Brexit: whose control is being taken back, exactly?
It’s not the 1800s anymore. Britain is in many, many ways no longer the country it was during the Victorian era – no children in workhouses, no rampant cholera and no being ruled over by a moribund aristocracy. Yet the political idea that underpinned the earthquake of Brexit is one minted whilst the British empire was at its height. The Victorian notion of sovereignty was appropriate whilst Britannia ruled the waves and subjugated millions of people in colonies across the globe. Not only is the concept of monolithic British sovereignty rooted in imperial conquest no longer possible, it’s no longer desirable. We need to update the idea of sovereignty for the 21st Century – and urgently, too, now that Brexit has raised the question of what our country’s relationship with the world will be in the future.
How have we come to be in the position of jeopardising peace and prosperity for this anachronistic political idea? To understand the enthusiasm of Gove, Davis, Farage and others have for the out-dated Victorian form of sovereignty, it is useful to consider the way in which Brexit came about.
Telling tales about Europe
The victory of the Eurosceptics was long in the arrival. Their path to the success in the referendum vote was ultimately that they persuaded the political class and a section of the public of their story about our membership of the EU. On their telling the EEC, and later the EC, had been a trading bloc the UK had joined willingly to satisfy narrow economic self-interest. Only later in the treaties of Rome and Maastricht did the EU bureaucrats over-reach themselves and undermine our national power – our national political sovereignty. What had started as a limited economic project had supposedly been morphed into a political one. The nefarious Brussels apparatchiks were aided and abetted by a fifth column of the British metropolitan elite: the PC brigade, multicultural-apologists, unpatriotic EU-appeasers. Leaving the EU became a national imperative. Anything less was surrender.
This Euro-tale is, of course, a myth. The UK’s membership of the EEC was a decision that came out of a much more pressing national imperative. By the late 1960s, once the fact of British imperial decline was fully apparent – the Suez crisis, IMF loans and all – it was urgently necessary to club together with Europe to pool resources and interests in order to guarantee future prosperity. On this measure the UK’s membership has been an unqualified success. For the period 1973 to present day the UK has outperformed comparable economies by something like 23%.
Furthermore, membership of the European club was always a political as well as an economic decision. Britain’s diplomatic heft and status was always enhanced, not diminished, by acting in more generally in concert with our continental neighbours. The UK gained a strength in numbers that could not be gained by acting alone. Is this to ‘talk down’ Britain? In now way – it is quite straightforwardly a recognition of the realities of 20th and 21st century political life. What’s more the UK often led the way in Europe, rather than being dragged along in the wake of a runaway Franco-German tugboat, as Brexiteers would have us believe. The pooled sovereignty of the EU was the antidote to war and strife of the beggar-thy-neighbour politics dating back centuries. Joining in was a positive move, a move away from the antiquated notion of indivisible political sovereignty and the ‘splendid isolation’ of the imperial age.
As of today, the clock is ticking on the UK leaving the EU. Following the referendum vote, Nigel Farage declared June 23rd 2016 ‘Independence Day’ for the UK. This deliberately invokes the idea of Britain as a vassal state and the EU as the oppressive master. That’s not just an erroneous interpretation – it’s plain lie. Leaving the EU means the repatriation of some – not all – political power that our country willingly gave up, as part of an eyes-open deal. How that repatriated power is distributed once back on these shores is completely up for grabs. In the future many people taken to bashing the EU may come to realise the very real benefits they themselves gained from the UK’s membership of it.
Who Rules Post-Brexit?
Where will power settle once the UK has left the EU? Students of physics know that energy is impossible to destroy; it can only be transferred from one energy system to another. Political power operates in a similar way. Leaving the European Union will mean removing some of the political power we have invested in the pooled sovereignty of the EU’s institutions. Where will that political power flow to once we have definitively pulled out? The government’s plans for triggering Article 50 and early negotiating stance have made this increasingly clear: not to parliament, and not back to the people.
Just this week it has been confirmed again that immigration – that totemic referendum issue – will probably not fall. That much is common sense. There are jobs to be done by migrant workers, and migrants will probably do them. What will have changed after 2019 is who is in charge of those people’s lives and how much freedom they will have to build families, enjoy stability, live a decent human existence. Whilst currently Polish builders and English engineers have had the ability to come and go across Europe freely, the primary factor in their decision making is whether moving would benefit themselves and their families. Now people will be bundled up into quotas, checked, re-checked and scrutinised if they want to cross our border – in or out. Who is going to benefit from this new arrangement, of treating people as so much economic flotsam? The same people benefiting from the grotesque inequalities with which we live today, those who have the financial means, the political influence and the social capital to profit in these lean times. Hard borders are never built for ordinary folk.
Nor will leaving the EU will not be a straightforward, neutral process. The central fallacy of an in/out referendum was that the degree of our political and economic cooperation across an entire continent could be reduced to a binary choice. Disentangling ourselves from the EU will mean writing afresh laws and guidelines for the many, many areas of life where we had shared out responsibilities with our Euro-neighbours. These range from migration to agriculture, and from employment to the environment. Will the new UK rules on these things be politically benign, rather than ideologically-charged? They will not.
The government is engaged in an attempt through the misleadingly named ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to sweep through unprecedented changes to the laws of the land. Brexit will provide the pretext for a radical rewriting of the British social contract. May’s government wants to legislate in the broadest possible terms and then allow crucial decisions to be taken government ministers by employing powers of delegated legislation – these are the so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’. This will mean that many replacement laws will have had the minimum of democratic, parliamentary oversight. In this very first act of leaving the EU the government shows its hand – championing the idea of national political sovereignty whilst bypassing the one body that gives voice to the powerless. Parliament may not be popular, but it is all that stands between the government and an elected dictatorship. Brexit means that 21st century Britain could end up with a 19th century ruling class – all powerful and totally unaccountable. Theresa May has taken the referendum vote as mandate for a hard Brexit. What logically follows is a hard, Tory Britain.
On her tour round Britain this week Theresa May has claimed that the four countries of the union are an “unstoppable force”. On one level it’s just untrue: the rest of the world could quite easily ‘stop’ the UK economically or militarily if it felt the need. The choice of words is more telling though. The fantasy scenario the Prime Minister wishes to paint is one based on ‘force’ and being a totally free agent on the world stage. If that isn’t a subliminal evocation of Britain’s imperial past then nothing is.
The UK collectively realised we were no longer an unstoppable globe-straddling Great Power more than half a century ago. If we need a reminder of this fact, we will shortly be receiving one, or several. May’s negotiating strategy appears to be not wanting to negotiate; such a situation simply will not stand up against reality. Any lingering notions of unfettered British sovereignty will start to look fairly ridiculous over the next 12 months. It is an urgent task to now provide an alternative vision of political power on these islands, and on this continent.
Next week: how this can all be avoided