Brexit Lessons From Henry VIII, Or, A Tale of Two Divorces

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As the ugly divorce proceedings of a certain Hollywood couple help a different B-word vie for the title of this week's most irritating portmanteau, thanks are due to currency strategist Bilal Hafeez for shifting the conversation back onto the matter of Brexit. 

To those still of the mind that "one of the challenges of understanding the consequences of Brexit is the apparent lack of precedent for such an event," Hafeez offers this rebuke: you're not going back far enough.

Digging deep into English history, he takes us to the reign of Henry VIII, whose 1534 break with Rome represents the last time the nation formally declared its independence from continental Europe. While the differences are plain — the Tudor king's rupture with the Catholic Church was occasioned by the Pope's refusal to grant him a divorce; a motive that has not been credibly ascribed to any Brexiteer — there are still some salient similarities.

Henry's words, "we thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects; yea, and scarce our subjects; for all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the Pope clean contrary to the oath that they make to us," have their latter-day correlate in former U.K. Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage's protestations against splitting sovereignty between London and Brussels — one of the arguments that helped his side to success in June's referendum.

Likewise, Henry's objections to the taxation levied by Rome is echoed by the Brexit camp's complaints about U.K. contributions to the EU budget, a due they controversially promise to reallocate domestically in a claim that was prominent during the campaign and has now been quietly retracted

All that said, the Nomura analyst's paper will be unlikely to offer a clear victory to either side of the debate. To those trying to work out if better-than-expected economic data since June indicate the economy is impervious to a rupture with Brussels, or simply represent the death throes of the country's former prosperity, he offers this inconclusive response: GDP per capita barely changed for a hundred years following Henry's Reformation.


While that may tend to support those pessimistic about the impending break with the single market — after all, Theresa May's government has no EU assets to pillage, while Henry benefited from the seizure of church land equal to almost a third of the country, it's still obvious that the split had a negligible effect on the kingdom's economic fortunes, which didn't take off until the late 17th Century.

Curiously, Hafeez's is neither the first, nor the most outlandish Tudor-based economic analogy doing the rounds. He published his research paper in a week when Britain has been gripped by the most heated debate since the referendum itself: the transfer of the state broadcaster's most popular show, the Great British Bake Off, to a rival station. With the resulting departure of three of the show's four presenters occupying prime time news, there have been quips that Channel 4 ended up paying £75 million ($97 million) for the tent the show is filmed in. "Is this the most expensive tent in history?," historian Greg Jenner asked of Bake Off's transfer on his blog. No so, he concluded after detailed calculations: that record goes to the one Henry VIII built in 1520, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, as he tried to cement a pact of non-aggression with his continental neighbors. 

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