The Euro currency has been nothing short of a disaster. It threatens to enmesh all the Eurozone in a colossal web of debt. The European establishment has failed to find a coherent solution. Only sufficing in raising taxation and forcing crippling austerity, it has alienated the peoples of the Eurozone. It has already toppled two democratically elected leaders, Papandreou and Berlusconi , and replaced it with European appointed technocrats, Monti and Papandemos. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the European Union has only served to emphasize the gulf between the establishment and the masses. Self-congratulatory speeches by European bureaucrats are vividly juxtaposed with arson, xenophobia and lawlessness in Athens.
The failure of the European establishment means that Eurosceptism in the United Kingdom is flourishing. Indeed, the question now on the lips of politicians is when, not if, a referendum on the European Union will be held. But who started such a trend? Who created this wave against a European establishment encroaching on British interests? Who was the first Eurosceptic?
It goes back further than 20th century politicians such as Gaitskell and Thatcher. Indeed, it goes all the way back to the 16th century. Henry VIII was the first Eurosceptic.
Now this is clearly a controversial concept. Henry VIII existed in a time aeons away from the formation of a European Union.
However, the concept of “Europe” was embodied by another body, the Catholic Church. It was a union of states that commanded absolute religious authority to Rome. Much like the European Union, the Catholic Church of the 16th century was plagued by corruption. The rule of the Borgias had weakened its credibility with accusations of nepotism and simony.
Henry VIII’s now famous story of the ‘Break with Rome’ lay rooted in early theories of the English nation state. The idea that a foreign body, regardless of whether that foreign body was the Pope, could order the King of England was unfathomable to Henry VIII. His desire to marry Anne Boleyn lay in his understanding that as King of England he embodied the nation.
Isn’t this characteristic of Eurosceptism? This was a clear opposition to a European supranational institution in favour of national sovereignty. Such an argument is compounded again by Eurosceptics who argue against the surrender of national sovereignty to Europe.
Some historians have argued against the idea of Henry as a Eurosceptic. They argue that he was very much immersed in European culture, art, literature and music. This represents a flawed reading of Eurosceptism. They are not merely “Little Englanders”. It is perfectly possible to enjoy the high European culture of Sartre, Goethe, Chopin and Picasso whilst criticizing the transfer of national sovereignty.
Indeed, any shred of doubt on Henry VIII’s Eurosceptism is dispelled by his legislation. The Ecclesiastical Appeals Act of 1533, considered a cornerstone of the ‘Break with Rome’, begins as such: “This realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the Imperial Crown of the same.”
Henry VIII had gone further than previous medieval monarchs. Whereas others, such as Edward III, had simply tried to limit Papal Power with Statutes of Praemunire, Henry VIII had radically broken with the existing consensus. His declaration of England as “an empire” would echo throughout the ages in giving notion to “English exceptionalism”.
The Ecclesiastical Appeals Act of 1533 was only truly repealed by the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht which formed the European Union. In this treaty went away four hundred years of history: from independence to servitude. Henry VIII was not only a Eurosceptic, but provided the foundations for the epoch of English greatness.