How a jar of Marmite shows the limits of sovereignty

The freedom of the poor is a pretty poor form of freedom. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The manufacturing giant Unilever has upped its wholesale prices by 10 per cent, and Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket, has refused to accept the hike, resulting in Unilever’s products vanishing from its shelves.

Many of Unilever’s products are made in Britain, but the ingredients and plant components are sourced worldwide. And although the price increase will hit a wide range of products, it is Marmite – the black glutinous spread that either tastes like heaven or makes your tastebuds long for an acid bath depending on your preference – that is leading the headlines.

It cuts to the heart of the debate about whether Britain is better off inside or outside the European Union, and of the central question of sovereignty. It’s undeniably true that by being a member of the European Union, or even just remaining within the single market, Britain would give up a measure of sovereignty. Although leaving the European Union but remaining in the single market would repatriate a swathe of powers from Brussels to Britain, it would still constraint British politicians on regulations, border control and state aid, to name just a few policy areas.

But as one perceptive pro-Remain politician observed before the referendum:  

“No country or empire in world history has ever been totally sovereign, completely in control of its destiny.  Even at the height of their power, the Roman Empire, Imperial China, the Ottomans, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, modern-day America, were never able to have everything their own way.  At different points, military rivals, economic crises, diplomatic manoeuvring, competing philosophies and emerging technologies all played their part in inflicting defeats and hardships, and necessitated compromises even for states as powerful as these.”

As they continued, that has changed in the modern day:

“There is now an additional complication.  International, multilateral institutions exist to try to systematise negotiations between nations, promote trade, ensure cooperation on matters like cross-border crime, and create rules and norms that reduce the risk of conflict.

These 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.”

Nonetheless, Britain voted to leave, and the politician in question, Theresa May, is now busily pretending that the whole “voting Remain” thing never happened. Britain has chosen to give up ceding sovereignty in a controlled way, and instead to give it up in an uncontrolled way.

The loss of Marmite from the shelves of Tesco is just the first example, but it’s a good one, both for individuals in Britain and for the country as a whole.

You can still buy Marmite, of course: you might have to pay a higher price at a local corner shop, or make a longer journey. But you’re just as free to buy it as you were before. Of course, that freedom feels rather different if you have money left to spare at the end of the weekly shop than if you don’t.

And Britain as a whole will certainly be “more free” if it leaves both the single market not merely just the European Union. But as the left has always known, the freedom of the poor is a poor sort of freedom. That may be a lesson that Brexit finally teaches the right. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.