Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
If David Cameron wins the General Election next year, there will be a referendum on whether or not we remain in the European Union in 2017 – exactly five hundred years after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. The comparison is striking.
Martin Luther’s declaration of reform for the Catholic Church precipitated his own excommunication by Rome, the Protestant Reformation and five centuries of division within Christianity. In truth, however, that was not his goal. A Catholic monk, Luther was devout and wished to see an end to corrupt practices in the Church, such as the sale of indulgences, not a separation. It was a challenge to the Papacy to change, not a call for its destruction.
Five hundred years on, in a very different context where the dispute is political, not religious, we find ourselves in a remarkably similar situation. David Cameron is urging the European Union to reform, for its own sake as well as ours. He is challenging a modern-day form of the sale of indulgences – the appointment of retired or failed politicians to un-elected positions of authority, the closed-door backroom deals, the vast expensive bureaucracy, the unnecessary interference from Brussels in our daily lives.
In five hundred years the dispute has moved from the theological to the political, and 730 miles from Rome to Brussels. The question, though, is the same: can we reform an enormous, overbearing, unwieldy institution founded with good intentions and a worthy vision but given to corrupt practices, or do we need to split?
Personally, I favour reform over separation. In fact, just for context, one year ago I became a Catholic, after 19 years as a Protestant Christian. And the Church has certainly changed a lot since Luther’s day – indeed, whether Catholics like to admit it or not, the stand he took did the Church some good.
I am also, on balance, in favour of trying to stay in the EU and change it. I support David Cameron’s valiant effort. I believe, broadly, that it is in our interests to remain in the EU, rather than risk isolation outside. I share all the criticisms made of its expensive bureaucracy, its unnecessary interference, and I’d like to see it streamlined. Cut the fat, make it more flexible, more dynamic, more outward-looking, more relevant, let it be an alliance of sovereign nations working together on issues of common concern, not a straightjacket for a bloated, corrupted corpse. I’m a Euro-realist, horrified by the parochialism of some extreme eurosceptics and appalled by the arrogance and head-in-the-sand refusal to change of the extreme europhiliacs.
That, in a nutshell, was Luther’s message to Rome and it is Cameron’s message to Brussels.
The problem is those with vested interests choose to ignore the calls for reform, and even shoot the messenger. Instead of being listened to, Luther was excommunicated and Cameron was defeated by 26 votes to 2. In both instances, such a refusal to listen and change is dangerous. While Cameron, like Luther, does not desire or seek schism, that could be the end result, precipitated by the deaf ears of the corrupt elite. And the threats of isolation if we were to leave the EU may not actually come to as much as we may fear. After all, Protestantism turned into a very influential alternative to Catholicism.
At his trial in 1521 at the Diet of Worms Luther said the famous words:
“Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”
In 2014, in the Daily Telegraph – and, for that matter, in several other outlets in the past week – David Cameron has declared:
“I do what I say, and I stick to it. Anyone in Europe who thought I was going to back down or blink is now thinking again. It is important that the British people, and our European partners, know that about me, before the negotiations begin in earnest if I am re-elected as Prime Minister.”
The principles are similar, the vocabulary almost interchangeable.