A history lesson from the counties scarred by the seventeenth-century conflict.
At the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Warwick Castle was attacked by soldiers loyal to the king who tried without success to unseat the Parliamentarian forces that held it. While a minor skirmish, the outcome would foreshadow the broader struggle for the country.
Today, the town of Warwick is under siege of another kind, one that may similarly decide where the divided nation is headed after an escalation in the political drama over Brexit.
The U.K. is witnessing a historic period of upheaval that has invited comparisons with events almost 400 years ago. Parliament has been suspended – illegally, a court in Scotland ruled on Wednesday. The prime minister is threatening to flout the law to get his way while lawmakers on all sides are in open revolt and Ireland’s future, north and south, is at stake. Even the Queen has become embroiled in the standoff. And violence is brewing, with scuffles outside Parliament last week.
Lawmakers this week channeled an event from the runup to the civil war in the House of Commons to protest the so-called prorogation of the legislature. Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, one of the main architects of the vote to leave the European Union, has described the present constitutional crisis as the worst since that tumultuous period.
A tour last week through some English counties scarred by the conflict suggests he may be right. With positions hardening and no obvious release for rising tensions, it’s anybody’s guess where the Brexit dilemma ends.
Voters in Warwick opposed leaving the EU, seeing a departure as a threat to a key employer — the automotive industry — and to the university town’s international outlook. But as a pro-EU bastion amid a sea of Brexit territory, Warwick is at odds with neighboring districts, the U.K. as a whole and with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. Those same divisions run through swaths of the country.
“If we get out of the current impasse without shots being fired, we will be doing better than I expected,” said Diane Purkiss, author of “The English Civil War: A People’s History” and a professor of English literature at Oxford University. “The question from here is whether we can at the last minute and in the eleventh-hour muddle together some kind of final British compromise.”
In an echo of Brexit’s patchwork of “leave” and “remain” voting areas, the civil war cleaved along the lines of individual towns and cities depending on which way they declared, for Parliament or the King. Indeed, the political map of the Brexit vote resembles the distribution of support for both sides in the civil war, Stefan Collignon, a professor at the London School of Economics wrote in March last year.
In Warwickshire, Stratford-upon-Avon was sandwiched between Parliamentarian and Royalist forces and took in casualties from the war’s first major battle at Edgehill.
Other parallels lie in the existence of concurrent crises in “the three kingdoms” of England, Ireland and Scotland; and in the emergent print media’s alarmist headlines that mirror today’s social media posts, “weaponizing fear-mongering,” said Purkiss. “I don’t think people are taking this threat seriously enough,” she said in an interview at Keble College in Oxford, one block away from St. Giles Church, which carries a plaque describing its damage in the civil war.
At root, Brexit is the symptom of a crisis of parliamentary democracy, with both main parties pushed to extremes and the middle ground erased, eroding willingness to reach consensus. That presents a challenge for politicians like Jack Rankin, selected to contest the Warwick and Leamington constituency for the Conservatives at the next election.
The district was held by the Conservatives for much of the 20th century, falling to Labour in 1997 as the Blair government came to power, and has changed hands between the two parties since. Matt Western retook it for Labour in 2017 with a majority of just 1,200 votes.
Bernard Capp, an emeritus professor of history at Warwick, has seen the university’s development from its earliest days in the 1960s and still teaches a class on radicalism and the English Civil War. He sees parallels with the sort of polarization witnessed between 1640 and 1642, when the war broke out, and says that’s a cause for concern.
During the civil war, Coventry was a Parliamentarian center, known for its extensive medieval city walls. Capp related that Charles I arrived in late summer 1642 on his way to raise an army, and demanded entrance. The mayor of Coventry refused, the first real act of defiance before the fighting started.
“We should all be very wary because nobody wanted a civil war, nobody expected a civil war and look where that happened,” he said. Even at the war’s end, “no one thought there would be a revolution and the king would get his head chopped off, and yet that’s where it ended up,” he said.
“So no one knows what the final destination will be once you get into a constitutional crisis.”
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