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In Its Search for Sovereignty, Britain has Defaulted to a Dangerous Sovereign

Jonathan Lis exposes the con at the heart of the Brexiters’ quest for independence – a quest that will hand more power to elites, not less

UK chief trade negotiator David Frost (left) and British Ambassador to the EU Tim Barrow (right) look on as Boris Johnson signs the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement on 30 December 2020. Photo: Leon Neal/PA Wire/PA Images

In Its Search for Sovereignty, Britain has Defaulted to a Dangerous Sovereign

Jonathan Lis exposes the con at the heart of the Brexiters’ quest for independence – a quest that will hand more power to elites, not less

And so it finally came to pass. Last Wednesday, one day before the end of the transition period, the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill passed the House of Commons by 521 votes to 73, then cleared the Lords, and had gained Royal Assent by the end of the day. Brexit was accomplished.

If the cramming of four-and-a-half years and 1,200 pages into a five-hour parliamentary debate does not expose the lie of ‘taking back control’, nothing ever will. Most MPs had not even had a chance to read the agreement and, as legal experts have pointed out, they handed the Government substantial new discretionary powers. Whoever has seized power since 2016, it certainly is not our elected representatives.

And yet, control was at the heart of this project. It was projected through a word we have heard repeatedly but seldom examined: sovereignty. It was the hardline European Research Group’s only test of the deal. It was what the UK negotiator Lord David Frost claimed had been restored. It was the clarion call of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson from the moment each assumed office.

But what is it? And why did it become so important?

The Feeling

The word itself derives from the Vulgar Latin superanus, denoting a supreme ruler or supreme rule. In its most progressive, radical form, it denotes freedom – particularly for countries that were once governed by other people’s empires. Sometimes too, that involves demoting considerations of prosperity: post-colonial governments would often declare it better to be ‘poor and free than rich and enslaved’.

To some extent, that explains the Brexiters’ philosophy too. Contrary to some of the most extreme supporters’ fantasies, the UK was never colonised by the EU and did not need to fight for its independence. But the absolute primacy of sovereignty – ‘independence’ – similarly came at the cost of economics, jobs and future prosperity. Some Brexiters, including Nigel Farage, openly declared that they would accept reduced prosperity if it granted that freedom – although the Leave campaign never acknowledged such a choice to the British people.

The UK has, of course, always been sovereign. It is irrelevant to the discussion. This is not, and has never been, about sovereignty in the practical sense. It has only ever been emotional. The Government acknowledged this quite clearly in the Brexit white paper of February 2017. “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that,” it said. Sovereignty is not something you can touch, see or buy – it is a feeling. In the wrong hands that makes it not only dangerous, but illusory.

Consider how the debate played out in the final weeks of last year. The Government did not seem interested in the fact that all trade agreements – like any international agreements or institutions – involve sharing rules and thus pooling a degree of sovereignty. Indeed, it is their entire purpose. The conversation was, instead, absolutist. We could tolerate no encroachment at all on our freedom to do whatever we pleased, whenever we chose. At one point Johnson openly declared that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would allow us to “do exactly what we want”.

And yet, for all the talk of sovereignty, the Government never interrogated what would actually be done with it. Ministers regularly extolled the need to ‘take back control of our waters’, but the freedom to catch more fish was in fact the freedom to catch fish British people wouldn’t eat: we weren’t to ask who buys the fish, but who owns it. This sovereignty was not designed to enhance the lives of fishers, but to prove a point.

The Reality

It is not simply that sovereignty is an arbitrary concept which couldn’t justify economic damage. The irony is that the Brexit deal agreed on actually delivers less control than the UK had before.

This year, it will pay £7.1 billion into the EU’s budget for a return of precisely zero. Last year, the UK contributed £8.2 billion for every single benefit. Northern Ireland is now out of the UK’s Single Market and firmly in the EU’s economic orbit. Goods and services face significant checks and barriers in their largest market, becoming instantly less competitive. And stiff level-playing field provisions consolidate the EU’s commercial advantage.

The Prime Minister mocked the critics who, in his words, had said “you couldn’t have free trade with the EU unless you conformed with the EU’s laws”. And yet that was entirely true. The UK no longer has fully free trade with the EU and has now enabled it to impose tariffs on British goods – making that trade even less free – if it diverges from EU regulations. This is sovereignty in action: not simply a trade-off, but a con. Boris Johnson declared this a “cakeist treaty” and, as with so much else, he was wrong. This was less sovereignty, with more consequences.

Johnson, of course, cannot admit it. After Parliament approved the deal, he still declared that there would be no new red tape. It was a naked, obvious lie, as any trader or traveller will now discover. He told it because he daren’t test the thesis that voters may not value sovereignty at any price. He cannot acknowledge that it comes with strings attached, so must deny it even as they attach before our eyes.

And so we must ask why. If sovereignty is so important, why did the Government compromise it? And if the Government compromised it, why did it then lie about it? The question really amounts to this: who is the sovereignty for?

The Union

The first answer is England. Not the people, but the idea.

Brexit not only doesn’t care about the UK, it actively works against it. The most significant element of the parliamentary vote was that all the sitting Northern Irish MPs voted against it. Each MP who takes their seat – the DUP, SDLP and Alliance – rejected this deal. For better or worse, the agreement aligns Northern Ireland not with the UK but with the EU. Ironically, for a deal that was all about sovereignty, it is now easier for Northern Ireland to trade with Bulgaria than with Britain. That may have constitutional consequences. You could say that the deal first united Northern Ireland, and will soon unite Ireland.

An even likelier prospect than Irish reunification is Scottish independence. Scotland has been rebuffed at every stage since the 2016 EU Referendum. But polling suggests that 58% of voters are now in favour of seceding. Part of the reason is that sovereignty is bound with identity. Just as people in Northern Ireland may feel both British and Irish, those across the UK might feel English, Scottish, British and also European. Sovereignty is ‘clean’ in the Brexiters’ fantasies but identity never can be. The compartmentalising of sovereignty forces people to choose one part of their identity over another – and for UK-only citizens, having one part of their identity confiscated.

Brexit has created a fantasy of kings in castles with absolute power, addicted to the notion of territory, nation and ownership.

For all their boilerplate allegiance to the Union, the Brexiters let this happen because they put England first. This sovereignty is not red, white and blue, but red and white: an island alone, folding in on itself. 

And yet the irony of this English sovereignty has always been that it deploys two seemingly contradictory philosophies: standing splendidly isolated, while seeking to conquer the globe. This weekend, Conservative backbencher Iain Duncan Smith eulogised the opportunities for 21-year-olds to “be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again”. This sovereignty is about England, but perhaps even more about empire.

It seems that, in the end, it wasn’t about the sovereignty of the Brexiters so much as one man. As the saga has dragged on, we have accepted and normalised the complete reframing of its discourse. We stopped examining this massive political event through the lens of statecraft, geopolitics or national interest – even the Conservative Party’s interest – but by the whims and appetites of the Prime Minister. Even the most conservative commentators gave up pretending that this was about what was good for Britain – it was always what served the immediate personal and political interests of Boris Johnson and his personality, ego and place in history.

This wasn’t, in effect, about Britain’s sovereignty, but Britain’s sovereign: not the constitutional monarch but our unconstitutional one. Johnson has now positioned himself as a Tudor king and alone will map his nation’s destiny and subsume it to his needs.

The Problem

Sovereignty is most progressive when it is broad and shared, earned with consultation and consent. It becomes a problem when it is hoarded.

Brexit has created a fantasy of kings in castles with absolute power, addicted to the notion of territory, nation and ownership. It offers a reassuring view of the world in which we draw an arbitrary line around rocks and declare them ours. But it is deeply reactionary.

It asks us to cling to our own separate islands and deny obligations to one another. It privileges land over electorates and illusion over livelihoods. In the end, it hands supreme rule not to the people, but to their ruler.

We have watched it take place before our eyes.

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