This week on Radio 3 programming is centred around Martin Luther and The Reformation, obviously focusing on the change to music that resulted from radical thinking. Sometimes listening to Radio 3 is like being at university, such is the wealth and breadth of knowledge that is conveyed alongside the most sublime music.
It seems peculiar to us now that prior to The Reformation the bible was in Latin and ordinary people relied totally on the intercession of the clergy and had no way of accessing scripture in a way that was comprehensible to them. I was astonished to learn that when Luther (allegedly) nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church within two weeks his proclamation had traveled throughout Germany and within two months throughout Europe. This was in 1517. There must have been a great appetite for change, particularly for the principle of scripture to be in the vernacular.
Luther’s arguments paved the way for The Reformation and for the events in England under Henry VIII which led to the establishment of the Church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries, the iconoclasm and destruction of churches, artifacts, manuscripts and texts and the clear separation of English affairs from the influence of the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.
No one could have predicted the changes that took place. Once a process of change begins it is not possible to know how things will resolve and what will be different at the end of that process. All that can be predicted is that events will be unpredictable. This is true of both private, personal change and change in the public and political spheres.
Brexit is not a reformation, even if it would like to think it is but it is an enormous change, the outcome of which is totally unpredictable. Born out of cynical politicking the reality now is that the UK has to negotiate its way out of an economic and political union that is labyrinthine in its complexity. What is clear is that the Leave campaign was dishonest – remember Boris Johnson’s shiny red bus and the great big whopping lie painted on the side of it regarding the NHS? The population was not properly informed about what leaving the EU would mean, in part because nobody truly understood what it would mean. Cameron quickly got himself out of the way of the mess he had made leaving a robotic, cold and unconvincing Theresa May to wipe up after him.
Signs from Europe about the process of negotiation are not good. The word ‘delusional; regarding the British government’s view of how it sees the process keeps occurring. If the powers of Europe are using the term delusional then the nation should be concerned.
Brexit, like The Reformation will bring permanent and lasting change. It is likely that there will be violence and disruption along the way, chaos, fear and disarray as there was under the brutal policies of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI and of course under Bloody Mary when she attempted to restore Catholicism.
Looking at Scotland and Ireland there is a strong chance the union will break up and the UK will become fragmentary. We are already seeing tribalism in action with the right wing press referring to those who voted Remain as Remoaners and Saboteurs. There is not doubt that Brexit worked like a Pandora’s box, unleashing virulent racist attitudes and making it acceptable for those views to be aired in a way which they were not prior to June 23rd 2016. Of course those attitudes were there, under the surface but now they are visible and expressed with a kind of impunity that is frightening.
Brexit is not the only fearful and uncertain force for change that is frightening at present. Trump in the Whitehouse is almost unthinkable and yet it is reality. The sabre rattling with nuclear weapons that is happening should be terrifying to us all and yet the populace here in the UK is more uncomfortable with a political leader – Jeremy Corbyn – who says he would not use nuclear weapons than with the Tory party who say they would use first strike. It’s a bizarre situation that the electorate can be persuaded to vote for a party promising to wipe them off the face of the earth should a nuclear conflagration occur.
With Trump in the Whitehouse the likelihood of a major international incident has increased exponentially. He is the kind of leader so obsessed with his own ego and power that he appears to have no rational sense of what government, democracy and leadership should look like. Of course he was brought to power by antagonistic, dispossessed voters who rather like the Brexiteers thought they were voting for change and for their voices to be heard. The sad truth is that no one is listening because the Trump administration and the British Tory party are both obsessed with power, posturing and protecting the interests of neo-liberal super-wealth and not with the lives, hopes and dreams of the citizenry they are supposed to represent.
Luther and the Reformation brought change that led to an explosion in cultural life in terms of art, music, writing and thinking. The lumpen philistinism of Trump, May and Brexit is likely to do the opposite and far worse. And of course, it will not be them that pay the price of their hubris and venality. It will be the people, many of whom voted for monsters they could not possibly hope to understand and who they will never be able to control.