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The reality of ‘sovereignty’ post-Brexit is more complex than the Government lets on

David Frost and Michel Barnier. | PA Images

4 min read

Absolutist language masks whether negotiating true economic and political independence is even possible.

Can the UK now regain absolute national sovereignty, complete political and economic independence, in a highly interdependent world? The Government’s language about the future relationship between the UK and the EU has suggested that we can and will. The close political and economic partnership agreed in the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship, last year, has given way to the radical objective that “we will recover our political and economic independence in full” on January 1 2021. The prime minister’s Greenwich speech on February 3, David Frost’s 17 February Brussels speech, and the recent ministerial statement and command paper are studded with demands for “sovereign equality”, for full legal autonomy, and for a series of time-limited agreements instead of a comprehensive treaty.

Previous Conservative leaders – from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe – have argued the case for sharing sovereignty. Thatcher, campaigning to stay in the EEC in 1975, quoted President Kennedy’s ‘Declaration of Interdependence’ speech of 1962 – adding that “almost every nation has been obliged by the pressures of the post-war world to pool significant areas of sovereignty”. Her promotion of the European Single Market was based on her assumption that national regulations had become barriers to economic prosperity – and that a single market would spread deregulation across the UK’s neighbours.

In a recent exchange in the Lords, Lord Keen, the Scottish advocate-general, cited the Victorian lawyer AV Dicey as the government’s authoritative source on the indivisibility of UK sovereignty. Dicey remains a respected reference point in arguments about our unwritten constitution, though not entirely in support of the government’s position. He argued that the exceptional freedom that British subjects enjoyed rested not only on the sovereignty of Parliament but also on the supremacy of the common law and the absence of government interference in the impartiality of the courts. His denial that sovereignty could be shared was shaped by his bitter opposition to Irish home rule, insisting that the Imperial Parliament at Westminster was the only source of legitimacy. That argument led to the division of Ireland and could soon lead to the division of Scotland from England.

Economic independence is impossible to reconcile with a commitment to free trade. Thatcher deliberately opened core areas of the British economy to foreign ownership, inviting Japanese car manufacturers in to replace failed British companies. A government which welcomes a Chinese company taking over the last remnants of Britain’s steel industry, while relying on Huawei for key components in our communications network, is far from anything resembling economic independence. The extraordinary position of our crown dependencies and overseas territories – officially under UK sovereignty but outside our framework of taxation, financial and economic regulation – entangles our economy with the shadowy offshore world, over which the Government is in no hurry to take back control.

Economic independence is impossible to reconcile with a commitment to free trade

The demand that the EU must negotiate with the UK as a ‘sovereign equal’ is legally correct but politically an illusion. Our classically-trained prime minister must know well the reply the Athenians made to the Melian demand for equal treatment: “You know as well as we do that, as the world goes, right is only in question between equals in power. Meanwhile, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

It’s striking that there is no reference to equality in the white paper on future US-UK relations. British governments have recognised that we were America’s junior partner ever since Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941. The white paper nevertheless suggests that we can hope to influence the shape of global standards on data transmission through our special links with Washington, even though ministers deny that we have succeeded in shaping EU regulations over 40 years.

This is the language that Nigel Farage used in the referendum campaign, not Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. Its deployment now may be intended to persuade the EU to move towards Britain’s demands. But such absolutist language risks making eventual compromise impossible.


Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat peer

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