When Charles I lost his head, the modern British concept of ‘sovereignty’ was born. But has it had its day? The EU referendum outcome will help answer this question.
The 30th January 1649 was a typically cold winter day in London, and after a dignified cry ‘strike’ from the crowned head, down descended the unpropitious axe blade. As the head of Charles I, by Gods Grace Defender of the Faith was held up, silence ensued. Not even the axeman dared utter anything for fear his masked identity would be discovered. It was a seminal moment in the direction of a country, a people and of history. Everyone who bore witness knew and were silenced by it. January 30th 1649, the day the modern British concept of sovereignty was born.
To the British mindset ever since that bloody episode in London, the concept of ‘national sovereignty’ has gravitated around the notion of accountability plus authority. That is to say, parliament is sovereign because it (then notionally, today actually) is accountable to the people. This is where and why it wields its authority.
For many Brits this remains the central definition of what constitutes ‘national sovereignty’. But today I want to explore the possibility that things since the dawning of globalisation might have rendered things more complicated. It is not my intention to argue one view over another. But the question of sovereignty is central the our EU referendum vote, and it has been woefully ignored by our politicians, media and rival campaigns. The question of what constitutes sovereignty is the central nub of the EU referendum.
Globalisation as an economic phenomenon has produced cross-border businesses which have higher turnovers and freer (and higher) capital than many ‘nations’ and ‘states’ in our world. It has created a new class of global citizenry who live cross-borders; between states as a matter of normalcy. This creates a new power dynamic. For example, Google can ‘get away’ with effectively ‘volunteering’ to pay UK tax monies simply because the UK in isolation isn’t capable of compelling a firm the size of Google to pay what we might call ‘its fair share’. And the UK is the worlds 5th largest economy! Put simply, global businesses and global businessmen are able to ‘pick and choose’ their tax and regulatory jurisdiction. This means an effective loss of sovereignty in the traditional sense for nations and states has already occurred. For these global entities directly influence the laws we live under. Is it not the case in economics that to attract businesses, to ‘generate wealth’ you must maintain certain levels of income tax and business tax rates? Who decided that corporation taxes over and above x amount is ‘uncompetitive’ and thus politically unthinkable? It wasn’t our elected representatives, many of whom prefer to pretend like Corbyn that these realities of economics don’t exist. It is the global entities aforementioned. They set the game, they weight the scales, all our elected parliaments do is role the dice. Thus the traditional notion of sovereignty has already been reduced.
So how do we hold these global entities/actors to account? This argument goes, simply, we must ‘share’ our traditionally understood notion of ‘sovereignty’ with others. And the EU, for example, offers a means to ensure that in the future we don’t lose national authority to unaccountable conglomerates. That our free markets are regulated by the laws enacted by elected state actors. Sure they must cooperate, compromise and agree a ‘common standard’ whereby all engaged can live with. But if we ‘pull sovereignty’, and agree to live by a common set of regulatory standards, we can reduce the ability of unaccountable and faceless conglomerates to ‘divide and rule’, to ‘weigh the scales’.
So in an odd sort of fashion, being in the EU may actually enhance our sovereignty. But, unarguably it has reduced our sovereignty in that traditional sense. After all who elects the EU Commission? And which jurisdictional legal body is highest, UK Supreme Court or the EU Court of Justice? There has been an unarguable erosion of our traditionally understood concept of sovereignty. But, in exchange, we may have enhanced our sovereignty in regards to globalisation’s actors.
Thus the big question is: has it been worth it? We’ll know the British public’s views come Thursday 23rd of June.