‘Sovereign Britain’

Christopher Bertram

As the UK finally left the European Union, Boris Johnson declared that ‘we’ had at last regained our ‘freedom’. But as every student of political theory knows, freedom is a highly contested concept. Everyone claims to favour freedom, but this consensus conceals deep disagreements about its meaning and value.

Benjamin Constant argued two hundred years ago, in his speech ‘On the Liberty of the Ancients Compared to that of the Moderns’, that a mistake about the kind of freedom suitable to modernity was the source of much that had gone wrong with the French Revolution. Its leaders and thinkers had tried to apply an ideal of collective sovereignty from the ancient world and had failed to recognise that modern people instead prize liberties to live, love and trade with whom they choose.

According to Constant, citizens of Athens, Sparta or the Roman Republic enjoyed political freedom when legislating together, but this came at a price. A patriotic and engaged citizenry could only govern together because they lived in a small-scale society where many citizens knew one another personally and unfree labourers worked to keep them fed and watered. The patria expected citizens to subordinate their private lives to the public good and those who failed the state received the direst punishments, including exile and death. The way such societies enriched themselves, if at all, was by war and plunder, expanding their power over others. We moderns, by contrast, live though vast networks of anonymous and mutually beneficial co-operation with distant strangers.

Western societies have never resolved the tension between collective sovereignty and individual liberty. While commerce has been vital to their wealth, it has often been promoted by conquest, and in the 19th century a martial ideal, inspired by the ancients and yoked to nationalism, infused the drive by European powers to divide the globe between them and subordinate other peoples. This competition ended in the disasters of two world wars. It would be a mistake to deny the continuities between Europe today and the imperial past, particularly in relation to the formerly colonised who are still excluded by the EU’s hard external borders. Yet the project that became the European Union can also be seen as a partial repudiation of the contest for blood and treasure, and a corresponding turn towards ties of commerce, co-operation and private happiness.

This was the light in which the UK saw joining the Common Market in 1973. The old maps, with half the world coloured red, were put aside in favour of co-operative ties with Britain’s neighbours. But the ancient fantasy of collective self-government, though impossible to realise in the large and complex modern world, had not gone away. Rather, it was nurtured both by right-wing Eurosceptics and on parts of the left that hankered after a national programme of economic control.

Many of the complaints made about the European Union over the years would have struck a chord with Constant. He worried that modern citizens, preoccupied with private concerns, would allow distant politicians with formidable powers of coercion and taxation to promote their own interests at the public expense. But looking at Brexit in terms of his classification of freedoms, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we will find many of our modern liberties truncated, as we lose freedoms to trade, travel, love and work, while the freedoms of the ancients have not been restored to us.

The losses have not been counterbalanced by a more participatory political realm. True, the vote itself was a decision made directly by citizens, and public contestation between partisans of Leave and Remain has not stopped since. But the post-Brexit debate, often involving the performance of allegiance on Facebook or Twitter, does not much resemble the collective deliberation of the ancient agora. Other aspects of the ancient city are making an unwelcome return. The first is a more prescriptive ideal of citizenship, according to which those who fail to measure up to a patriotic standard – ‘Remoaners’ and immigrants – lose their moral claim to membership. The ancient punishments of ostracism and exile are reprised in the enthusiasm of the Home Office for deporting people to countries they’ve never seen. Meanwhile, productive work on farms and in factories is often delegated to rightless foreign metics.

‘Sovereign Britain’ does not look much like a place where a reinvigorated citizenry will be able to control their rulers through effective institutions. On the one hand, we will be constrained, like a small Greek city, by the far greater power of neighbouring superpowers; on the other, Brexit is concentrating more power than ever in the executive and the party that controls it, with the modern analogues of tyrants, demagogues and oligarchs constantly working to unpick democratic control and the rule of law. We should have set more store by the quiet freedoms of association and exchange instead of giving them away for an illusion of self-rule.


  • 23 January 2021 at 10:45am
    Joe Morison says:
    Every day there is some horribly sad account of a much loved business or project going under because of the new red tape, and one discovers some new inconvenience and expense added to one’s life; at best the good news is just that some large employer can carry on as before. All this fucking grief, and for what? A half-baked spiv-created idea of freedom that means bugger all in the real world. It’s perfect karma for the delusions of empire, one has to believe one is better if one is to justify power - and for a while we were the most powerful country in the world. And now that self-belief has come back in the most massive act of self-harm since the 100 Years’ War. It serves us right as a society for having pandered to the jingoistic chauvinism that has polluted popular culture all our lives. One ends up with Johnson and Farage and this country as a tired music hall joke.

  • 23 January 2021 at 8:38pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    I have a house in France and when I am eventually allowed to return there I will not be able to take with me, for example, a ham sandwich or any firewood.
    That’s clearly nonsense and yet I also find it nonsensical that, under the EU, ultimate political control lay in the hands of an unaccountable, undemocratic, corrupt and, frankly, sanctimonious Euro elite.
    Freedoms of “association and exchange” sound marvellous and that is what the EEC promised. The EU, however, is a federal project with wider political and moral aims. It seems to delight those lawyers, doctors, bankers etc. whose livelihoods are protected by professional barriers to entry but has less attraction for those at the sharp end of wealth distribution from one part of the Federal structure to another.
    Federalism can work of course but it helps if there is a common language or heritage or monetary union (oh...).
    I am happy to welcome immigrants - Lord knows the UK needs them - but I don’t think it unreasonable to know who they are and how they can contribute (I except refugees - they should be accepted regardless).
    Otherwise I see that there are natural indivisible units such as Great Britain (NI really is a problem isn’t it?) that can, and perhaps should, be self-governing.
    I don’t expect much from my elected representatives (which is, of course, just as well) but I expect them to prioritise the interests of their own territory. If UK govt policies prioritise, say, the North over London & the South East then I can accept that; if the EU prioritises Eastern Europe over Western Europe then I am less sanguine.
    I suppose the UK may be dominated by ‘neighbouring superpowers’ though I imagine the real international actors will continue to be the US and China, relations with whom the UK can manage as well independently as it could as part of the disparate and increasingly fissiparous EU.
    I suspect we’ll muddle through.

    • 25 January 2021 at 8:53am
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      The only thing that makes Great Britain ‘a natural indivisible’ political unit for you is that it’s what you are used and attached to, that’s not the way it seems to Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, and English nationalists; and it’s not the way it’s seen by those of us looking, in a generation or two, to merge into a single country with our European neighbours. Human history has been one of joining together in ever larger polities, there has been the occasional setback when empires grew too large and collapsed but the general trend is clear.

      As for your complaining about an ‘unaccountable, undemocratic, corrupt and, frankly, sanctimonious Euro elite.’ Well, maybe, but they are certainly not as bad as the appalling clowns and their chumocracy that have been ordering our lives since our magnificent ‘freedom’. And, how exactly, in practical ways, did these EU leaders actually impact your life in a negative way? Because I can start a list (that no one has yet found the end of) of new measures that are hitting us now: the 215m extra documents that the HMRC estimates British companies will have to complete each year at a cost of £7billion, more expensive wine with less choice, farmers’ and fishermen’s produce rotting because they can’t export it, prohibitive taxes to be paid on anything over £35 from an EU website, small companies going bust because the new costs are tipping them over the edge, less convenient continental travel, the 50,000 new customs officers that will be needed ... .

      All this because you cannot stretch your empathic imagination further than the boundaries of this sceptred isle. I can’t help but notice how this sort of shabby second-rate thinking based on prejudice and meanness that informs so much of the pro-Brexit discourse fits seamlessly with anti-lockdown rhetoric. In each case there is a smug rejection of experts, be they epidemiologists or economists and political theorists, and the conviction that all the these problems need is some good old British common sense. And what has that got us? Welcome to the country with a world beating 108.52 deaths from Covid per million of the population in the last seven days (almost exactly twice the level of the USA).

    • 25 January 2021 at 10:33am
      Charles Evans says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      "...ultimate political control lay in the hands of an unaccountable, undemocratic, corrupt and, frankly, sanctimonious Euro elite."

      Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Just because you don't understand an institution doesn't mean your prejudices are suddenly reality.

    • 26 January 2021 at 11:29pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Joe Morison
      Gracious me! So my simply holding a different view from you on Brexit has enabled you to discern my equally faulty views on the current medical crisis.
      What other enormities have you managed to identify? Transphobia? Parsimony? Misogyny? Flatulence? Cannibalism?
      I’m clearly a bad lot.

    • 27 January 2021 at 6:17am
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      No, I got your views on the lockdown from your previous posts on the matter; I was merely pointing out how similarly egocentric thinking leads to both positions. But instead of trying to be clever, why don’t you answer my challenge to name one, just one, way that being in the EU actually negatively impacted you in a practical way to put against the seemingly endless list of practical inconveniences that leaving has blighted us with.

    • 3 February 2021 at 12:00am
      Evangelion says: @ Charles Evans
      To @CharlieEvans, corruption may be incidental, and sanctimony in the eye of the beholder, yet the EU actually is structured from its very roots to be undemocratic and unaccountable. Rather than try to explain how in these limiting circumstances, I would point you towards Perry Anderson's lengthy but fascinating essays on the subject in several recent issues of LRB.

    • 3 February 2021 at 12:46am
      Evangelion says: @ Joe Morison
      I will take up the challenge to name two negative impacts of the EU that have directly impacted me in the not too distant past.

      The first is the legal requirement for house sales to be accompanied by an 'Energy Performance Certificate', even if the buyer is not interested, and the data useless, because the house is being bought for complete refurbishment or demolition. The directive which mandates this suggests in its preamble that such exceptions will be allowed for, but then whoever drafted the actual regulation seems to have forgotten, and the oversight has never been corrected.

      The second is the completely pointless and counterproductive series of 'MiFiD' directives on trading in CFDs and other derivatives. While this is presented as the EU in nanny state mode, protecting small traders from risking losses, which would be objectionable enough in itself, in fact the main effect of the actual draft is to make trading more difficult in the sense of making such losses more likely.

      As Perry Anderson points out in his masterly exposé of EU workings (Ever Close Union?, LRB, 7 Jan 2021), the acquis communautaire, the body of regulations which all member states must enact into law, already 2,800 pages when the UK joined in 1973, now runs to 90,000 pages. Production of these is now outsourced to semi-independent bodies, deputised with the Commission's authority, such as ESMA, source of the several instalments of MiFiD. These depend for their livelihood on the productivity with which they grind this stuff out. No wonder it is full or errors and idiocies when quantity rules to such an extent over quality. The process of making them is largely proof against any kind of public influence, and once made they are more or less impossible to amend, let alone repeal.

      Getting out of the EU at this stage does not get us out of most of them. The damage is done, and will take time and effort to repair. But it does at least avoid the ever-accelerating stream of new ones. It is possible to have most of the touted benefits of membership without much of the acquis. This is the 'Norway option', or the 'Switzerland option'. They are quite different from each other, and further variants are possible. It is where we would have been, had we the sense to remain in EFTA, and it is where I hope we will end up in the long run.

  • 25 January 2021 at 10:50am
    Wesley Crandell says:
    The issue of sovereignty is not a simple one, and both sides on the Brexit divide use it mainly for rhetorical purposes. However, the Leave side has been more persuasive. The Remain thesis about there being no such thing as sovereignty misses the point that there were several policies which the UK public was strongly in favour of changing, which was not possible under the EU framework, and is possible now. It is true that this comes at a cost. What the Remainers bemoaning the decision to leave miss is that the Leavers had different priorities. Freedom to trade, travel, love and work is all very well, but so is the freedom to decide on who will become a part of one's community. These are mutually incompatible under the EU rules, and a majority favoured the latter.
    Whether being under the constraint of EU regulation or the dog-eat-dog world of international competition was perhaps not discussed as seriously as it should have been. But it is unlikely that a consensus would have been reached anyway, and, for what it's worth, the case for latter has won as the morally right, though not necessarily the wiser, option.
    Finally, while there are attempts at moving in that particular direction, the talk of EU as a superpower is premature if not outright laughable. And the argument that the UK out of EU is necessarily sliding towards autocracy is particularly poor: even if this were the case, this is to be fought against on the local level, and not outsourced to an unaccountable supranational organisation.

    • 25 January 2021 at 4:31pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Wesley Crandell
      I have never heard a remainer, or indeed anyone ever, argue that there is no such thing as sovereignty. I have, though, often heard people state the obvious truth that there is no such thing as absolute sovereignty. You don’t say why you find the leave arguments more persuasive, but you do express the sentiment that has been most powerfully behind Brexit when you talk of ‘the freedom to decide on who will become a part of one's community’.

      Because that is what this is all about, you talk about there being ‘several policies which the UK public was strongly in favour of changing’ but there was really just one (and it was only a minority who strongly wanted to change it). Alongside it, even the meanness of not wanting to help people in a faraway land of which we know nothing, and the arrogance of thinking that continental politicians are sanctimonious and corrupt to a degree that ours aren’t, pale into insignificance. The driving force has always been opposition to immigration. That is a filthy instinct to give in to, and an even worse one to nurture and feed with lies as the leave campaign did.

      Brexit was based on delusion and untruths. A hundred years ago, we hadn’t yet realized that we no longer ruled the world; we’ve been dealing with the loss of that power, and the lies we told ourselves to justify our having had it in the first place, ever since. Brexit is the bathos that serves us bloody well right: for centuries we’ve strutted about convinced of our superiority and now that we’ve declined, we’ve let ourselves be taken in by a bunch of second rate conmen and spivs because they have trumpeted this lie most shamelessly. Now, we are all paying the price.

    • 26 January 2021 at 8:10am
      Wesley Crandell says: @ Joe Morison
      There is no such thing as absolute anything, sovereignty included. But there is a clear difference between sovereignty legally transferred to an unresponsive institution, and the de facto limited sovereignty due to coexisting with separate state-actors, each with their own goals and interests. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. My impression is that the British public in general finds formal sovereignty preferable, and tomes have been written on the historic reasons why this might be so.

      Opposition to immigration has been an important factor behind Brexit, but I don't agree "that is what this is all about". More relevant was the inability of the EU to respond flexibly to the democratic pressure. Given how many divergent interests there are within the Union, it is inevitable that they will fall back on fixed rules in any crisis. But this rigidity is an inherent weakness: it showed in the pre-Brexit negotiations, and it shows again in the disastrous EU vaccination strategy. Meanwhile, being opposed to immigration is not "filthy": it is a perfectly legitimate position that you happen not to share.

      Brexit was based on delusions and untruths to the same extent that Brentry was. While the founding EC documents made quite clear what the end point was, it is remarkable what lengths were taken for the European integrations to proceed without undue scrutiny. The process itself was quite clearly undemocratic.

      As for your remark that we are all paying the price, that is not quite true. Some people stand to gain a lot from Brexit, there are a few losers, and most people will not notice either way. The same as for the UK joining the EU in the first place, actually.

    • 26 January 2021 at 11:33am
      Joe Morison says: @ Wesley Crandell
      There are plenty of absolutes: an individual has the absolute right to decide whether or not to carry on living; if there isn’t somewhere in the universe that’s already absolute zero, there soon will be when a scientist creates it here; Donald Trump is an absolute arsehole.

      The way you talk about the different sorts of sovereignty just reveals your prejudice. For a start, sovereignty is always ‘legally transferred’ to an ‘institution’ when it is given up in trade deals - it wasn’t something that just happened with the EU. As for that institution being ‘unresponsive’, where’s your evidence that the EU (an institution we were at the heart of running) is worse than, say, the WTO which is the authority of last resort?

      And it’s not the case that it’s just a de facto ceding of sovereignty in trade deals, that was also true regarding our membership. At any time, if both Houses of Parliament and the Queen had decided to leave and drop all EU law, at that moment, we would have left and all EU law would have ceased to apply here. The Sovereign in Parliament is, well, sovereign.

      Opposition to immigration is not a perfectly legitimate position, it is hatred and fear. It is also, unsurprisingly, ignorance; because it is people in those areas with low immigration who are the ones opposed to it. Welcoming the stranger is one of the oldest and most fundamental human duties, and as we are an exceptionally wealthy and stable place in a world of poverty and insecurity, we have an absolute duty to welcome anyone who is willing to work for their place and do their best to get along.

      It’s true that some people will make a killing out of Brexit (perhaps have a look at the people who have financed Johnson’s campaigns over the last few years), but you’re wrong to say most people won’t notice. Even those not directly effected will not like the drip drip drip of this country getting relatively poorer and less important as the years pass.

    • 27 January 2021 at 3:53am
      Wesley Crandell says: @ Joe Morison
      There is no such thing as absolute zero, please check the Third Law of Thermodynamics to see why your statement about scientists creating it any day now is misguided. Individuals are being denied the right to decide on whether they carry on living or not all the time, convicts and mental health patients being obvious examples. As in any case we agree that sovereignty is never absolute, no need to belabour the point.

      While sovereignty never is absolute, there are differences in the amounts and kinds of constraints it is placed under. WTO is much more modest in scope and less onerous in its demands. Also, due to its size, there is no substantial "outside" of the WTO, as opposed to the EU which is a strictly local affair.

      Your commitment to viewing openness to immigration as a sacred duty is not widely shared. Even large numbers of Remainers see EU-wide freedom of movement as a price worth paying rather than a good in itself (of course, they are strongly defensive of the aspects of the policy that benefits them directly).

      As to how the UK will fare in the future, who knows? The country might actually get richer. It might get poorer for reasons that have nothing to do with Brexit. Even a poorer country could have happier and more satisfied people with a different societal organisation - it is up to the British to decide what suits them best. It is also unclear whether the UK would really get less important after Brexit, as there are strong arguments that the opposite might be the case. I am convinced that most British will not care either way - the obsession with having ruled the world once, and the need to "punch above one's weight" is a ghostly remnant of the Empire mindset. It is thankfully receding.

    • 27 January 2021 at 11:26am
      Joe Morison says: @ Wesley Crandell
      Not any day now, but soon in geological time. As for rights, a person can have their life taken away but not their right to life (unless you favour the death penalty).

      What exactly were the ‘onerous demands’ the EU put on us? What is now better in your life that makes up for the myriad inconveniences?

      It doesn’t matter whether being open to immigration is popular, what matters is whether it’s right or not.

      The idea that you peddle that it is a toss up whether we are going to be richer or poorer as people because of Brexit is casually ignoring both the overwhelming consensus amongst the economists, and the evidence of your own eyes. Ignoring the experts while listening only to autodidacts, it’ll be the death of modern civilization.

    • 1 February 2021 at 7:16am
      Wesley Crandell says: @ Joe Morison
      I find your reply interesting. On the one hand, you refuse to accept one of the basic postulates of modern physics: that according to our understanding of the universe, it is impossible to achieve absolute zero. On the other hand, you chide me for being insufficiently reverent towards the economists' opinion that Brexit is going to be a disaster for the UK. First, economists have notoriously poor track record at predicting future developments, so scepticism is advisable even towards "overwhelming consensus", and their expertise is in no way equivalent to that of physicists, which you dismiss lightly. Second, there are quite a few economists who do think that Brexit opens up opportunities for Britain even in the current environment. In future, when environment will certainly change in unforeseeable ways, it is even more important not to be constrained by a regulatory straitjacket.

      I do appreciate that refusal to see anything but bleakness in Brexit is due to ideological standpoint, which cannot be changed by reasoning. But with Brexit now the reality, it would be advantageous for Remainers and Leavers alike to refrain from point-scoring, and make the best of it in the available circumstances.

  • 26 January 2021 at 3:48pm
    Greg Tuck says:
    Having struggled dutifully through Perry Anderson's extensive (and almost interminable) hatchet job on the EU in the last three issues, it is a relief to find a rejoinder to most of his arguments made with such brevity. Yes, the EU is a deeply flawed institution, but the question is, compared to what? The fantasy on the right that our current political arrangements and economic realities will lead to a resurgent Global Britain are as unrealistic as those on the left that think 1945 Redux is now just around the corner. Both have a rather dewey eyed view of our current political and economic power and a one sided notion of freedom which is simply seen as a power ( to strike massive deals or build a new Jerusalem) rather than something that comes at a price (like the freedom a middle aged man 'enjoys' living in a Travelodge after walking out of his family). If we want to trade, particularly with the behemoths of China the USA and the EU, we will have to do so by their rules and the nature of trade means those closest to us will be the people we will most engage with. So beyond the EU's political failings and its current neoliberal economic outlook it will remain geographically inescapable. In this regard Brexit is an impossible project. Wether the failure to reach the sunlit immigrant free uplands leads to a doubling down of the atavistic forces that were its midwife, or a more positive reappraisal of what sort of polity we want to and can be I have no idea. Either way, it is going to be a a stressful and beligerent decade.

  • 27 January 2021 at 2:28am
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    Oh, why not?
    LRB writers on Brexit, in July 2016.

    Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian in Jan. 2017 "One blunt heckler has revealed just how much the UK economy is failing us"
    “That’s your bloody GDP. Not ours.”

    Matthew C. Klein in Barrons, in May 2018
    "Take out Greater London—the prosperity of which depends to an uncomfortable degree on a willingness to provide services to oligarchs from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union—and the U.K. is one of the poorest countries in Western Europe."

    Adam Tooze in Dec. 2017 on twitter, on the change in GDP in countries after after they joined the single market.
    "If these numbers are plausible they hardly suggest that the single market is vital to economic welfare of its members! But on what basis can one claim larger figures? "

    The author, Chris Bertram, in 2012, on the importance of self-sacrifice.
    "I’m sympathetic, I really am, to the idea that people should work and consume less and that we should attend more to real life quality. But this doesn’t seem very realistic in my own life for two reasons: first, even if my employer were sympathetic (unlikely) I feel very hard pressed now to produce the level of research output necessary for me to stay competitive with other academics (not just in the UK, but elsewhere). I suspect this generalizes to many people in professional jobs: we couldn’t achieve the kinds of things we want to in our careers on those kinds of hours."

    I was in London in 2015. The desk man at my –cheap but clean– hotel during the day was an Iraqi Kurd. He'd been in the UK for 15 years. He said EU immigration had cut his wages in half. He had no problem with his Polish coworkers. He smiled and shrugged. "It's capitalism".

    • 28 January 2021 at 11:54am
      Martin Davis says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      Your last point endorses anecdotally the one really substantive adverse impact of 'free movement'. That those who suffer economically from immigration are the previous wave of immigrants. Not the natives. In any case there seems precious little impetus to stifle the main source of immigration - people from outside the EU. The current government's neoliberal (or is it libertarian?) inclinations, further weakening labour regulation, point to a continuance of benign neglect at the borders. Accompanied by much hang-wringing about ruthless and predatory people smugglers.

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