Considering the Brexit question yet again, I listen to various MPs talk about the increasing likelihood that we’ll crash out of Europe. They say this sorrowfully, as if to convey that they regret the disaster this would be, but what can they do? The problem is, they say, that there’s no single plan that can command a majority.
To an average person this seems poor. If you need to do something and the people you work with don’t agree, what do you do? You talk to each other to resolve the issue.
And here the problem starts to be revealed. Normal behaviours like talking to each other are discouraged by the very fabric of our parliament. From the building itself, where different parties must sit opposite each other, the distance between them supposedly the length of two swords (so that no unruly fencing can break out); to its practices – intra-party communication is formalised into an act where the leader of one party shouts six questions to the leader of the other while all parties make loud roaring noises.
It’s as if the system is built to stop discussion, consensus, and even everyday civility.
And then I dimly recall a fact. Who was it who got parliament going? Who was it who pushed forward with this particular way of enacting democracy in the 1530s?
Henry VIII. He’s the one king everyone remembers because he was… ridiculous, to put it mildly. He decapitated one of his wives. He used the Reformation to more or less decree that God was in his body. Then he decapitated another wife.
“Maybe we will rethink whether a form of democracy deeply rooted in one of the most toxically masculine periods of history is really one we want to stick with.”
England’s most famous king would likely be diagnosed as a psychopath in modern psychological terms — and we’re relying on the parliament he reformed in the 1530s to get us through this Brexit shambles. What’s more, if you go further back in history to the country’s first official parliament in 1265, you discover it was set up by Simon de Montfort and ‘the barons’. What did barons do? Mostly slaughter people and oppress their serfs. Solid basis for a modern political system, I’m sure you’ll agree…
At times like this, I find myself wistfully wondering what the world would be like if our particular brand of democracy hadn’t been developed by a sixteenth-century violent misogynist. Imagine if instead, all six of old red-beard’s wives had been able to get together and rule the country. They may not all have got on – we can be pretty sure that arch Catholic Catherine of Aragon would not have agreed with campaigning Protestants Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr, but would they have resolved things by battle – or the modern day equivalent, parliamentary debate, or in particularly heated moments, mace waving? I like to think not.
Back to today, if we do crash out of the EU, once we’ve finished dealing with the trauma this will cause, maybe we will rethink whether a form of democracy deeply rooted in one of the most toxically masculine periods of history is really one we want to stick with.