1 January 2021

What does sovereignty mean in the age of Brexit?

By Rupert Gather

Finally they got it. In the end the EU team realised that Brexit wasn’t a dumb, dry economic calculation by deluded Brits, but was about the desire to become an ‘independent coastal state’, with all the risks and opportunities that entails. Ursula von der Leyen however, having belatedly identified the stick, firmly grasped the wrong end of it. Only late in the day, with Brexit upon us, did she identify sovereignty as the key driver of the 2016 referendum result, whilst claiming nonetheless that real sovereignty is about “pooling our strength and speaking together”.

She was right to suggest that sovereignty is an abstract concept. True, it has a legal structure and can often be born out of physical boundaries defined by an island, river, desert or mountain range. But really it is about the feelings of the people who live within a particular jurisdiction. The emotional attachment that this engenders, the love of the sovereign nation, is how we define patriotism — and where the EU struggles.

We have to be cautious not to confuse love for one’s own country with hostility to others. As Voltaire said “it is lamentable that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind”. But to understand the relevance of sovereignty in an age of Brexit, we have to understand at an emotional level what lies behind it.

At root, sovereignty is born out of enlightened self-interest. In the same way that a child has an innate loyalty and love for a parent, because of its need for physical protection and nourishment, it is inbuilt in us to form our group, our tribe, our country. 

Rarely has this idea been better expressed than in Thomas Hobbes’ classic work, ‘Leviathan’. Hobbes sees the nation as embodied in a creature rising up over a landscape, rather like Godzilla. At its head is a crowned sovereign flourishing a sword as a symbol of protection, but if you look closely, what appear to be scales covering its body are actually hundreds of people acting in unison to give flesh to the idea of a sovereign state. A state’s power derives from everyone surrendering their own sovereign power in return for protection or peace. So, although patriotism is an emotional term and sovereignty is a legal term, they are indistinguishable in why people come together and believe in a unifying authority.

Economic sovereignty

But it’s clear that there’s another kind of protection that drives sovereignty – economic wellbeing – and this is where the EU claims to be on stronger ground. Absent the natural kinship and loyalty inspired by the nation, Brussels offers EU citizens ‘pooled sovereignty’, in which member states give up a measure of autonomy in return for greater prosperity. 

Great idea, but the danger is that, in the same way as ‘no one ever washed a hire car’, something that is pooled is not owned, and something that is not owned is not cared for. What is missing is the direct and obvious benefit to individuals and families that in turn inspires loyalty. It is also why delays in distributing the Covid vaccine are so dangerous for the European project — for without delivering clear, practical benefits to its members, it is nothing.

Whilst physical and economic protection create the framework for sovereignty, attachment lies much closer to home. This starts in the mind literally as ‘hearth and home’, and explains the enduring popularity of Britain’s war poets. Some are sad, some inspiring, but they all seek sanctuary in the idea of home. For WB Yeats it is the parish of Kiltartan and for Edward Thomas it is ‘all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’. The post-war master of a sense of place was John Betjeman, who could make home as intimate as a mouse in a church or ‘gulls reflecting in the sharp spring sun’.

Home is not simply about place, it is also about people, our own communities. When a community comes together there is something transformative about the way it changes the way people feel. Sovereignty therefore starts from the need for protection, is reinforced in the wallet and flourishes in the local. But there’s something even more powerful that unites us, which is our sense of belonging.

This helps explain why fishing was such a totemic issue in both UK and France, because the ‘fishing community’ meant something in terms of togetherness and self-reliance. Communities that come together to a common identity thrive because they feel that they matter to the world, but are small enough to feel that they matter to each other. 

So Mrs von der Leyen, try and understand that what goes for Peterhead and Penzance, or indeed Port-en-Bessin, goes for the whole nation as we emerge into our new status as the world’s newest ‘independent coastal state’.

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Rupert Gather is founder and Executive Chairman of InvestUK.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.