Over the weekend, it emerged that Theresa May likes to compare herself to Elizabeth I (although as I argue in my Telegraph column today, she’s been behaving more like the young Queen Victoria lately). The PM clearly meant the association as a compliment to herself, but on Saturday, Labour MP Barry Gardiner went in for a far more negative comparison. Complaining about Theresa May’s proposed plan to trigger Article 50 without a new parliamentary vote on the matter, Gardiner went full Philippa Gregory on us, accusing May of acting ‘to diminish parliament and assume the arrogant powers of a Tudor monarch.’ Next he’ll be accusing her of throwing a tantrum over her wig.
For a steward of the institution, Gardiner hasn’t been reading much parliamentary history recently, as historians on Twitter were quick to point out. Or as Joanne Paul, an expert on Tudor political philosophy at the University of Sussex, puts it: ‘Ahem. Tudor monarchs noted for the fact that they worked through parliament, actually.’ She’s right. The details of Tudor parliamentary theory spawn plenty of scholarly controversies. The contemporary historian Simon Adams has convincingly debunked the myth that Elizabeth’s palace corridors were riven with personal factionalism. (David Starkey famously fell out with his own PhD supervisor, Geoffrey Elton, over the subject, but that’s David Starkey). But most historians agree that Tudor monarchs, unlike their Plantagenet predecessors, made a point to develop a parliament as a major political institution, not least, because it centralised power in London.
Perhaps the Tudors stuffed parliament with their own yes-men. But they paid it lip service as no previous dynasty had done. Henry VIII is notorious for his Act of Supremacy, which instituted a tyrannical Protestant loyalty oath – Thomas More, of course, refused to swear it. School children know that Henry kept changing his mind about the legitimacy of his children, retroactively doctoring his marital record with multiple Acts of Succession. But Henry’s chief concern, after the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, was to settle on an heir fully endorsed by the nobility and the major political institutions of the realm. Each one of those Acts of Supremacy and Succession went through parliament. (The clue is in the name.) To martyr his own Lord Chancellor, Henry had to invoke his parliament.
Of course, today’s parliament has already had its say on the 2015 referendum legislation, however poorly they seem to have scrutinised it. (Not, in fact, the best advertisement for giving them another go.) Certainly, there is an irony in parliament being left out of the final negotiations for Britain’s exit from the EU, shortly after a successful referendum campaign which sought to assert the primacy of British parliamentary sovereignty in the UK. But it is also clear – like it or not – that many voters would be deeply suspicious of any move by parliament to interfere with an act of direct democracy.
Faced with such crises, the Tudors had one other great trick up their sleeve. Every one of them – even, early on, grumpy old Henry VII – had a knack for sensing the public mood. Mary and Elizabeth only reached their thrones thanks to well-timed appeals to popular support – stymying the attempts of London-based elites to stitch up the succession with alternatives like Lady Jane Grey and Margaret Douglas. Theresa May knows how to handle parliament; she also knows that a vote at this stage would not mark her as a leader with the common touch. Perhaps she is a Tudor monarch after all.