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A Utopian Island? Brexit in a Historical Context

Medievalist Henrike Lähnemann explains what the 1517 Reformation might have to do with the Brexit vote almost 500 years later
A Utopian Island? Brexit  in a Historical Context

Title page of the first edition of 'Utopia' by Thomas Morus (Leuven 1516)

On 23rd June 2016 a narrow majority of voters in the referendum in Great Britain voted for the option 'Leave the European Union'. "This Brexit vote surprised many, but can be seen as a logical outcome in view of the history of Great Britain," says Prof. Dr. Henrike Lähnemann, Senior Research Fellow at the Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies (FRIAS). We can learn from a series of exit attempts, and above all from the period of the Reformation, how Great Britain has tried to live an island Utopia, she says.

As the British comedy team Monty Python put it, "What have the Romans ever done for us?", and true to this, Lähnemann says, a series of Brexits began in AD 410 with leaving the Roman Empire. It continued throughout the entire Middle Ages with defensive wars against the Danes and the Vikings, and found an echo in a wide range of forms of 'Exceptionalism' in the 20th Century. "Its apex and key event however was the rejection of Papal authority in the Reformation and dissolution from a new Roman Empire," the mediaevalist explains.

One text which is especially relevant for understanding the motivation behind the decision last year was written by a politician exactly 500 years before Brexit. In 1516 the Lord Chancellor Thomas More published his vision On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia. With this, he established not only a new literary genre but also wrote a book that is the key to understanding his compatriots. "'Utopia' is concerned – with a certain amount of irony which is still critical to any understanding of British attitudes – with forms of government, health care and, decisively, questions of sovereignty." One year later Martin Luther published his 95 theses, which were directed against the practice of indulgences orchestrated by Rome.

The King of England, Henry VIII, was a fervent opponent of Luther and his movement. Nevertheless, he used the popular mood that came from the German Reformation to release himself from Rome and to establish a church of his own in England with maximum authority from a political and a religious perspective. Thomas More, who refused to recognize this new order, was executed in 1535. "His secular Utopia of an island without ecclesiastical authority and without dependency lives on, however: in the political structure that developed under Henry VIII, and in the ideals of British voters, even if they know little more than the title of the 1516 work." The fact that political realization of a Utopia may not bring the desired result is an insight dating back 500 years which is only now slowly beginning to be recognized in the current Brexit discourse.

My linking of Utopia and Brexit relies on the Oxford Series Brexit in historical perspective with a contribution by the Luther biographer Lyndal Roper; on the theatre project of the Oxford linguist Wes Williams (Storming Utopia), the Reformation history of the Oxford theologian Diarmaid MacCulloch (Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700) and the lecture series by novelist Hilary Mantel (BBC-Series on the role of history for understanding England, based on her historical novels from the Reformation period)