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Since we clearly don’t understand sovereignty, I wish we’d shut up about it

The Peace of Westphalia has a lot to answer for.

You know, I sometimes wish we could ban the word “sovereignty” from the British political lexicon. It’s always felt to me like one of those concepts that must feel a lot more meaningful to large and powerful countries (which are used to getting their way) than it is to smaller ones (which are rather more used to having multinational corporations or passing armies meddling in their affairs). 

I’m clearly not alone in this: begin a Google search with “Does sovereignty...” and every option auto-complete offers is basically a question about whether it’s a real thing at all. Influence is real. Wealth is real. North Korea has precious little of those two things, but almost perfect sovereignty over its own affairs, and with the best will in the world, I’d rather be Luxembourg.

Anyway. Whatever my own thoughts on the matter, a lot of people, of the sort who think that freedom was invented by Magna Carta, disagree; and while this was by no means the only reason people voted for Brexit, it was in the mix. The slogan “Vote leave, take control” may have caused my eyes to roll so hard I could see my brain, but I’m weird, and it clearly resonated.

Well, I wish it hadn’t. Not just because my side lost, but because I think our national obsession with – and misunderstanding of – sovereignty is going to completely stuff us.

The English conception of sovereignty, after all, has at its root the assumption that all legitimate authority derives from the crown-in-parliament. It therefore follows that local councils are there primarily to do what the government tells them, and that lower tiers of government can be reformed or abolished at will. It also implies that any attempt to pool sovereignty with our neighbours in an attempt to get shit done must be some kind of shadowy European plot – and not simply a recognition that not all problems have nation state-level solutions.

There are a couple of problems with this attitude. One is that it’s almost designed to create disillusionment with politics, since whoever is in government, most people won’t have voted for them – yet they have no other outlet for expressing their views between here and the next election.

A second, rather more immediate problem is that two of the three Celtic countries might end up drifting out of the UK. The devolved parliaments in both Scotland and Northern Ireland are opposed to a Hard Brexit – and the latter, at least, has bloody good reasons for being so. Nonetheless, the Westminster government seems totally baffled by the idea that any other institution might get a say on things, an attitude which looks increasingly likely to go horribly, horribly wrong.

The big one, though, the one that’s got us to this point in history, is that we’ve totally misunderstood what the EU is. There was always a political element to it – ever closer union, and so forth – but even if it had been intended purely as a trading group, that would still have meant sharing sovereignty.

A common market, after all, requires common rules and standards, so that everyone can be confident the foreign goods flowing all over the place aren’t going to randomly burst into flames or something. Every country in the trading bloc thus has to agree to those rules – which means their governments are giving up a modicum of power in exchange for increased trade. This stuff is too complicated to agree at summits, so you need a permanent staff setting those rules. And it probably makes sense, after a fashion, to have an elected body to keep an eye on that permanent staff (hence a parliament, the Council of Ministers etc.).

All this seems to me to make sense: of course a single market should come with political oversight. Indeed, the democratic element of the EU is far stronger than those of other global trade bodies like the WTO. If Britain is going to keep trading after Brexit, which I assume is the plan, we’re still going to have to follow rules set by people who don’t sit in Westminster – only now we’re going to have a damn sight less influence over how those rule are set.

So why has our relationship to Europe never been discussed in these terms? Probably because it’s boring and wonkish, but also, I suspect, because we have no language for talking about sharing power to make international rules or solve international problems. Our conception of sovereignty is as something monolithic that emanates entirely from one gothic building in London SW1. The EU, with all the deals and compromises it requires, just doesn’t fit our political culture.

There is another conception of sovereignty as something can be divided and pooled. Last April one pro-Remain politician said that the referendum was:

...about how we maximise Britain’s security, prosperity and influence in the world, and how we maximise our sovereignty: that is, the control we have over our own affairs in future. (...)

International, multilateral institutions... invite nation states to make a trade-off: to pool and therefore cede some sovereignty in a controlled way, to prevent a greater loss of sovereignty in an uncontrolled way, through for example military conflict or economic decline.

In other words, sovereignty is not something indivisible. It can be traded and shared to create greater influence and prosperity for all.

Who gave that speech? The then home secretary, one Theresa May. Funny how times change isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.