The multinational in “Wolf Hall”

The excellent series “Wolf Hall” has recently finished on the BBC. Here’s a link (at least for a while!) to an interview with Mark Rylance, who plays the central character, Thomas Cromwell, and the director, Peter Kosminsky. I find a section from Kosminsky at about 22.30 (noting that at the time Wolf Hall is set, Christianity was about the same age Islam is now, and was beheading and burning people on a regular basis over small differences of religious interpretation) particularly interesting to reflect on, given all the news about ISIS, but this is just one among many ways in which I think we can find lessons in the history of the period.

The series majors on personal relationships in the Tudor court, and brings home wonderfully the ever present atmosphere of danger for those trying to operate in and exercise any influence in an atmosphere where failure tends to result in execution. As a result, the parts dealing with the really major political and religious development of the period are somewhat underplayed. Henry VIII is seen as instituting the takeover of the church in England by the state as largely a means to get his way in being able to divorce and marry as he wishes without being dependent on the Pope, and the economic and political implications are not stressed as much as they might be.

These were, however, of huge importance. At the commencement of Henry’s reign, the church was governed from Rome, and the Pope and his favoured monarch, then the Emperor (as the Hapsburgs were Holy Roman Emperors and also rulers of Spain at the time) could dictate a significant amount of policy. Henry’s declaration that he was head of the church in England was calculated to bring this influence to an end; the conflict with Thomas More which is dealt with in Wolf Hall stemmed from this, More considering that loyalty to Rome as a Christian took precedence to loyalty to Henry as his most important minister (Chancellor). The implications for today, when we are prone to consider Muslims suspect as potentially having an allegiance to an outside power which is potentially inimical to the interests of our nation are obvious, though we are inclined to forget that only a small minority of Muslims actually support the Islamic State, while at the time all Christians unless they had undercover sympathies with the followers of Luther were potentially suspect.

The church also, primarily through the monasteries, had control over vast tracts of land in the country – and by and large this was exempt from taxation – as churches in many countries still are. The extent of this control had concerned English monarchs for many years; Edward I had in the 13th century passed the Statutes of Mortmain (the term translates literally as “dead hand”) to try to limit the increase of these estates. The form of taxation on land (which in those pre-industrial days was by far the principal form of wealth) was on succession, and the monasteries didn’t die, come of age or become attained for treason, so no taxes. Of course, control of the land was also in the hands of bodies which were a kind of corporation, and the ultimate authority for them was abroad – often immediately, as many monasteries were part of a larger grouping the mother houses of which were abroad, but in any event with the ultimate authority being the pope.

In other words, the monasteries were the multi-national corporations and offshore residents of their day, largely immune from tax (and so from contributing to the common good of the state in which their wealth worked for them) and from the control of the state. They also, of course, provided no soldiers in times of war, the concept of the “fighting cleric” having happily fallen into disuse by then. While, of course, Henry VIII was an autocratic ruler and regarded the public purse as his own, nevertheless out of it he did provide many of the benefits which a more modern state offers its citizens, most notably defence and law and order. There was, to be fair, some primitive semblance of democracy in the form of the House of Commons (lower house of parliament), but at the time this had a largely advisory role.

My last post criticised trickle down economics. By and large, however, it was talking of individuals from whom wealth is supposed to “trickle down” and doesn’t. It “trickles down” even less from corporations, even if these are actually resident in the country where their wealth is produced.

There is thus a problem for governments very similar to those faced by Henry (and earlier kings). Henry’s solution was to dissolve the monasteries and confiscate their assets, which gave him the significant bonuses of a major one-off boost to the treasury and the ability to cement the loyalty of some of his supporters by grants of land often at knock-down prices. He and his son Edward who succeeded him also confiscated a sizeable amount of church valuables, also swelling the treasury and, incidentally, returning into the then money supply significant amounts of gold and silver which had been outside that system for some time (an analogy would be of corporations retaining large cash reserves which are not invested).

As an aside, he achieved this by votes of parliament; this proved to be a significant move in the direction of power being vested in parliament, albeit a relatively small one. That said, within 100 years, parliament was flexing its muscles and ordering the death of a successor king (Charles I).

I think there is also at least an argument that the freeing up of land (and thus effective capital) and production may have been the single most important factor in allowing the country to experience the world’s first Industrial Revolution, which was in its infancy shortly after the repercussions dealt with in the last paragraph started to subside, i.e. the early eighteenth century.

I have strong doubts that anything similar to Henry’s action could be attempted in the case of multi-national and corporations now without consequences even graver than those the country faced under him and his successors – years of instability as rule switched from pro-Rome to anti-Rome monarchs and back, eventually culminating in revolution and civil war 100 years later; political isolation from the largest powers in Europe and interruption in trade with them and with their colonial possessions; a paranoia about loyalty of those expressing religious views not in tune with the current norm, which took until at least the late 19th century to reduce. Offshore corporations as vehicles for tax avoidance, however, are a significantly easier target, as are expatriates who still make most of their money in this country. Should the attempt be made, however?

The answer “yes”, of course, assumes that we regard democratic nation states as a better repository for power and control of capital than we do corporations (or multi-national religions organised on an autocratic basis). Or, indeed, in the case of offshore tax-avoidance corporations, individual very rich people. Henry’s semi-autocratic England was perhaps a better repository for this power than was the monolithic Catholic Church of the day, but the nation became a far better one as it became closer to a democratic ideal over the next 350 years or so.

Not necessarily the easiest question to answer, and one which I think I’ll come back to…



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