Britain in Europe: An Identity Crisis
|Henry VIII stepped outside Europe too.|
Outside is a place where many Britons quite like to be. Many others are deeply uncomfortable with it, of course. But Britain’s singularity has a history.
England in particular has traditionally defined itself against Europe. For example, they eat garlic; we do not. They are Catholic; we are not. They are racist; we are not. We won the war; they did not. As you can see from these examples, this can be a silly way of viewing the world; and it’s also a gross over-simplification – there are plenty of Catholics here, and plenty of racists. But since it’s emotional, not rational, national identity does not have to make sense.
A key part of English national identity is eccentricity. The maverick, the eccentric, the outsider who is also an insider. Lord Byron, Swinburne, Churchill himself. The Brontës, the Romantics, Punk. England renews itself by embracing the outsiders and turning them into the establishment. Look at Damien Hirst.
There are, of course, limits to the kind of eccentricity that’s acceptable. I’m thinking of Oscar Wilde – lauded for his wild cleverness, then reviled for it – and now a 100 years after his death, fully embraced by the establishment. A person’s story does not alway end with death after all.
Nearly half a millennium ago, another English eccentric made a choice to break away from the rest of Europe, and reshaped the core identity of all of his countrymen and women as a result.
In 1529, the Reformation Parliament paved the way for King Henry VIII to marry the dynamic, sexy Protestant activist Ann Boleyn. On the way to getting his oats, the king repudiated the authority of the Pope, dissolved the monasteries, got rid of the saints, idols and relics, and declared himself head of the new Church of England.
HenryVIII’s passion for Ann (and his desire for a son and his greed as he stripped the monasteries of their riches) led him to play a pivotal role in breaking the hold that Catholicism had had over the hearts and minds of Europeans for the previous 500 years (more or less).
The rest of Europe was still Catholic – but soon after the Wars of Religion broke out which tore the continent apart. The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation reshaped the way Europeans felt.
Europe has been through many cycles of unity and disunity. Long periods of relative harmony have been followed by fragmentation, bloody wars, wars that went on for decades. Before Henry VIII’s time there had been plenty of wars, mostly to do with succession, and plenty of peasant revolts, mostly to do with unfairness. But everyone had shared a religion except on the very fringes of the continent, and all educated people had shared a language, Latin, for the previous 1500 years. The divine right of kings to rule had gone essentially unquestioned on most of the continent.
All this was about to change. Smashed and dissolved. Great things came out of the liberation from the Catholic Church – the Enlightenment, science, maybe even democracy. But much was lost.
It may sound a little dramatic to suggest that this is the beginning of the end of the EU, and you could also argue that the seeds of its destruction were sown when the EU expanded so dramatically and emotionally in the 1990s. But this is a turning point, not just for the UK, but for all of Europe.
What we need now is leaders who are capable of unifying the continent emotionally as well as politically. Tough times are ahead and it’s vital not to start going at each others throats. David Cameron is for another post as I have run on too long already, but I fear he has made a grave tactical error.
And the astrology? Well you’ll be interested to hear that in 1529, Pluto, the planet of transformation, was in Capricorn, the sign of the establishment (the Church and super-State), just as it is today. What is more Neptune, the planet of idealism, dissolving boundaries and spirituality, was in his own sign Pisces, just as he was at the beginning of this year and as he will be for the next decade. So we have a similar energy going on as our ancestors did at the beginning of the Reformation. Interesting times indeed.
Here’s a Swedish band singing about a French defeat in English in the Eurovision song contest back in the 1970s.