A New Horatian Ode: Brexit and Civil War

Watching the new BBC documentary on the English Civil Wars, Downfall of a King, it’s impossible not to recognise the antecedents to civil war in our midst.

The new documentary focuses heavily on the political cauldron of 1640-1641, with much attention given to the Puritan parliamentarian John Pym.

It explores the political manoeuvring between supporters of the king and parliament, notably Pym’s attempts to wrest legislative control from the king and get bills through the House of Lords, where the king-supporting bishops were a constant frustration.

One such piece of legislation was to prevent the future dissolution of parliament except by the order of MPs themselves. This seizure of power from the king set the early hallmark for constitutional rule by parliament and away from the Divine Right of the monarchy.

BBC Four, Downfall of a King

This is something that has surfaced very recently, following hints that Prime Ministerial candidate Boris Johnson would consider “proroguing” parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit in October.

Quick to the punch, former attorney general Dominic Grieve tabled an amendment to a Northern Ireland bill to guarantee that the Commons could be recalled. He described talk of proroguing parliament as constitutionally improper and said such an act would constitute “the end of democracy”.

Though his amendments were rejected, it raised the legal significance of such a bill, above and beyond its primary purpose. MPs were almost exactly divided – the bill passed by a single vote.

The next chapter in the recent battleground is the trial and subsequent jailing of far-right vigilante Tommy Robinson, which is stirring up pockets of resistance and fury among his supporters.

Robinson is far from a John Lilburne, but the inevitable status he will acquire in some quarters as a martyr or political prisoner shows how the Leveller spirit of ‘the English common man’ has been ransacked to something more aggressively nationalist.

Did everyone know what they were fighting for in the 1640s, and what the result would turn out to be? It’s worth contemplating Lilburne’s regrets four months after the regicide about the new ‘tyrannical’ parliamentary regime. If Robinson is deemed to have served his purpose, he may well become expendable.

The Trial of John Lilburne (1614-1657)
The Trial of John Lilburne (1614-1657)

The final act of this week’s remarkable round is a leak that has led to the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s ambassador to the United States. Darroch’s critique of the Trump administration dating back from 2017 has been revealed and Trump refuses to deal with him, making the position untenable.

It was described this week as one of the most dangerous and damaging days for modern democracy.

As usual with speech acts of this magnitude, it’s not just the words themselves, but their framing. In this case, it’s by the leak reporter, arch-Brexiter Isabel Oakeshott.

Despite Oakeshott’s choice of quotes having ostensibly little to do with Brexit itself, Darroch’s critique is determined to be anti-Brexit in spirit. By the same token, civil servants who offer any dissent towards the Brexit/MAGA schism or its perpetrators are obstructing the UK’s departure.

As Chris Allnutt notes, Oakeshott doesn’t simply publish the leaks – she reaches beyond their content to jeopardise the civil service for doing its job.

Note the clear flashbacks here to The King’s Cabinet Opened (1645), the publication of the king’s private letters that were seized as the spoils of Naseby. Parliament was concerned that the letters would not prove damaging enough on their own, so it supplied notes and commentary to guide readers’ opinions.

The King's Cabinet Opened (1645), Frontispiece
The King’s Cabinet Opened (1645), “With some Annotations thereupon”.

Worse than that, it’s the cunning – the sedition – behind this stunt, which reminds me of the rumours about Cromwell that feature in Andrew Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ of 1650.

And Hampton shows what part
He had of wiser art,

Where, twining subtle fears with hope
He wove a net of such a scope
That Charles himself might chase
To Carisbrooke’s narrow case

In this unnervingly ambiguous review of Cromwell, Marvell entertains royalist accusations (despite no firm evidence for them) that Cromwell orchestrated King Charles’s escape from Hampton as a shrewd political manoeuvre that allowed him to demand decisive action once the king had been re-captured at Carisbrooke.

The question on offer in both cases is – to what lengths will an individual, cabal, party, or parliament go to see their mission through?

This little diplomatic incident, which barely even made the news in the United States, tightens the noose around a reality that we’re now almost powerless to stop.

Trump’s refusal to deal with Darroch, and the immediate subservience to it, gives the US the hand of power. Trump has hinted before that Farage is his chosen man, and merely has to refuse to deal with anybody else to get his wish.

The source of this leak must now be investigated – although the lack of action around criminal activities involving and resulting from the referendum will offer no confidence in turning out a suspect.

Brexit wasn’t a divide between conventional left and right, but it’s slowly reverting that way, in all but name. Such is the misinformation, forceable misdirection and ignorance that it’s not even clear to many people how their allegiances are being used.

It feels like we’re getting close to ‘pick a side’ territory.

What did Marvell do when conflict broke out? He ran off to Europe for four years. What chance of that now?

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