Historical parallels suggest the Brexit story may end in violence


Every year, October 31 in celebrated as Reformation Day and, in its time, it was as politically important to the future of Europe as Brexit Day.

For out of it came the decision by Henry VIII in England to dispose of the connection with Rome. A Rome that was also significant as the place where the European Union was born on January 1 1958. In both cases, therefore, it involves a rejection of Rome and also the influence of “foreign interests”. But can the sixteenth century tell us anything about our current situation?

The reformation is often portrayed as a great liberating movement that emancipated the English population, improved the position of women and encouraged literacy. But was it not also something else? It certainly led to the widescale destruction of historically beautiful buildings, the execution of unrepentant Catholics and isolation of Britain from its strategically important Catholic neighbours such as France and Spain.

It also led (via the Catholic/protestant divide thus engendered) to the Thirty Years War – proportionally the most destructive war in human history that saw the embroilment of 60,000 English mercenaries. Most importantly, it created a schism across Europe that lasted for centuries.

So, what about Brexit? What will be the likely aftermath of this huge secular reformation?

As in the sixteenth century reformation, religious strife may also arise with a vengeance. There is probably only one politician less capable of leading the country than Teresa May – and that is Boris Johnson. He will, in his naive brashness, suspend Stormont and impost direct rule on Northern Ireland, thus reawakening paramilitary sympathies in both the catholic and protestant communities. The fragile peace, so hard won through the Good Friday Agreement, will be broken.

There may also be a more widespread form of social disorder. After a post-Brexit lull the economic consequences of Brexit will sink in as jobs are lost. But instead of Catholics it will be the Polish, Romanian and Portuguese communities in Britain who shall be blamed.

This will widen to more traditionally persecuted ethnic groups and, by the summer of 2020, riots could be common in many UK cities. The examples in France and Hong Kong recently show how violent and uncontrollable largely motiveless riots can be.

A newly isolated Britain will try to secure trade deals with other nations and the most likely one is the USA. Early attempts to do so have been described by American officials as “desperate”. If a deal does arise it will no doubt allow the US to dump lots of goods that have been blocked by the Chinese trade war. There will only be token advantages for UK businesses.

Internal institutions such as the NHS and BBC are already under strain and these will suffer major breakdowns.

Finally, as Margaret Thatcher found in 1982, if all else fails then political consensus and national unity can be engendered by a War. A war of some sort will need to be found that is big enough to engage the population to the point of actual or threatened conscription and in part of the world that the British population might have some inkling where it is.

It cannot be with an established nuclear nation and there is unlikely to be cause enough for a war in Europe, so it is most likely to be somewhere where there is already tension building up – and that is Iran. 

The US general election is due in November 2020 – so the prospect of war to help Trump get re-elected could bring matters to a head far faster than the UK population are ready to accept. But, like in seventeenth century Europe, the important elements are a sharp religious divide (Islam vs west), the huge prizes of war (oil and removal of the agent provocateur in middle east conflicts) and home populations that are willing to tolerate declining living standards as a gesture of patriotism, and not see the political ineptness that underlies them.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Joe Zammit-Lucia says

    I suggest that none of the consequences of Brexit outlined here are pre-scripted or inevitable. It’s not clear to me whether such ‘predictions’ of violent outcomes in themselves serve to put such ideas in people’s heads and thereby stimulate potential violence. If they do, then they are hardly helpful.

    As we keep telling our politicians, words matter and we should use them responsibly.

  2. Stephen Gwynne says

    This article is pure #ProjectFear trash.

    The Reformation began in Germany as a protest against the Pope who decreed that sins could be bought off by giving the Church large sums of money.

    The strawmans continue with the suggestion of an isolated Britain, the 5th largest economy in the world and an economy that is deeply interlinked with virtually every country in the world.

    The notion that violence will erupt because presumably intransigent Remainers will take to the streets in protest against democracy is laughable.

    Lastly, the only reason why there will be job losses is because the EU will see fit to punish Britain for daring to deviate from the Scriptures and Gospel of the EU Treaties.

    This utterly ridiculous article is about as extreme a version of #ProjectFear as one could possibly imagine. The transition to hell for wishing to be independent is fundamental religiosity at its very worst.

  3. Cusanus says

    So this is the quality of our captains of industry when they turn their attention away from their careers! Time for a changing of the guard?
    There is a justified fear of a resort to violence, although with luck and restraint it might be limited to personal unpleasantness and vandalism. The fear must be that the likes of Robin Chater will seek to sabotage what would otherwise be a merely inconvenient realignment. Whereas elsewhere a nation must fear the illicit intervention of the military, now we must fear disregard of the separation of powers by parts of business, and in particular big business and vested interests.
    In another recent contribution Joe Zammit-Lucia argued for the wisdom of win-win rather than lose-lose approaches (I paraphrase). This is in ignorance of widespread psychological research that people will gladly themselves take on hurt in order to punish what they see as a wrongdoer. People are not always selfish but, resentful, keen to take up the baton to defend the perceived common good. Seen not least in the policy of the EU Commission. During the 2016 campaign Brexiters mistakenly assumed that a deal would be easy on the premise that the EU would be interested in a win-win outcome rather than lose-lose. Whereas there was credible doubt in June 2016 of the wisdom of leaving, the vindictiveness of the EU’s Withdrawal Agreement has given the lie to the hope that this might be an association one would rationally wish to remain in. The EU’s conception of the common good is limited to its paternalistic drive to concentrate ever more power in ever fewer hands.

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