

After all, wasn’t Israel, at different times, led by kings, judges and prophets? Liberty of conscience was the abiding pre-occupation of his career. How it was achieved was secondary.

Lies do not bring freedom – they bring distrust which eats away at decency. Hate-filled attitudes tossed from behind the barricades are now common on both sides with hard-boiled narratives in place. Europe is Paradise or Europe is Babylon (as one Christian organisation called it during the referendum).

In a binary world, everyone is stupid.

King Charles was so absorbed in the story he told himself, he didn’t notice what was going on around him. The age cried out for collaboration, with Cromwell offering generous terms for his return to the throne.

But Charles could never bend. After his absurd attempt to impose the BCP on the Scots – how did he ever think that was going to work? – his first words, when he heard of their defiance: ‘I mean to be obeyed.’

Or as Edward Sexby said during the Putney debates: ‘We have laboured to please a king and, I think, except we go about to cut all our throats, we shall not please him.’

At the end of the civil war, no one imagined the king would be killed; it was quite impossible – like the vote to leave Europe.

But events happen and we’ll leave the Union as surely as Charles lost his head. And then? A different world will beg for different answers.

After the king’s Whitehall demise, Marchamont Nedham, perhaps the first political journalist wrote: ‘The old allegiance is cancelled and we are bound to admit a new.’

Simon Parke is the author of the historical novel ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover,’ the story of the last year in the life of Charles 1 and published by Marylebone House.

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