Active, Passive, or Dead?

Martin Loughlin

  • The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy by Richard Tuck
    Cambridge, 295 pp, £17.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 1 107 57058 0

In the run-up to the EU referendum, the Leave campaign has struggled to win the argument about jobs, prosperity, the value of the pound in your pocket and world peace, but has felt on safer ground invoking the threat to sovereignty. Yet the Leavers’ confident use of the term masks its ambiguity. We understand that Parliament and not the reigning monarch is sovereign, in the sense that Parliament is the highest law-making institution in the land. We also accept that the British system of government is based on a principle called ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. But the impact of EU membership on some more general thing we call ‘sovereignty’ has always been contentious.

Leavers claim that, though we didn’t realise it at the time, the UK’s decision in 1972 to join what is now the EU limited Parliament’s sovereignty, and that continuing membership threatens our national sovereignty. Voting to leave will, they argue, restore the integrity of a unique constitution, which has been shaped by a thousand years of political evolution. Remainers believe that British constitutional practice can continue to evolve and is perfectly capable of accommodating some sharing of governmental tasks with EU institutions. They even argue that in order to realise common political objectives in today’s world, such sharing of sovereignty is unavoidable. For Leavers, this is nonsensical: sovereignty is absolute, perpetual and indivisible; to divide or share it is to destroy it.

Richard Tuck’s new book, based on the Seeley Lectures he delivered at Cambridge in 2012, was conceived long before the EU referendum was tabled. But although he doesn’t engage with the present debate, he does identify the correct method of trying to resolve it, which is to trace the concept of sovereignty back to its origins. Tuck sets out to demonstrate how early modern scholars created a conceptual language that helps us make sense of contemporary democracy.

Representative democracy is a modern arrangement, the term itself coined in 1777. It evolved from earlier, aristocratic forms of government established in opposition to democracy. ‘Rule by the people’ had almost everywhere been considered suspect: the history of government is a history of rule over the people rather than by the people. Representative democracy may not be government by the people either, but at least it aspires to be government for the people. It has become the ubiquitous expression of the modern democratic impetus.

Sovereignty is pivotal in the attempt to reconcile democracy and representation. It too is a modern invention. Medieval jurists had a sophisticated appreciation of the hierarchical relationship between sovereign and subject, based on the rights of rulers and the duties of subjects. But the concept of sovereignty, which expresses the absolute authority of a collective association called ‘the state’, was beyond them. The appearance of this abstract concept, which relegates the ‘sovereign’ to the status of a mere servant of the state, signals the emergence of modern political understanding.

The critical shift in thought may be traced to the publication in 1576 of Jean Bodin’s massive, sprawling work, Les Six Livres de la République. Bodin argued that every state must possess a single, supreme authority that incorporates all the powers of government. He called this authority ‘sovereignty’, meaning ‘the most high, absolute and perpetual power over the citizens and subjects in a commonwealth’. Some believe that Bodin remained part of the medieval world and that he was advocating absolutism, but Tuck argues persuasively that Les Six Livres announces the breakthrough to modernity.

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[*] Post Sovereign Constitution Making: Learning and Legitimacy by Andrew Arato (Oxford, 320 pp., £60, March, 978 0 19 875598 2).