I’ve been turned over this question for some weeks now, mainly because it has kept on popping up in different places. And because I fundamentally disagree.
Last month, I heard the line ‘sovereignty is democracy’ fall from the lips of Bill Cash, speaking on a panel about Parliamentary scrutiny of European business.
I had hoped he might bring his vast experience of such matters to bear on a more technical level, but instead we got some extemporising on why scrutiny during British membership of the EU was fundamentally flawed, because the legislation being considered was out of Parliament’s hands. By leaving, the UK had regained control [his sense, if not his words] and any of the manifest problems with current scrutiny arrangements was ultimately acceptable because it was our sovereign choice so to be.
And more recently, the same line has been thrown around in the Tory debate on migration. Consider Suella Braverman’s resignation statement this week:
All of this comes down to a simple question: who governs Britain? Where does ultimate authority for the UK lie? Is it with the British people and their elected representatives, or is it in the vague, shifting and unaccountable concept of international law?
Both Cash and Braverman were speaking in particular contexts, but the sentiment is one that carries general import, both in the party and more widely. After all, Braverman’s question isn’t so unreasonable as first glance: why shouldn’t we get to decide things for ourselves?
To address this, we might consider three aspects that seem relevant.
Firstly, most things don’t affect discrete groups of people separated along sovereign lines.
The entire international system of trade is – by definition – an interaction of states, setting rules not simply for their optimal preference, but also in relation to rules set by others. To take a pertinent example, this week’s swerve on car batteries by the EU reflects a situation on the ground whereby ideals about one priority have had to flex to accommodate practical realities. Just because I want free trade, I can’t impose that on other states by virtue of my sovereignty. Indeed, the quid pro quo of claiming ultimate decision-making authority over my territory is that I respect your ultimate decision-making authority over your territory.
Which makes it harder to deal with things that affect everyone – like climate change – or things that we hold to be universal – like human rights. Yes, we can work to find agreements among sovereign bodies, but with no scope to do anything if one or more of those bodies refuses to play ball. For fighting climate change that might weaken responses, but for human rights that might mean people dying. Are we really comfortable with that?
Secondly, there’s arguably nothing above the level of the state that carries compelling force without the say-so of states.
The EU is a prime example. It’s entire legal foundation is that of international treaties, freely entered into by states, who voluntarily give up some sovereign rights in service of shared objectives, but with the faculty to withdraw from that system if the trade-off no longer works. Brexit proves the point.
As an EU scholar, I realise I have been pampered about what’s what: the rest of the international system rests on hopes of good faith and of moral suasion. A moment’s glance around the world will tell you that Braverman’s shape-shifting ‘international law’ shifts shape because it keeps on getting bashed about. Yes, other states can try to make legal claims against you, but ultimately there’s very little they can do beyond some degree of turning their backs on you. The troubled history of international courts (or the UN Security Council for that matter) shows up the weaknesses.
And finally, sovereignty provides no help with the internal politics of our bit of the world.
This is where we came in: Bill Cash gliding over the difficulties Parliament has in scrutinising any part of government’s operation, let alone directing it. As many have observed, ‘taking back control’ seems to have meant giving the executive a lot more power to do as it likes, rather than re-empowering those institutions that more closely reflect popular engagement in the political system.
Put differently, sovereignty is purely relational, its quid pro quo being between states. You can find much discussion about where sovereignty lies within states – an absolute monarch, the people, even Parliament (in one specific case) – but is independent of the inter-state dynamic. That’s why we get all those appeals to respecting other states’ choices in the UN: if we leave you to run yourself as you wish, then you’ll do the same for us. Democracy doesn’t come into it.
So where does this leave us?
As ever, I’m loathe to treat politicians as either stupid or ill-intentioned. I’ve already suggested that Braverman asks a question that makes a degree of sense, if not more closely inspected.
Perhaps this is another case of the world being not quite as we’d like to find it. The desire for agency is a key part of politics; the notion that we matter in shaping things around us. But that agency has limits, most obviously in the interactive effects of each of us shaping things. Democracy is a mechanism for managing those interactions, to ensure that we allow individuals to have a voice and a vote, and to protect them from arbitrary decisions.
That mechanism is theoretically independent of scale: it can work for very small groups, through to very large ones. Democracy’s focus on how we can live together might be more productive than sovereignty’s interest in how we can keep apart.