On the face of it the Tesco Superstore in Consett, Co. Durham is not the most obvious place to gain insight into the EU referendum debate. On the other hand, it is as good a place as any (including Westminster and Whitehall), which gets to the heart of the problem. I popped into this particular store a couple of week ago while paying a visit to the area and while queuing to check out, overheard a young man operating an adjacent till enthusiastically explaining to his paying customers why he was voting to leave. It was, he confidently asserted, all about sovereignty, about taking back control. This set me thinking about the multi-facetted layer of the debate and the way in which ‘taking back control’ has eclipsed the Remain campaign’s point about protecting the rights of part-time and low-paid workers.
‘Taking Back Control’ – to Where?
The deliberate conflation of sovereignty with taking back control is only possible due to the depressing lack of understanding amongst many people of even the rudiments of the British constitution. The intention of the Leave campaign is to give the illusion that somehow we are all in control, an illusion of popular sovereignty fostered by the holding of the referendum itself (Ben Wellings and Emma Vines have pointed to this irony). Theoretically, sovereignty the UK is exercised by Parliament with the role of the people limited to choosing their representatives to exercise this sovereignty. Under normal circumstances the young man at the Tesco checkout would have very little power unless he got himself elected, or elevated to the peerage, and even then his power would be limited. But even those who proclaim the supposed sovereignty of Parliament are being misleading and in fact the UK has a long history of internally sharing sovereignty. As a prime example, the Scottish legal system operates on a completely different set of assumptions to the system in England and Wales. In modern terms the Parliaments and devolved assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all share some of the Sovereignty of Parliament along with the English judiciary (through the system of common law). The official website provides more information on the number of ways in which it actually shares sovereignty with other sources of UK power. For a more complete account of the background to shared sovereignty, David Allen Green has written this excellent post.
So far I have considered the UK in isolation. But we are signatory to approximately 700 or so international treaties, each of which involves a sharing of sovereignty to a greater or lesser degree. Three of the most prominent agreements of course are the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) United Nations (UN) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It could be argued that as the UK parliament could withdraw from any international treaty then it still exercises ultimate sovereignty. But turning us into a kind of North Korea is not what the Leave campaign advocates. In fact it positively encourages us to be outward looking and even lauds the Commonwealth, which is in itself an expression of shared sovereignty! So the concept of sovereignty is a complex issue with many layers and a troubled history. David Nowell Smith gives further details of just how slippery is the concept of sovereignty.
Who Would Exercise this ‘Control’?
While acknowledging just how complex the concept of sovereignty can be, it is possible to address some issues surrounding the wielding of power in the UK. Behind the deliberate conflating of sovereignty with ‘taking back control’ is the implicit assumption of an increase in individual liberty. We have already noted that our checkout person will have almost no more effective power if we leave the EU than if we remain. One example will suffice to illustrate this important point. Many Leave campaigners talking about control are actually alluding to one aspect, immigration. The argument is that withdrawing from the EU will necessarily drastically slow immigration leading to both higher wages and more resources for all of us in terms of public services. But this is a deception. With sovereignty resting with Parliament and government being elected on a minority of the voters (the current one by only 37%, 24% if you include non-voters) there is no reason why a right wing government could not skew immigration to provide a constant flow of workers into just those industries to keep wages suppressed. Likewise there is no guarantee that more will be spent on public services, austerity may well continue and services privatised. Don’t forget, the Government has been stocking the Lords with wealthy businessmen interested in making as much money as possible.
Worryingly the two basic elements of the debate, the British Constitution and a concept of liberty are actually little understood by the main proponents in the referendum debate. The ramshackle ad hoc nature of the constitution brings its own problems with vague ill-defined areas. This is an old problem, as far back as 1776 political activist Tom Paine in Essay 1 of Common Sense described the British constitution as
…imperfect, subject to convulsions and incapable of producing what is seems to promise.
Furthermore it is
…so exceedingly complex that the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in what part the fault lies.
As Pat Kane points out in The Nationalist paper the broader issue of complexity is one which some of the shadowy less public figures in the debate are prepared to exploit. The fact that those whole rule or aim to rule over us do not understand the full complexity of the modern wold (and I would argue this includes the anachronistic British constitution) leaves opportunities for a significant imposition of experimental libertarian policies by those prepared to seize the opportunities afforded by the ambiguities.
Education – Giving People a Key to Understanding
To fall back on a cliche, knowledge is power, though being a cliche does not make it any less true. There has been much discussion in recent years about teaching British Values as if such a uniquely British concept can be pinned down. A more pressing need to give young people a basic education in the constitution of the UK which will allow them to better judge the claims being made in the future. Knowledge is power, but the establishment would prefer to keep the power to themselves! Lets hope it is not too late.