The Brexit Crisis and Problem with Absolute Sovereignty: From the loss of the American Colonies and Ireland to Brexit

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, July 26th 2019

Britain is not only in crisis but under Boris Johnson’s new hardline Brexit government is heading for the rocks and disaster at turbo-charged speed.

Yet with wall-to-wall mainstream media commentary on all things Brexit and Boris Johnson, a number of key characteristics are missing. The first is any understanding that Brexit is nearly entirely an English phenomenon and not only that but an expression of virulent, reactionary English nationalism. Secondly is the unpalatable reality that this nationalism didn’t emerge from nowhere but has been festering in the English body politic – witness Tom Nairn’s analysis in the mid-1970s – and for long before that.

Third, Brexit and its set of political crises have deep roots in the fissures and faultlines of the UK – of an increasingly divided kingdom, the near disappearance of any real British politics beyond Westminster, and the permanent semi-detachment of Scotland and Wales from the concerns of what are still meant to be the British governing classes.

Fourth, this political moment is not as some on the British left try to portray merely a debacle for British Toryism and conservatism. It is also one of British Labour and the left and its notions of political power, legitimacy, and the state – the latter of which is central to all left-wing political projects in the UK – and which has historically seen it as the main agent of change: redistributing, levelling up and pushing through reform.

Underlying all of these dynamics – and contributing to the increasing turbulence and trouble in the Tory and Labour parties is the problematic interpretation both have of sovereignty which is the foundation of political power and at the heart of the Brexit debacle.

The many different kinds of sovereignty: It isn’t all about Thatcher

The importance of sovereignty today is underlined by the fact that post-2016 Brexit debates have been defined by the competing demands of different interpretations of it. Thus, the conventional wisdom has long been that the UK is governed by the principle of parliamentary sovereignty – with political power and legitimacy sitting in Parliament – exercised by the Executive on behalf of the Crown. This has been countered post-2016 referendum by the idea of popular sovereignty – and the arguments since about competing claims and mandates: the 2016 vote and 2017 UK general election.

These debates tell us that something is going very wrong in how the UK works, and how it is worked for and by its elites. Parliamentary democracy and sovereignty have been two of the key pillars of Toryism and the conservative nation of England/Britain.

They form part of the Whig account of British history and British exceptionalism – which has provided confidence, backbone and a sense of élan to the Tory Party and Toryism and contributed to its electoral and ideological dominance. This has provided a version of Britain originating in its ruling classes which has managed through the ages to adapt, evolve and incorporate rising social interests.

This Conservative political tradition is now in deep crisis and a narrow, intolerant version of it has seized control of UK government and the Tories. But the storm clouds have been a long time coming, and predate Boris Johnson’s chameleon politics and Brexit. Thatcherism’s decade long dominance was based on a very literal concept of sovereignty that stated that Westminster was supreme and which believed that the single central mandate could override and wage war on local government, ignore Scottish and Welsh desires for self-government, and stand firm against the European project.

These three pillars contributed to the self-destruction of the Thatcher premiership: the local government and Scottish dimensions producing the over-reach and hubris of the poll tax, while the onward march of European integration hit the buffers of Thatcher’s inflexible resistance, providing the ultimate crisis which led to her downfall from office.

Yet, we are coming up for thirty years since the fateful act of Tory regicide which led to Thatcher’s fall, and the Tories, and, most of British politics, still lives in the shadow of these years and debates. This is due to the scale of economic and social dislocation which occurred in the Thatcher decade, but also that the global class, elites and interests which emerged as winners are the same social forces who today define much of mainstream politics, debate and what is discussed and decided in modern Britain.

Central to this story has been how in the long tail of Thatcherite dominance – under New Labour, Cameroon Conservatives, Theresa May and now Boris Johnson – the transformation of the central organs of government into a neo-liberal state has changed everything. No longer is it plausible – a la Gordon Brown – to pose the British state ‘sharing and pooling’ as being a force for good here and across the globe. It doesn’t cut it with the track record of a state which advocates for the narrow interests of Britain plc and its tiny social constituency.

A fundamental in the maintenance and continual expansion of this state of the state and of Britain has been the advocacy of a doctrinaire interpretation of sovereignty – which isn’t grounded in the parliamentary and popular notions we regularly hear about. Instead, it is an absolutist and inflexible version of sovereignty claiming undiluted power to the imperial centre: an authority which has never gone through democratic revolution or transformation.

The Perils of the English Ideology and the European Dimension

This version of sovereignty can be understood as a warped, distorted ‘English ideology’ – a myopic version of political power which has lasted down through the years and centuries and which has feared the dilution and division of authority. Parliamentary sovereignty was always an illusion and deception for what lay behind it: the right of a central political force under the name of the Crown to do what it liked uninhibited by checks and balance and the rule of law: this being the view of constitutionalist A. V. Dicey.

It isn’t any accident that Europe – a rule based, codified, written constitutional order – has proven this running forty year sore in British politics. Its entire raison d’etre is at complete odds with the mythology and folklores of the British state and politics. And as Britain has failed under successive post-war governments to ‘modernise’ and democratise, for which read their inability to make the UK a ‘normal’, modern, democratic country then Europe has proven in the end to be incompatible with this yearning to live in the cobwebs of this old order.

It didn’t have to be this way. The list of failed attempts to radically reform Britain, its state and capitalism is long. In the post-war era pre-Thatcher, there was Macmillan’s attempt at tripartism, indicative planning and NEDDY, Wilson’s National Plan, Heath’s technocratic corporatism, and the first Benn Alternative Economic Strategy of the 1970s. All failed politically, in their attempts to remake the state, and in their intentions to reform the inadequacies of British capitalism.

We are where we because of these broken political projects, the Thatcherite-Blairite consensus of the past forty years, and the multiple crises of recent times culminating in Brexit. But that it is not going to be the end of the turmoil and to understand this we need to grasp the long running English political tradition and reading of sovereignty that is currently reshaping politics.

The British Imperial Loss of the American Colonies and Ireland

One English writer who knew these contradictions well was the academic and George Orwell biographer Bernard Crick who lived the last twenty years of his life in Edinburgh. Crick took a long view of the myths and fabrications of the British political classes. He identified in a set of essays in the 1980s and 1990s the problem in the English tradition with sovereignty. Rather germane to our contemporary discontents he saw the dogmatic pursuit of British absolutist sovereignty and imperial delusion as being major factors in the humiliation and defeat of the British state in the independence of the American colonies in 1775-76 and Ireland pre-1922.

Crick believed that the inflexible fear of fluid, pluralist, federal political power, and canonisation of centralist, unitary, non-divided power, contributed to the complete failure of British statecraft which the loss of America and Ireland were. These were huge losses of face for British power and the imperial project, which the hubris and grandeur of the rotten edifice took years to recover from, and in both cases, never fully did.

Even more, Crick believed that the whole UK edifice was held together by smoke and mirrors, and that ‘Our rulers have ended up believing their own rhetoric, and therein often lies ruin and disaster.’

If Crick, who died in 2008, had lived to see the present climate he would have been horrified, but not entirely surprised by the current dis-state. The UK political elites have always had a myopia and selective reading of Ireland and the present ludicrous posturing of what the UK should do in relation to ‘the backstop’ and the British-Irish border, would not surprise him. The intricate web of co-operation from the UK-Irish Common Travel Area established in 1923, Ireland Act 1949 defining the Republic as not ‘a foreign country’ in British law, or the subtleties of the Good Friday Agreement, now seem wilfully beyond those in power in Britain.

The clusterfuck that is Brexit is entirely within Crick’s reading of the self-obsessions of absolutist sovereignty. Here is a Brexiteer class who have not only deliberately misread and misunderstood the UK and its character, make-up and four nations, but from that, consciously and for decades, have misread Europe: posing it to this late day in the mindset of markets, trade and exchange, and ignoring when they choose to its political dynamics and union (and this when it is the latter they want to escape from). As we approach the twelfth hour on Halloween still the German carmakers are meant to march on the Reichstag and demand a Brexit favourable to the free trade free market British buccaneers.

The British tradition of parliamentary sovereignty at its peak drew from English traditions of individualism, individual rights, and the desire to limit the arbitrary power of government and the state. Yet, at the same time it maintained an undemocratic politics and culture, one where power did not reside in the people, but in the Crown and its feudal remains. Sovereignty became in the modern age an increasingly obvious anachronism: a piece of mumbo jumbo with little connection to reality, but utilised as a cargo cult of the unreconstructed right and left. In this the hard right Brexiteers and old style leftists around the Corbyn leadership have much more in common than they would care to admit.

The UK long ago gave up any pretence of wanting to be a modern country; it obviously not being in any sense a nation. The fact that the last vestiges of how the British elites have seen themselves – decent, honest, pragmatic – is being devoured and destroyed on the alter of an absolutist, undiluted version of sovereignty and in the name of 17.4 million voters three years supposedly voting for a kamikaze No Deal Brexit, is the stuff of a classic Tom Nairn polemic.

There is no tidy, happy ending to this. For those watching this from Scotland we have to aid and advise our English friends and colleagues how they navigate their way out of this deliberately created disaster made on the playing fields of Eton, offices of the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and various dodgy funded think tanks. This is the end of English and British conservatism as it has been known for 200 years and with it the Tory Party as it has been constituted.

The response of Scottish self-government to this has to be a calm and determined one as the British state consumes and destroys its last vestiges of credibility and competence. But we do have to learn some salutary lessons from their disaster.

Sovereignty in an age of interdependence is an inherently problematic term, not just of an absolutist variety, but parliamentary and popular. And we have to work out twenty years into the experience of a Scottish Parliament and Government that has centralised and pulled in powers to itself, the limits to the political centre and one single authority. That debate and impulse cannot wait until the other side of Brexit or an indyref: we need more than ever to be making our pluralist, decentralist, diverse Scotland in the here and now.

England as Britain and Britain as England is reaching its climatic endgame, but it is going to be a messy one for all concerned and not going to conclude well for the current UK Government, Boris Johnson, and the political authority they base their power and legitimacy upon. A different way of ordering our politics, authority and power is possible and urgently needed. Brexit is a warning to all political traditions which over-reach themselves.