Richard Graham is a member of the Exiting the EU Select Committee, and is MP for Gloucester.
While there’s a slight pause in the Government’s tortuous efforts eventually to get a Withdrawal Agreement Bill successfully through Parliament, l want all parliamentarian colleagues to stand back and consider lessons from an earlier argument about who had control: our own seventeen century civil war – or Brexit with Muskets. Let me offer ten.
The first is a general one. The arguments that led to the (wrongly called) English Civil Wars began in the 1630s with a few legally minded parliamentarians protesting about the King raising revenue through taxes without Parliament’s approval. They were right to do so. But history shows that moderates advocating incremental constitutional reform are invariably swept aside for a more radical agenda, especially if the other side shows little flexibility in its response. Voters who wrote not long ago that they wanted to bring back control to Parliament now write that parliamentarians should be implementing No Deal because that was what they voted for.
Second, ‘events’. When Parliament later seized control of the Navy and of Trained Bands, that triggered the King to raise his standard – which led to war. Even though no-one explicitly advocated it, least of all voted for it. It just happened. No Deal could still just happen.
The third lesson is about mission creep. The parliamentary campaign theme of 1643 was ‘For King and Parliament’. Not a single MP then advocated abolishing either the monarchy or the Lords, still less creating a republic – let alone a dictatorship whose fiat was implemented by regional generals, with the Commons three times dismissed altogether. But so it came to be. ‘Bringing back control to Parliament’ has already led to a request from one parliamentarian for the Queen to prorogue Parliament.
Which leads to the fourth lesson. If initial campaign goals were forgotten in a blizzard of mission creep, with huge and unintended consequences, where were the men of reason to prevent that? Squeezed out, marginalised and above all polarised by events. When an army knocked on your city walls, any thoughts of a third way were quickly succeeded by the need to survive: to welcome or turn away – which was least worst? Thereafter, you were labelled. If you voted Remain, but accept that the referendum was a non-negotiable result to be implemented, as I do, you will probably not be trusted by either side: you risk being labelled both a traitor and a disaster.
There is polarisation and conflict in the fifth lesson: obscure strategy. Those who backed Parliament distrusted an overmighty King and wanted more control by Parliament. But they didn’t know how to achieve that end if the King himself wouldn’t concede. Once the goal was to defeat the King on the battlefield, the Parliamentarians lost control of events to military leaders, and to the army itself. Votes of no confidence are high risk.
The sixth lesson is the failure of war (or of referenda) to solve closely contested issues. The long First Civil War solved nothing. And neither negotiations (1646-8), during which first the Scots and then the Army had possession of the King, nor the Second Civil War of 1648 – even more divisive, even more bloody – were any more successful. The precedents for a second referendum are not good at all.
And, just to be clear (seventh lesson) – calling something a Peoples’ Vote does not disguise the intention, which is for one side to win a replay where it failed the first time round. Most normal people by then believe (as they did in the Civil War): a plague on all your houses, we elect you politicians to sort these things out. ‘Oh with what a perfect hatred I do detest this war without an enemy,’ wrote royalist commander Ralph Hopton to his friend (and parliamentarian) William Waller, before battle. How many of us and our constituents feel that way today?
Eightth is knowing when not to overplay your hand. The King had a strong hand and overplayed it: so, at different times, did the Army, the Scots and the so-called Presbyterian faction in Parliament. The DUP, the Republic of Ireland, the ERG, the Leader of the Opposition and Cooper-Boles have all been there already: and one or two, perhaps all, will do so again. The EU may yet overplay their cards on the backstop.
Yet the next lesson – the ninth – is also crucial. There is always a moment when a compromise is possible. In the winter of 1648, agreement between Army, Parliament and King was very possible, even likely, in the “Newport Deal”. Parliament resolved, after a 24 hour sitting on December 5th (the same date as the second day of the Withdrawal Agreement debate 2018) that they had the basis for a settlement. But as news spread – rumour-laden news sheets multiplied in a 1640s-equivalent social media storm – General Ireton decided (via Colonel Thomas Pride) to purge Parliament of some 270 (out of 470) MPs, who would probably have supported the deal. Too few in the Army were prepared to compromise. They wanted (if you like) a ‘Proper Rexit’ – and compromise was a dirty word.
Which leads me to the last lesson, the tenth. After two civil wars, the execution of King Charles, the subsequent creation of the Commonwealth and the Lord Protector, as well another royalist attempt to recover the kingdom and the bloody Battle of Worcester, England and Wales went through a decade of further misery. We discovered that puritanism, closing pubs and Christmas festivals, and endlessly taxing ex-royalists was not, after all, the way to unite the kingdom: that ten years of a Republic delivered little happiness. Twenty per cent of the 14-45 year old male population died – a higher percentage than either the First or Second World War.
So what did those 20 years achieve? Two years after Charles II’s bloodless return in 1660, the Earl of Berkshire wrote: “we shall never, any of us, be able to explain with satisfaction what it was we fought over all those long years”. The Civil War is in aggregate the ultimate lesson of the hopelessness of revolution by accident – of mission creep leading to dire and unintended consequences.
No analogy is perfect. But as we in the Conservative Party argue ceaselessly among ourselves about how best to leave the EU, with those who want No Deal on March 29th arguing, against all the evidence, that it’s simply No Problem, it’s worth remembering the compromise missed in January 370 years ago and what happened next.
Blair Worden (in his excellent paperback The English Civil Wars) wrote: ‘The trial of the King was unimaginable at the beginning of the First Civil War and barely conceivable at its finish. Charles had continually told the parliamentarian factions that they could not manage without him. Now the army and its allies were about to meet that test. They could scarcely have been less well prepared for it.
We have been here before, and it didn’t end well then. Compromise matters.