Over the years since 2016, the arguments in favour of leaving the EU have altered in their emphasis. At the start, they were mainly economic ones, to the effect that being a member of the EU limited our ability to make advantageous trading arrangements with other nations, and that we were net contributors rather than beneficiaries. Anyone who could read the side of a bus knew that. Europeans were 'taking our jobs' and the establishment of trading treaties with nations outside the EU would be easy. Arguments of that kind faded, as the spectre of chlorinated chickens frightened the horses.
More recently, the Tories won a substantial majority with the slogan that Brexit would enable us to 'take back control'. This is the assertion of sovereignty, and maintaining or restoring sovereignty now seems to be politically more important than the original economic argument. Indeed, sovereignty seems to be desirable even at the cost of economic decline. I shall examine the nature of sovereignty, but whatever its merits, it certainly doesn't put your dinner on the table.
I have a certain squeamishness about definitions, and definitions of sovereignty and views of both theory and practice have varied over the centuries. But to get anywhere we have got to start somewhere so I shall assert that sovereignty is supreme authority within a territory.
My attempted definition leaves open assorted questions which, historically, have had different answers. For example, the idea of 'authority' suggests legitimacy. In other words, sovereignty is not a matter of naked power. But if it is not naked power, it can be asked what that authority is based on. In the early modern period, sovereigns based their authority on divine right and/or a blood line. But divine right and blood lines have been superseded by the idea that authority derives from 'the people'. Of course, that immediately suggests that it is the people who are sovereign, and that the ruler is only in a secondary sense sovereign. A tangle of problems arise here over what 'representative democracy' means, but I shall not attempt here to unravel them.
Next, there is the question of the 'supremacy' of the authority. Does that mean that the sovereign is above the law? Some theorists have thought so. For example, the bloodshed of the English Civil War led Thomas Hobbes to argue in 1651 that the sovereign – the Leviathan – had to be an authority above any law if strife were to be ended. And, to move from theory to practice, our present government in Westminster has ignored the international law of treaties and also attempted to prorogue parliament until it was frustrated by judges. Our government would dearly like to trim the authority of judges. As a government-supporting newspaper put it, judges are 'enemies of the people'.
The third element in my proposed definition is that sovereignty is 'over a territory'. If we look back on this historically, we can see that sovereignty wasn't a prominent concept in the early modern period. The Holy Roman Empire extended over present-day Europe. States were not separate, territorially discrete nations as they now are. The nationalist movements in the 19th century brought to the fore the territorial aspects of sovereignty. It was the period of the growth of the nation state.
An interesting feature of sovereignty is that it cuts across national or racial identities. Membership of a state may not correspond with racial or national identities. For example, the Scottish Parliament allows that anyone working in Scotland and registered counts as being Scottish for voting purposes, while those residing elsewhere are not eligible even if born and brought up in Scotland. This has caused some resentment. Racial differences can also be a source of tension within a sovereign state, as has been apparent in various parts of the world, such as in Iraq or Turkey where, to put it mildly, the Kurds are not well-regarded.
What are the problems with sovereignty? There are two kinds, one affecting the internal running of a sovereign state, and the other affecting both its external relations with other states and also contemporary political and social movements which run counter to state sovereignty.
The internal problems can be summed up if we say that stress on internal sovereignty leads to centralisation at the expense of local and regional government. This recently came to the surface when the PM let slip that he thought that devolution had been a disaster. Presumably, the pesky devolved administrations keep doing things without his permission and saying stuff to the outside world he doesn't like. Even within England, mayors are attempting to run cities or larger regions in ways which are difficult to control centrally, and mayors resent interference from central government.
Moreover, to pick up the point I touched on earlier, the law, and especially the higher courts, frequently reach judgement which go against the central government. Government would dearly like to curb the interference, as they see it, of the Courts.
Another institution which can interfere with the sovereign authority of the government and point to weak policies is, oddly enough, the House of Lords. Governments have an ambivalent attitude to the House of Lords. On the one hand, elevation to it can be seen as a reward for service to the government but on the other, it is often ungrateful and does not follow the government line. It certainly needs reform but one of its great merits is precisely that it is not elected so its members do not need to pander to an electorate or tabloid newspapers.
A strong sovereign government can result in stability, but it also leads to over-centralisation. Some degree of political pluralism is likely to work better for all.
The first external disadvantage of a stress on state sovereignty is that it can lead to economic disadvantage for its members. To take an analogy, when people get into a personal relationship, marriage or similar, they give up some of their individual autonomy for mutual benefit. So, with a trading relationship: some sovereignty must be conceded for mutual benefit. The entire concept of the EU is based on that idea. Currently the UK Government seems willing to sacrifice enormous trading opportunities to maintain sovereignty over its fishing waters, although fish amount to only one tenth of 1% of GDP.
The 19th and early 20th centuries were the high point of supreme territorial sovereignty. This could and did lead to tensions among sovereign states, a tension exacerbated by colonialism. The First World War was a supreme example of the outcome of rivalry between sovereign states. After centuries of war, the EU now has a unity which will minimise the risk of war. The UK, on the other hand, is still locked into a 19th-century idea of territorial sovereignty.
A third problem for the external aspects of sovereignty has been the growth of the human rights movement. In 1948, most states signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, committing themselves to as many as 30 rights for individuals. This declaration was not legally binding so it left state sovereignty intact. But by the 1960s, two covenants legally bound most of the world's states to observing the rights of their peoples. This progress received a setback with the illegal bombing of Iraq by the US and UK, a disgraceful episode which did not receive Security Council endorsement. Nevertheless, it is likely that broad international support for human rights will increase and that that pressure will further modify the external actions of sovereign states.
In sum, then, I am arguing that a stress on the internal aspect of sovereignty leads to centralisation and is at the expense of the advantages of political pluralism; and that a stress on the external aspects of sovereignty – go it alone – minimises economic advantages and runs counter to support for international humanitarian movements. Breaking international law and agreed treaties, and threatening fishermen with gunboats in the Channel, diminishes us as a nation in the eyes of the world.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow