Brexit and the Myth of Sovereignty
“We want our country back” was a common cry of Brexiteers during the referendum campaign. There was a wide perception that Britain had lost its “sovereignty” by joining the EU and letting “faceless bureaucrats” force us into accepting rules we didn’t want.
But what is sovereignty?
Sovereignty means the authority of a state to govern itself, and determine its own laws and policies.
Sovereignty means the right to govern yourself.
Sovereignty means the ability to govern yourself.
Sovereignty means the power to govern yourself.
So, the important words are power, ability, authority, right ….
Which country is the most sovereign state in the world? Probably North Korea – that bastion of dictatorial lunacy. It makes its own laws. And breaks them. And changes them. And ignores them. And makes new laws. It is the epitome of a powerful, authoritarian country, trammelled by no external restrictions or consideration for any other country.
Is that good? Is it a healthy, prosperous, secure country? Does its sovereignty actually benefit it in any way at all? Is it a role model for the rest of the world?
Not a lot. North Korea is a pariah nation, spurned even by Communist China, its old-time protector. It has no effective place in the community of nations and its people live under a tyranny.
In a world that is increasingly interconnected, absolute internal power means very little. Sovereignty is not the same thing as being able to control the forces that affect a country’s population.
Most of the world’s governments have long realised the limits of absolute sovereignty. This is why, for example, Britain is a signatory to over 11,000 international treaties – agreements that restrict and limit our country’s power, in return for other benefits. Of course, they also restrict the power and sovereignty of every other country that has signed the treaties with us. Nearly all countries do it, because accepting selective limits on sovereignty improves a government’s ability to deliver prosperity and security to its nation’s people.
Having the right to govern yourself does not mean that you can. For example, France is a sovereign nation. It has the right to govern itself. That right has continued unbroken for hundreds of years, under kings, emperors and presidents. Even its revolution in 1789 didn’t disturb its international status; it always governed itself. Yet between 1940 and 1944, despite its sovereignty, France was unable to govern itself. The Nazi invasion captured and subjugated France, trampling on its rights and virtually enslaving the nation. Yet those rights still existed. France’s moral and legal right and authority to govern itself were not diminished. What had been destroyed for the duration was its factual power. Its legal sovereignty did it no good whatsoever when it was under the jackboot.
And that is the whole point about sovereignty. It isn’t about your right to do something but your ability to do it. In the end, all legal rights depend on the factual ability to exercise them. The fact comes first; the legality comes later. Every regime in history starts with a power-grab, not with a divine law giving inalienable rights. Even Britain’s current regime, with all its traditions and panoply, depends on the revolution that occurred in 1689, when King James II/VII was expelled by Parliament and King William III and Queen Mary II were given the throne. So, sovereignty depends on factual ability, not on absolute legal rights.
Is Britain a sovereign nation? It certainly was in the 19th century. It owned so much of the world that it had an “Empire on which the sun never sets”. It was a sovereign nation in 1914, when it went to war with the rest of Europe. And again in 1939, when the same thing happened all over again. Britain was so factually powerful, that even the parts of its empire that had been given independence (with one exception – the Irish Republic) joined the second world war on Britain’s side. And there is no doubt that some of the country’s most heroic moments occurred in the following few years.
But then there was another event. On Sunday, 7th December 1941, the USA joined the second world war …. And took it over. After that, everything changed. The American president became the chief executive of the allies’ conduct of the war. An American general was put in charge of all allied troops in Europe, including Britain. British home territory was flooded with American troops who, if so ordered, could have taken over the country. In the invasion of Europe in 1944, Britain’s generals, admirals and air marshalls had to do what their American commander told them.
When the war was won, the Americans stayed. Britain had been so denuded of wealth and assets by the two world wars that America had to bail us out financially, and it took us 60 years to repay the debts. We could no longer defend ourselves, so we joined the American military club (NATO), to defend us and the rest of western Europe against feared attack from the Soviet Union. And the Americans still stayed, as they stayed in every other allied country west of Berlin.
What then of British sovereignty? We still had the right to govern ourselves, and on the face of it still did so, with Parliament, government and elections. But in the 20 years after the end of the war, we lost our empire. By the late 1960s the British Empire consisted of a few little enclaves and islands dotted around the world, with no economic power or military standing. We were becoming the sick man of Europe. In 1967, we suddenly devalued the pound by nearly 15%, to retain our ability to trade internationally. Inflation was beginning to bite domestically and took the best part of a quarter of a century to die down. We had had to borrow huge sums of money from the Americans after WWII, and it took us more than 60 years to repay it. One of the conditions was the dismantling of the Empire, starting with India, the jewel in the crown, in 1947, and completing in about 20 years.
So, whereas we retained the appearance of full sovereignty, in truth we were in thrall to the USA, with no way out except via Europe. By joining the EEC, we became equal partners with (then) nine other countries, but a very influential partner because of our size. In just over 40 years, from being a nation in deep financial peril, we became the fifth largest economy in the world. We did that by sharing our sovereignty with other Europeans, as well as by taking a share of theirs. This is the way to prosper: by each participant voluntarily sharing what is available. THIS is sovereignty. THIS is the power to grow strong. THIS is the ability to increase our power, with the power of others.