Why comparisons between Boris Johnson and Charles I aren’t just lazy rhetoric

When a prime minister who hasn’t faced a general election gains the assent of an unelected monarch to prorogue parliament, it is inevitable that some parallels will be found with Charles I’s dismissal of MPs in the mid-17th century.

Only yesterday, Labour’s Margaret Beckett made exactly the comparison, noting that it didn’t end well. But are there really any similarities, or is this just lazy history and easy rhetoric?

Certainly, in the most famous case of Charles I’s decision to dismiss parliament in 1629, the result was an 11-year dictatorship, decoratively known to history as the “personal rule” – and the imprisonment in the Tower of London of those who opposed him. Presumably not even Dominic Cummings is planning that fate for Jeremy Corbyn.

But while we might not be on the verge of an absolutist King Boris dictatorship, some deeper parallels are worth investigating.

Charles’s problem with parliaments was that he abhorred any notion of political oversight, even from the wealthy landowners that dominated 17th-century parliaments, and yet he needed their approval to raise taxes for a cash-strapped regime locked in military conflict with Spain and France. This conflict had been decades in the making, and was detaching the court government from even its natural supporters among the gentry.

And this is where deeper and more meaningful parallels begin. The government of Boris Johnson is indeed a court clique, unsecured from its natural moorings in the wider political establishment.

Long before Johnson uttered his government’s expletive-laden two-word manifesto, “Fuck business”, it was clear that Brexit and big business were incompatible. Some 99 firms out of the FTSE 100 wanted to remain in the EU while the Tory party leadership, and hence the government, had been captured by a Brexit-obsessed minority of a minority.

For the first time since the Tory party split over the Corn Laws in the mid-19th century, it was no longer the more-or-less united political representative of corporate Britain.

But that’s only the beginning of the story of the isolation of the Boris monarchy. The Tory Brexiteers don’t even rightly represent most people who voted Brexit. Those voters didn’t vote for a Trump-Johnson no-deal Brexit, nor to have an even more vicious free-market version of the establishment imposed on them without election.

So the Johnson regime is doubly isolated, both from its natural base in the political establishment, and from the popular base that it’s trying to misrepresent among ordinary people.

Salus populi supremus lex … Protesters in Whitehall on Wednesday after Boris Johnson suspended parliament. Photograph: Daniel Sorabji/AFP/Getty Images
Salus populi supremus lex … Protesters in Whitehall on Wednesday after Boris Johnson suspended parliament. Photograph: Daniel Sorabji/AFP/Getty Images

Here’s a second parallel with the pre-civil war political atmosphere: a strong sense that more talk is useless. Political attitudes have become entrenched and our political institutions seem unable to resolve the issues that have led to that intransigence. There is a palpable sense that action is required, even action that breaks the bounds of the previously constitutionally acceptable.

If Johnson’s court is seen to act decisively while their opponents look as if they are playing the old establishment game of manoeuvre, compromise and legalistic prevarication, it can appear that the court clique are the insurgents and the opposition are the establishment.

When, after the 11-year dictatorship, Charles I was eventually forced to call parliaments again, there was a radical mood among MPs and an insurrectionary mood among the London crowd.

Masses of Londoners gathered outside the Palace of Westminster, while inside, MPs, including those previously imprisoned by Charles, demanded both that the king’s advisers be put on trial for treason and that he grant effective parliamentary sovereignty.

The opposition’s long indictment of the monarchy was drawn up in the Grand Remonstrance. Radical MPs wanted it printed up for popular distribution to mobilise extra-parliamentary support. Moderate MPs were horrified, objecting that they had never meant to “remonstrate downwards to the people”.

It was the radicals who won the day and the popular demonstrations forced Charles to flee his capital, never to return until he was tried for his life in 1649.

As the crowds once again surge around Westminster, there may be a lesson there. In the 1640s, all previous political differences of the amassed opposition had to be subordinated to the aim of getting rid of Charles I’s regime.

Secondly, in a rapidly polarising situation, it was those who were most willing to “remonstrate to the people” who gained the initiative. Today, both Johnson and his opponents lay claim to having the backing of the people – who truly does so is yet to be fully tested. But when democracy is imperilled, its salvation may depend on the public’s willingness to demand their rights.

When it came down to it, the emerging democrats of the 17th century fought their autocratic foes under battle flags inscribed with the Latin tag salus populi supremus lex – the safety of the people is the highest law. That may still be the most enduring lesson of the events of the 1640s.

All Rights Reserved for John Rees

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