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There is no civil war — but an uncivil peace

17 February 2017

The Prime Minister’s failed attempt to bypass MPs in triggering Article 50 has parallels with King Charles I, says Simon Parke

THE poet Steve Turner wrote: “History repeats itself. Has to. No one listens.” And is the Prime Minister now guilty of closing her ears?

Last month, by 11 votes to three, the Supreme Court declared that Parliament rather than the Govern­ment was sovereign (News, 27 January). Despite the result of the referendum on membership of the European Union, the court ruled that a Bill had to pass through the two Houses before Article 50 could be triggered.

Mrs May had fought hard for the opposite: for the sovereignty of Government over Parliament; but she lost, as Charles I did four centuries before. He also imagined Parliament to be of small con­sequence, viewing MPs 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. “I must tell you,” he said, “that the liberty and freedom [of the people] consists in having of Government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government . . . that is nothing pertaining to them. 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 Mrs May’s opposition was surpr­ising. Has she forgotten that, in the 1640s, 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 — 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 Oliver 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 did not trust Parliament or the army; Parliament did not 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 Grimston 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 per cent (now a T-shirt) against the 52 per cent — it is all walls and no bridges; there is no civil war but an uncivil peace.

Mrs May has opted for a binary world. It suits her temperament, and she perpetuates it with comments such as “The people have spoken,” when it would be more true to say that “the elderly have spoken.” Denying the existence of 48 per cent of the nation is a high-risk strategy, and one that did not work out well for Charles I.

Some will say that Cromwell was a worse tyrant; the man does, indeed, divide people. But, for a tyrant, he was strangely unbinary. 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 — although 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, Parliament, and the army. Some called this the op­por­tunism of dark ambition, but it was not: it was simple doubt. He was not as sure as everyone else about gov­ernance. After all, was Israel not, at different times, led by kings, judges, and prophets? Liberty of conscience was the abiding pre­­occupation 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, and hard-boiled narratives are in place. Europe is Paradise, or Europe is Babylon (as one Christian organisa­tion called it during the referendum campaign). In a binary world, every­one is stupid.

King Charles was so absorbed in the story that he told himself that he did not notice what was going on around him. The age cried out for collaboration: Cromwell offered generous terms for his return to the throne. But Charles could never bend. After his absurd attempt to impose the Book of Common Prayer on the Scots — how did he ever think that was going to work? — his first words, when he heard of their defiance, were: “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 that the King would be killed; it was quite impossible — like the vote to leave the EU. But events happen, and we will leave the EU as surely as Charles lost his head.

And then? A different world will beg for different answers. After the King’s demise at White­hall, perhaps the first political journalist, Marchamont Nedham, 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, published by Marylebone House. It is the story of the last year in the life of Charles I.

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