It seems that the concept of sovereignty is very much to the fore amongst Brexiteers. Apparently they are determined we should regain it. It seems it has not been available to us since we joined the EEC/EU. If I’m honest about it though, it’s not something I'd thought about very much over the years. Indeed, as a concept, it's always seemed to me to relate more to the time when we had kings and queens, colonies and outposts of empire – a time when we had actual sovereigns and ruled a large part of the globe. An exception to our line of sovereigns, Oliver Cromwell, who did for Charles I and became “The Lord Protector”, was regarded merely as a dictator, rather than a sovereign because he was not of kingly lineage. He did in fact try to create a lineage. The army wanted him to ensure a succession and so he nominated as his successor as Lord Protector his eldest surviving son, Richard Cromwell. Richard, however, rather unwisely reduced the amount of money going to the army and so the army decided it was time to go back to real kings instead.
But any sovereign worthy of the name was, by definition, a dictator. And as we can now see, there is no such thing as a kingly lineage, just children who have actually succeeded in taking over from their parents as the dictator of the moment. The ‘royal line’ has in fact been a succession of ‘royal lines’ over the millennia. And although people have in the past ascribed superior qualities to members of royal families, I suspect that in the days of OK and Hello magazines, they are now seen simply as celebs, just like other well-heeled, well-known, often rather dim people.
All this means that we have a new version of sovereignty, one without an individual sovereign. Parliament is sovereign. We, the people, pool our rights of personal self-determination in order to try to avoid what would otherwise be either a dictatorship of some sort or an anarchic world, rather than a relatively socially coherent community. Instead of an irremovable sovereign to reign over us, we have a committee to which we give control for a period of five years and whose continuance in power is then subject to review based on its performance. Certainly, Parliament has ultimate control over our laws, but we have control over who the parliamentarians are. It is therefore difficult to see how the concept of sovereignty applies in the sense in which it used to be understood, although I’m not sure that the Mr Rees Mogg and the other Brexiteers have yet quite understood the difference.
Does sovereignty now apply instead in a different sense, perhaps as summed up in the infamous phrase ‘Taking back control’? We want to have sovereignty over our borders, our trade policy, our foreign relations. We could of course become a closed island, determining, in a completely insular way, what we want to be - much like Cuba still is, or as various former Eastern block dictatorships have become since their 'liberation' from the Soviet yoke. In the absence of such an extreme view, however, all of our policy decisions have to be made in a world where we coexist with other supposedly ‘sovereign’ countries. We have to come to the sort of messy compromises and agreements which are integral to being part of the international community. If we have sovereignty, then it is not of a sort which is absolute. And if it is not absolute, then it seems to me that the meaning of the word has changed so much as to make it virtually meaningless. We have the ability to decide on policy but only, it seems, in the context of what other countries will cooperate in permitting.
But the head-bangers of the European Research Group, the ones who have found it so difficult to know when to mount a successful coup against Teresa May, seem determined to live in an illusory past – they even now say that our sovereignty as a nation is far more important than our economic well-being. They have been quite explicit in saying, in the last few months at least, that what the nation voted for by 52% to 48% was to take back control – to exercise sovereignty - over our borders without regard to the economic consequences.
During the referendum campaign, of course, that was not quite what they said. We were told that the sun-filled uplands awaited us as soon as we had thrown off the shackles of the EU. To achieve this, we had to abandon the four freedoms which underlie the existence of the EU and become, once again, a sovereign nation. We should control our own borders as regards people, goods, services and flows of capital. They told us that the EU would come begging to us for a deal which enabled them to continue trading with us. The car manufacturers of Germany would be lining up outside Mrs Merkel's door to tell her that she had to make sure that there were no barriers to their just in time manufacturing processes or tariffs on their goods when exported to their oh so important market in the UK. Being the 5th largest market in the world would enable us to exercise our sovereignty and at the same time to benefit from trade deals all around the globe. Mmm...
And how does this play out? Well, we have the G7, the G8, the G20 and even, I gather the G77, although what this does, I have no idea. We also have the United nations, the World Trade Organisation (currently under serious attack by Trump and, before him, by Obama) and innumerable bilateral trade agreements. All of these groupings presume cooperation between countries at so many levels. They all involve a loss of control for each individual country and, in the case of trade agreements, make us subject to rules regarding standards to be applied to goods and services. In turn this makes us subject to the jurisdiction of international tribunals, composed of judges who are not exclusively British. And of course, the larger economic blocs - the USA and the EU - tend to dictate these standards to the smaller players.
I suppose that a trade deal in fruit and vegetables between us and say Nigeria would not have much impact on our sovereignty. The scale of the arrangements needed for the European single market however is much greater. It enables free trade not only in fruit and vegetables, but in all goods between 28 major economies and 40 other countries which have trade agreements with the EU and so it has to regulate the standards applicable to them all. And after Brexit, we shall still need trade agreements, with just as many countries, covering just as many goods. The only difference is that they will be individual agreements (once we have succeeded in negotiating them) and so not offer the convenience or efficiency of the EU single market.
So, if we are willing to cooperate with other countries in such a way, then in what way are the compromises required for membership of the EU different in principle? There is of course the famous provision committing members to ‘ever closer union’, but we were given an exemption from this in the run-up to the referendum. Is then the irreducible essence of our sovereignty, its beating heart, the right not to allow foreigners speaking accented English to cross our borders from the other 27 EU countries? From the hullabaloo that accompanies it, it seems so. Except that we now know that those who came here in such ‘vast’ quantities were not dependent on the social welfare system, but actually worked here, paid tax on their incomes and bought goods and services here. Did they displace Brits from the jobs which were on offer? Apparently not. We have virtually full employment and have had for many years now, and already the NHS and our care services are missing the people who are now disappearing with the falling pound.
So then, 'Sovereignty' is a word used grandiloquently in connection with our wish to see ourselves as an entirely independent nation, not beholden to anyone. It started off in the days when Sovereigns were, well, sovereign. ‘Sovereign’ is however now essentially just a synonym for the ability to put up barriers to people coming here who would earn less than £30,000 and to exercise a somewhat illusory power to ‘choose’ whether or not to enter into trade deals with other ‘Sovereign’ countries - trade deals which are vital to our well-being and therefore not optional extras at all, and which by their nature place real limits on what we can do. We are no longer the greatest empire in the world, able by military might to subjugate other countries which do not want to abide by the rules we dictate. We are not sovereign any longer in a sense which the last real sovereign, Victoria, would have understood. We really are going to have to get over ourselves in order to live in the post-Brexit world.
1 January 2019