Thinking allowed

What happens next?

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.

So what happens next?

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.