The Brits must really be into self-loathing. Every recent Brexit failure in Parliament has been greeted with words like ‘messy’, ‘humiliating’, ‘a shambles’, ‘a disgrace’. It’s as if they truly believed that parting ways with Europe was going to be as easy as getting a divorce in Las Vegas. Show up, sign the papers, then hit the casinos and all-you-can-eat specials. Of course, that was never the case. Nobody in their right mind could have mistaken Brussels for Vegas or that seeing through the biggest issue facing the country this century was going to be a snap. But however contentious the whole process has been, one thing is for certain: ain’t nothing new here. The spectre of Europe has always dominated the debate in Parliament, right from its very beginnings, and the tone and obstructionism were just as nasty then as they are today.
Parliament as an institution of state goes back to the reign of Henry III (1216-72). Henry was a boy of 9 when his father King John died. One of the first acts of his regency council was to re-issue Magna Carta, which imposed restrictions on the English monarchy. Once Henry reached his majority, he would have to summon and consult his leading men on all the big questions of the day. By 1237, these assemblies were being called ‘parliament’, meaning ‘to discuss’, and in this year Parliament voted the king a tax. But they let him know all the things that were aggravating them, and topping the list was Henry’s policy towards Europe.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century, England controlled nearly half of what is now France. It was under Henry’s father that most of these lands were lost to the French monarchy. Henry aimed to get them back, not just because his prestige was on the line, but he was a humanist at heart who liked fashion and architecture and looked across the Channel for ideas and inspiration. Lacking the warlike spirit needed to go over and re-conquer them, he used diplomacy, marriage and alliances to put pressure on the French. Parliament despaired at the cost of it all, not to mention the influx of foreigners benefitting from it. Year after year, the nobles told the king that if he wanted to pursue this agenda, he would have to cede more power to them. He always refused and fell back on his Plan B.
Parliament in the meantime was evolving. Committees were being formed for the first time, the assemblies were getting bigger. Westminster became the venue of choice because Henry was rebuilding the abbey, all part of his vision to make that complex by the Thames the centrepiece of his realm. In 1254, he went to Gascony, the last English duchy on the Continent, to put down a revolt. He named his queen, Eleanor of Provence, to serve as acting head of state in his absence. She summoned Parliament to ask for a defence subsidy on behalf of the king, but they balked as usual. So Eleanor summoned another assembly, this time ordering the sheriffs in each county to have two local knights elected for the purpose of debating the subsidy at Westminster. In doing so, she gave Parliament its first ever democratic mandate. History was being made under her determined hand. And the outcome? ‘The noes have it!’
Then there was Henry’s biggest project of them all. The papacy, which was viewed as the Brussels of its day, had offered the Kingdom of Sicily to England on condition that the king financed the whole enterprise. Henry was supposed to go on crusade, but since Sicily looked like a cheaper, more realistic prospect than the Holy Land, he accepted. It again became a yearly thing. He summoned Parliament to provide the funds for it and the answer was always the same. ‘The noes have it!’
In 1258, both sides made a deal. The king would cede the powers sought by Parliament in return for their promise to help him secure the money. He kept his end of the bargain, but once in control, the barons and bishops denounced the Sicilian business and left it by the wayside. Henry was forced to claw back the royal authority he had given away in good faith, which opened up a whole new chapter of civil war, constitutional monarchy and restoration. Closure came in 1270 when the king, after a marathon session to secure a crusade tax, finally heard, ‘The ayes have it!’ And so, thirty-three years after it began, the parliamentary obstructionism was at an end, but so too was his reign.
Brexit might not take that long and certain pundits will argue that it won’t with a different leader. It was the same with Henry. He’s the problem, not us. The poor chap, consensus and leadership are simply beyond him. But it’s worth noting an incident that went back to his early days on the throne. His first regent was the famed knight William Marshal, whose death on 14 May 1219 will mark 800 years in the coming days. As Marshal lay dying, he was asked to name a successor to guide the young king. Marshal declined, saying he would leave the decision to God. He was worried that no matter who he named, the others would be envious and sow discord throughout the land. In his opinion, which aptly fits today, ‘there are no people of so many different minds as the English’.