What does sovereignty mean in 2015?

Given recent developments in UK politics; devolution to national assemblies and considering the impending EU referendum, how can Gibraltar feel comfortable claiming British Sovereignty? Lindsay Hoyle MP, member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gibraltar, reflects on how the concept of sovereignty itself is evolving.

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Forty years ago, the people of the UK were given the chance to vote in the referendum on remaining within in the European Economic Community. At the time the orthodox view of British sovereignty held firm and painted the backdrop for the public’s decision to join up with, what was to become the world’s largest supra-national political union and trading block.

In 1975, the year Britain voted, sovereignty of the British people was clear. The British people elected parliament. That parliament was sovereign until it had to face re-election. Simple.

Parliament was responsive to the British people between elections because those elected recognised that if they did not please, did not serve well, if the chosen government did not govern wisely, they would be thrown out by the British people at the end of the five years.

The political architecture of the UK is based on maximising the public’s access to MPs and maximising the influence of Members on the wider government and Executive.

Harold Wilson’s government posed the referendum question, "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Britons voted "Yes" in most of the 68 administrative counties, regions and Northern Ireland. Only Shetland and the Western Isles voted against the EEC.

Now, some forty years on, the same question is being posed, against a very different backdrop. The United Kingdom operates in a new, faster, unimaginably inter-connected world where the rules of the international game are set by international banking, global logistics, e-commerce and instant worldwide communication. Parliament’s sovereignty is changing, because sovereignty has changing.

This new paradigm is challenging and breaking the very norms of sovereignty that the British people defined themselves against only four decades ago. Billions of dollars, euros or yen can be transferred around the world in the click of a button. Headquarters of global conglomerates can be moved simply by registering a name in a new capital city; scarcely is a physical move ever needed.

In the 1975 the Cold War was still hot; the West viewed every soviet move and decision through the prism of global power play; the West was seen as encroaching directly into the soviet spheres of influence across Europe and it’s proxies around the globe. Sovereign state pitted against sovereign state, nuclear arsenals measured against nuclear arsenals, conventional warfare; with conventional threats as all of Europe had seen during the horrors of two world wars. Sovereignty seemed simple.

This has changed. The world in which we live, the way in which we work and trade has moved on.

The Internet's potential for becoming the medium of a global marketplace and a forum for a collection of traditional and novel political activities is rapidly becoming reality. The growth in the use of the Internet has been one of the most interesting technological and political developments of the late twentieth century. This phenomenon has not, of course, escaped the notice of political leaders and Parliamentarians.

While generalisations are always dangerous, it is fairly safe to assert that the Internet threatens traditional political institutions and perhaps even the very concept of sovereignty itself!

Extremists groups such as Al Qaeda, and ISIS do not have a sovereign state, yet are operate as a quasi – cyber state, attracting and engaging with a global audience. Often referred to as the ‘digital caliphate’. Delivering devastation on a scale that other small, orthodox ‘sovereign’ states could not ever imagine.

Meanwhile, the very institutions which have been seen to define British sovereignty have changed and evolved at great pace; the UK has an unelected House of Lords, which takes its legitimacy from the Commons, yet the Commons has ceded powers on education, health, policing to devolved bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to a great or lesser extent across the three nations. A House of Commons with 56 nationalist Scots, would argue that power was not ceded, rather conceded.

Given the phenomenal success of the SNP in the General Election and the narrow margin of success for ‘No Campaign’ in the Scottish Independence referendum, it is hardly surprising that further powers are to be ceded to Holyrood.

Over the last few weeks the government has brought forward the Cities and Local Government Bill to make provisions to devolve power out of London to the city regions across the country; Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, are all too aware of opportunities to grab power from Westminster. The regions quite rightly want a voice.

So, do people identify themselves as European, British, Northern, Southern, Scottish, Welsh, Lancastrian, Mancunian? Who knows!

Just as the rules of sovereignty have changes on the global scene, so too have the people who legitimise Parliament itself, the voting public.

Whilst the people of the United Kingdom have the luxury of informing, or choosing to boycott the political discourse, the people of Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, have not had their views heard in their sovereign Parliament. And here in lies the problem for Gibraltar…

Gibraltar has a special relationship with the ‘European Community’, which is different from any other overseas territory of a member state.  Under the Treaty of Rome 1973 and the UK Act of Accession of the same year, Gibraltar was classified as a dependent territory of the United Kingdom.

Although Gibraltar has its own Parliament which is responsible for passing legislation, including European Community Directives, the UK Government is responsible for Gibraltar's foreign affairs, including their relationships within the European Union. Ultimately the UK has sovereign responsibility and power.

How can the people of Gibraltar, who have categorically voted to stay with Britain, feel valued and listened to, when the structures of government and governance in Britain themselves are changing so quickly?

For example, if the UK decides to leave the EU, this would have huge ramifications for the people of Gibraltar; even though they are entitled to vote, their voting ‘bloc’ will be hugely dwarfed by that of the other constituent parts of the UK.

Border disputes have plagued workers and tourists at La Linea for years, and the only real sway the UK has been able to bring to bear, is through the European Union. The free movement of people and goods across Europe, has informed the negotiations. If the UK opts out and loses its clout, this cannot be guaranteed.

Historically pillars of British sovereignty have helped Gibraltar forge a strong identity. Many still remain but need re-enforcing, the British military base on Gibraltar remains a vital strategic location for the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and the Army. The Gibraltar Regiment, formed in 1958, is part of the British Army and has a proud history. The regiment provided the Guard at Buckingham Palace in 2012.

Yet, with a reduction in military forces, can this regular rotation of forces be guaranteed? The pound sterling, the currency still used in Gibraltar, is a currency that is managed through monetary policy governed by the Bank of England Governor. Over recent years we have seen powers passed to the Bank from HM Treasury. More powers are likely to be devolved.

Gibraltar’s unique position means that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office deals with the Territory’s foreign affairs and treaties; yet as Britain’s role on the international stage becomes more and more reliant on bi-lateral groups and agreements, as well as international bodies such as the NATO, G8, UN, EU the decision making is moving further and further away from the Rock.

As a long term friend and supporter of Gibraltar I want to see it remain a British Overseas Territory, decided its own fate through self-determination; but there are many challenges and dichotomous forces at play.

Gibraltar allows decisions to be made by the sovereign power of Parliament in Westminster, its consent provides legitimacy. But as the world changes, in light of devotion of power, along with inevitable change in our relationship with the European Union we have an obligation to consider the implications of this on vital British Overseas Territories like Gibraltar.    


Lindsay Hoyle MP is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gibraltar,