So it got done. Brexit was consummated at the start of the year, with Britain leaving not just the EU (that happened in January 2020) but also the EU’s customs union, its single market, a number of other areas of co-operation, and most of the legal obligations and entitlements that went with them. (There are still some past bills due and, of course, Northern Ireland continues to follow many EU rules in return for better market access and a no-friction land border.)

For a lot of Brexit supporters, this amounted to the UK regaining its sovereignty, even if at an economic cost (though most of them think there wasn’t any). Which makes this a good time to leave the economics aside and ask the deeper question of what sovereignty is. To judge whether sovereignty ought to — or even needs to — be traded off against the economic and political benefits of being part of a continental free movement area, we had better have a sense of what is valuable about it, and of how, if at all, that value is enhanced by leaving the EU. And to be able to spell that out, we, in turn, need a good definition of sovereignty.

For the headiest Brexit supporters, what is at stake is nothing less than “freedom”. But there are few things Britons are now freer to do than before, and quite a few they are less free to do. And freedom is not incompatible with legal constraints. Individuals are not less free just because they live under a system of binding laws; if the laws are any good at all, people are freer — they can do more things they want and are less threatened by those who would stop them — than they would be in conditions of lawlessness.

It is better to see sovereignty as autonomy — the ability to make decisions on one’s own — after all, the one thing the UK has acquired since the start of the year is greater space to make laws unilaterally (less so for Northern Ireland). That is just what the word autonomy means: “setting laws for oneself”. Give it a moment’s thought, and it is clear that even though autonomy and freedom are related, one can be more autonomous but less free — if you get to decide unilaterally among fewer options — and one can gain more freedom by giving up autonomy. The latter is, of course, the reason why all other EU member states remain members: they can achieve more of what they want for themselves by making decisions together. The same can be said for sovereignty and power — all but the biggest states can have more power if they decide things together.

Anyone is free to prefer autonomy to either effective freedom or power to achieve substantive outcomes. For the New Year’s Eve edition of the Financial Times, I wrote about how Britain’s relationship with the single market traces the British Conservative party’s changing view of that trade-off: the single market is what it is in large part thanks to Margaret Thatcher.

But honest does not mean well-reasoned. The notion of sovereignty that drives Euroscepticism in Britain is a peculiarly absolutist one. It is also peculiarly British, dating back to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. It sees the autonomy of the state as something that can neither be shared nor divided — state power must be concentrated in a single point or it is not sovereign at all. The view commonly held elsewhere that sovereignty can be “pooled” to be exercised more efficiently is philosophically rejected by British Eurosceptics not just of the right but the “Lexit” proponents of the left.

But this way of thinking about sovereignty makes the concept a poor guide to political choices. The first implication is that if sovereignty does not allow for degrees, it is hard to know where to stop. Any legally binding limit is incompatible with this sort of sovereignty. The EU-UK trade deal, which Brexiters laud for restoring sovereignty, for example, prevents the UK from choosing its tariffs on imports from the EU. And it is not just international treaties. Domestically, too, it is hard to see how this sort of sovereignty could be shared or spread, so it would seem to rule out devolution, as well as the separation of powers. And it is incompatible with a written constitution and the notion of inviolable individual rights, which define the limits of state power (since on this view of sovereignty there can be no such limits).

One has to admit that when the current UK governing party intimates it does not want the executive to be constrained by judicial review of whether it is acting lawfully — or even by a parliament that disagrees with it! — it is at least being consistent. But the logical destination of this line of reasoning is very far removed from popular sovereignty or individual people taking back control of their lives.

The second awkward implication is that a view of sovereignty that requires it to be concentrated and undivided cannot by itself say anything about where sovereignty (and over what) should be located. Why should there be unitary sovereignty over the UK, rather than undivided sovereignty over Scotland residing in Edinburgh and over England in London? Or going the other way, why should there not be unitary, undivided sovereignty over all of Europe (or the whole world)? Indeed, the sovereignty purism is at least as compatible with a pan-European super-state than with European nation-states, especially since these have less realistic alternative to entering into treaty commitments with one another than a continental superstate would need to do. And why should sovereignty over Northern Ireland be part of sovereignty over Great Britain rather than of that over the Republic of Ireland? One can advocate a Hobbesian view of sovereignty — but that view gives no reason to think that that sovereignty should be lodged in the UK nation-state. If its logic points towards anything, it is surely an all-powerful global state — the ultimate undivided sovereignty.

Eurosceptic sovereigntists, in other words, must reach for arguments beyond sovereignty itself to make it support their Euroscepticism. But what could those arguments be? They could be instrumental — about what sovereignty allows you to do. But the inconvenient fact is that pooled decision-making (and indeed the separation of powers domestically) makes for better outcomes. Or they could be intrinsic — that unconstrained autonomy is the highest good no matter what. But the notion that we should cherish the ability to do what we want whenever we want it, but not the ability to enter into binding long-term commitments with others, is a world view suitable only for adolescents (and not really even for them). It is utterly unconvincing, yet the closest, it seems, the UK prime minister and his allies have to a governing philosophy.

Other readables

  • Could our century produce its own Roaring Twenties? The original decade of abandon did, after all, come after the end of a terrible pandemic. In a New Year’s column, I argue there are good reasons to expect a huge consumption boom, but that it is imperative to make sure everyone can come to the party.

  • Gustav Oertzen explains why governments must not leave vaccine production decisions to private companies but put in place a “Covid war economy”.

  • In oil-rich Gulf countries, there is a strong case for a universal basic income.

  • The OECD’s chief economist, Laurence Boone, has given an interview to the FT in which she warns against trying to reduce government deficits too fast. Instead, the task of stabilising the economy should be shifted back from monetary to fiscal policy, she argues.

Numbers news

  • Do not let the insurrection in Washington DC obscure the fact that Democrats won both run-off races in the Georgia election, giving them the thinnest of majorities in the Senate. In two weeks’ time, they will control both chambers of the US Congress as well as the White House.


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