At around 2pm on Tuesday 30 January 1649, following a show trial and conviction, King Charles I was executed. It is said that a great moan “as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again” arose from the crowd assembled in Whitehall, and the event sent shockwaves around the country and across Europe. It was the most disruptive event seen in the country, certainly since Henry Tudor had defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth to bring a final end to the Wars of the Roses. King Charles had not perhaps been a great king, and his record as ruler is not unblemished: his misfortunes at least partly he had brought upon himself by his stubborness, and by his view of his role as king by divine right.
And today, 31 January 2020, we see another disruptive event. At 11pm this country will formally leave the European Union, bringing to an end the legal relationship that began nearly 50 years ago on 1 January 1973. It is an event that over the last few years has divided the country, divided families and friends in a way rarely seen. It would have been hard to predict, even five years ago, what would come to pass, and what a bitter turn our political system and political dialogue would take. But whatever misgivings many of us will feel, the legislation is in place, and the deed will happen later today. For many this is a sad and bitter day: the European project in which we have participated for half a century was forged in the aftermath of the Second World War. It originated in treaties that tied the former warring countries, led by France and Germany, into trade deals that made them more and more dependent on each other, and therefore so much less likely to go to war again. In the previous 100 years, France and Germany had been at war three times, Paris had twice been occupied by Germany, and Alsace-Lorraine had changed country four times. Alsace-Lorraine and its city of Strasbourg were a key coal and steel producing region, and the EU began as a “coal and steel community”. For 60 years or more the EU and its predecessors have played an important part in ensuring that there was not another war in western Europe – whilst the trans-Atlantic NATO alliance helped prevent war with the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellite states. The EU has also played its part in ensuring that our ideals of democracy and equality before the law, of freedom from state oppression and so on have prospered within its member countries. Greece, Portugal and Spain, all formerly under the rule of right-wing or military dictatorships, were the first to benefit from this, their fledgling democracies joining the Community in the 1980s. And after the fall of the Soviet Union the countries of eastern Europe queued up to join the Union, keen for both the economic benefits and the support for democracy and rule of law. These benefits have not come for free. The EU and its predecessors have funded the development of poorer parts of Europe, helping to remove the social problems that led to political problems. That has meant that the richer, more stable countries, such as our own, as well as France and Germany and the richer north-western fringe have seen a net outflow of money, of tax revenue. That is perhaps the price of peace, and is considerably cheaper both financially and in terms of human lives than war would have been. But overall there has been a longer period of peace between these countries than at any time in the past, and a greater and prolonged period of economic prosperity, despite various hiccups along the way.
We know what happened after the execution of Charles I.
In the immediate aftermath, Parliament, led by Cromwell, refused to allow the proclamation of the Prince of Wales as King Charles II, and instead declared the abolition of the monarchy. A republican form of government, the “Commonwealth”, was put in place, the House of Lords abolished, and bishops removed. The rump of the Long Parliament (which had engineered the king’s trial and execution) continued to sit. That Parliament had been elected in 1640, before the Civil War, though at the end of 1648 the Army, led by Colonel Pride, had expelled those members that did not support the Army. In 1653, Cromwell ejected this Rump Parliament and the country essentially became a kind of military dictatorship, with Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Army, as the strongman.
In 1659, after Oliver Cromwell had died, there was finally a reaction. The Long Parliament was restored, and it called for a return to monarchy. After a period of negotiation, in May 1660 the eldest son of Charles I returned to England from exile in the Netherlands, and was proclaimed and crowned as King Charles II. The restored monarchy was not quite the same as that which had been abolished in 1649, and Charles II understood the limits within which he ruled. It had taken 11 years from the execution of his father until the Restoration, and many of those years must have been dark and difficult for the exiled prince, and dark and difficult for his supporters back in Britain. But eventually they prevailed, and the republican Commonwealth was consigned to history, a mere footnote in the list of Kings and Queens.
Will something similar happen? Will there be a period in which this country gradually comes to see that it has made an enormous mistake, leading eventually to a reassessment of our position, and finally a significant majority to want to rejoin the European Union? That is my hope and expectation. Maybe it will take a decade or more, just as it took a decade or so for the monarchy to be restored in 1660. It does take time to make such a major change in political direction, and right now we are moving on the opposite course.
But the dark day of 30 January 1649 held the promise of restoration. And this dark day too, 31 January 2020, holds that promise also.