Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: The political future of the EU is still in doubt

Popular sovereignty may be far more deeply rooted than we imagine it to be in other EU member states. 

By Chris Bickerton

The five years since the referendum have been a political rollercoaster. There was much talk of the British political system being in crisis. Looking back, a striking thing to note is the extent to which political actors and events upheld the basic principle of rule by consent of the governed – popular sovereignty if you will. There was no serious challenge to accepting the result. When the Supreme Court decided in favour of Gina Miller in her first case against the government in 2017, there was an outcry about the implications for British democracy. But the House of Commons voted by a large majority to trigger Article 50 and start negotiations with the EU over the terms of the UK’s exit.

The conflict was not about the principle of popular sovereignty itself but only how it should be institutionalised, meaning the relations between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The same occurred with the movement for a second referendum. Tactical considerations were behind Labour’s pivot towards supporting this policy. There was never a principled debate inside the party about sovereignty, democracy and the second referendum. At issue were short-term considerations about weakening the Corbyn leadership. And we should not forget that what settled the Brexit issue was a general election, where voters were presented with a clear choice about how to proceed. So why was Brexit so divisive? Not because there was a Remainer elite lurking and subverting British democracy, but because the policy of leaving the EU was so divisive. The conflicts of the past five years have been about policy, not about the nature of the British polity.

Of course, the extent to which the constituent nations of the UK recognise themselves as belonging to the wider category of the “British people” is in doubt, but this was already the case before 2016. The Brexit vote has revealed how important EU membership was in keeping together a fragile union. The implications for the rest of the EU are stark. Popular sovereignty may be far more deeply rooted than we imagine it to be in other EU member states, leading to more uncertainty about the political future of the EU.

Chris Bickerton is the author of “The EU: A Citizen’s Guide”(Penguin)

This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

THANK YOU

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up