Another day, another Tudor throwback. This time, Jeremy Corbyn has accused Theresa May of acting like Henry VIII by avoiding a vote in Parliament over the triggering of Article 50. ‘She cannot hide behind Henry VIII and the divine rights of the power of kings on this one’, he told the Guardian this week. ‘The idea that on something as major as this the prime minister would use the royal prerogative to bypass parliament is extraordinary – I don’t know where she’s coming from.’
We’ve been here before. Our politicians are addicted to Tudor comparisons: only last August, the Labour MP Barry Gardiner accused Theresa May of seeking ‘to diminish parliament and assume the arrogant powers of a Tudor monarch.’ (Can powers be ‘arrogant’? Was this a homage to the rhetorical device of hypallage?) May prefers to compare herself to Elizabeth I: ‘a woman who knew her own mind and achieved in a male environment.’ A worthy role-model, but awkward when neither Labour nor Tories can stretch their political vocabulary beyond the limits of a short-lived Welsh dynasty.
Gardiner and Corbyn are wrong on Henry VIII, of course. Corbyn may give the impression of a soggy-bottomed university lecturer defiantly lost on a freshers’ field trip, but he’s never shown much professorial expertise when it comes to Parliamentary history. As I wrote in August, Henry VIII relied on Parliament to enshrine his constitutional reformation in English law. He even invoked it to assent to his Will:
‘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.