Exactly five hundred years ago, Europe stood on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. At the time, few if any nation states existed, and representative institutions such as parliaments were either absent or very weak. Instead, rule was oligarchic and dynastic. Although social mobility may not have been as low as commonly supposed, social rank was nonetheless of immense importance, and marriage an issue of power politics. Trade was cartelised by a system of guilds, which guarded their privileges so jealously that they became, in part, secret societies. Per capita, economic growth was practically zero. Overseeing it all was a powerful internationalist institution – the Roman Catholic Church – claiming a supernatural mission but in reality often corrupt and worldly. Populated by a priesthood who communicated to the laity via obscurantist rituals, it even had its own system of law that vied for legal supremacy with temporal authorities.
O, Luther, where art thou today! Although we no longer burn people at he stake for heresy or witchcraft, doesn’t the above pretty much describe the politics and society of modern Europe? A gilded, aloof, internationalist-minded and increasingly hereditary elite contemptuously overlooks a confused, angry and demoralised populus. The nation-state and democracy is dying. Where once stood the mighty Roman Church, now we have the European Union, once even described by Romano Prodi as “a new Holy Roman Empire”, which elevates its own ideals and mission to an almost supernatural status. Elite institutions may no longer converse in Latin, but instead indulge in the weird obfuscation of post-modernism, where words even as basic as marriage and gender mean whatever they want them to mean at any given time. Empirical reason is being replaced by emotion and fantasy. Corporatism has replaced free-market capitalism. Even dynastic politics is back in fashion.
Of course, in some ways the old Medieval age never went away: in Britain we still have our Kings, Queens, Dukes and Duchesses, and most of us are happy that that remains so. Far more toxic are the echoes of pre-modern thinking on our politics: the Tory Party is, if not Medieval, certainly pre-Enlightenment in its origins, and an ancient sense of entitlement still weighs very heavily upon it. For almost four hundred years until very recently, its patrician wing has been engaged in a graceful withdrawal under the onslaught of progress. Now, probably much to its own astonishment, it sees the re-emergence of social structures far more to its liking. We should, therefore, not be surprised to see Cameron et al fighting so very ruthlessly to preserve this new-but-ancient dispensation in the EU referendum debate, whereas those with a more broadly based definition of conservatism wish to preserve the gains of Enlightenment culture and thought.
It is a romantic notion to see today’s anti-EU campaigners in the tradition of Protestant reformers, even if today they post campaign material on the internet rather than nail it to the church door. However, let us hope they triumph a month from now, and the neo-Medieval age the European Union has done so much to foster proves to be nothing more than a bizarre and short-lived interlude, and we can return to organic, socially conservative nation-state democracy – a much more truly progressive way of life that it has so rudely interrupted.