Sovereignty is about more than just power. It is the agency and moral purpose of a culture.
Just as a human being needs a sense of meaning to survive, nations and societies need a sense of sovereignty to survive. And if we are to feel safe and flourish within a stable community, we all need to be part of a nation or a society.
Some associate the word ‘sovereignty’ with the ‘divine right of kings’, or with tyrannical rule, or they look at society and say that any idea of a common purpose must be a myth, a propaganda tool for the many vested interests that exploit the needs and desires of the common people.
There is no doubt that sovereignty has been used for these purposes throughout the centuries, and vested interests continue to make a mockery of the idea of a common social purpose and meaning. But the existence of transgressions against an ideal does not render that ideal empty and immoral.
Part of the reason we know that the Iraq war was wrong, or that the 2008 crash was a violation of social values, is because these things failed to live up to a sense of common duty about what our society means and should be aspiring to.
Though history is full of examples of abuse of authority, this does not mean that the office of authority is inherently corrupt. Part of the heritage of British constitutional development, for example, is the way that competing interests have amended public government over centuries to ensure that the various parts of society are represented.
From Magna Carta down through the reform acts and the women’s suffrage movement, society has evolved so that the constitution and the office of sovereignty is both broad enough to represent the diversity of citizens, and specific enough to ensure that certain tangible rights exist for everyone regardless of identity.
To say that the British constitution is a product of imperialism is simply ignorant. In fact, one of the tensions that brought an end to imperialism was the grassroots movement on home soil against what was clearly a form of hypocrisy about democracy and the rule of law. At home, every citizen had the same rights in terms of right to trial and a right to vote. However, in the colonies, the model government was tyrannical and in most cases proudly undemocratic.
As citizens at home started to claim their rights, expanding suffrage and ensuring access to health and education, the disparity of citizenship between colonial subjects and native Brits became untenable. It started to make a mockery citizenship itself.
Though the collapse of the British empire was complex and involved the domestic politics of subjected nations across the world, one thing that helped us to dismantle it, was the knowledge that claiming democratic rights at home while disregarding them abroad was devaluing the very moral value of society, and the authority that kept our justice system alive.
Sovereignty is the common purpose which binds the largest possible group of people together. When is a heap a heap? When is a society a society? There is no scientific answer.
There is however, a spiritual one. The office of sovereignty creates a symbolic representation of national values. This is something that has been degraded and scoffed at since the end of the Second World War. People blame the very idea of sovereignty and nationhood for the abuses of power that existed in Hitler and Stalin, and for the exploitative abuses at the hands of imperial ambition.
However, we cannot make the worst case scenario the test of nationhood. The practical truth of the matter is that we must live in community with each other, and there is a point at which a community becomes too big, or too inclusive to have a sense of common purpose and meaning.
Society has shown us that sovereignty can be expanded, that we need not depend on the tyrannical will of one man. However, history also shows that sovereignty has its limits. It needs boundaries to exist.
It is this tension between limits and inclusiveness that characterise democratic nations.
The most concrete example of this broad but well defined common national purpose can be seen in the American constitution. The very existence of it, regardless of what can be debated over its amendments, is a demonstration of common purpose.
The idea of a constitution is the idea that government should be limited, that the society exists for the flourishing of the individual. America’s Bill of Rights, states that all men are equal, and that citizenship exists in ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
This is a notion that goes back to Aristotle, who believed that the health of the state is intimately related to the health and privileges of the citizen.
Though Aristotle would not have put a primacy on individual rights, and his concept of citizenship was infamously limited to a select group of wealthy men, the birth of an ideal exists that far back. The ideal being that citizenship is the means by which humans become truly human, and that citizenship must allow the flourishing of the individual if the existence of the state is to fully justify itself.
Sovereignty, then, does not represent mere power. It represents the ideals of citizenship, and the authority by which that citizenship is granted. The Queen’s recent visit to Manchester to visit the survivors of the bomb attack, and to commend the men and women who cared for those victims, is a perfect example of the spiritual values of sovereignty in action.
The Queen understood that these people had embodied the very best of what she exists to represent herself. Courage, love of fellow man, sacrifice and above all, endurance, the sustaining of human life through correct action.
In short, sovereignty is a matter of collective experience, cultural heritage and common values, all thrown into one. Sovereignty is strongest when it emerges over time, through the constitutional adaptation over time.
Critics might point to the rather top-down nature of the nature of American constitutional values, that the country was birthed by a document written by a select group of ‘white men’ and that it did not emerge from centuries of cultivation.
Perhaps that is true, but American independence could not be said to be ‘nation-building’ in the sense of the European Union, or the many neo-conservative failures in recent decades. What came first were the values, and the American constitution was created so that amendments and adaptations could be made, and they are in fact encouraged, by the inherent structure of it. The values are secure, but the way those values can be embodied is always open to dialogue and dispute.
Sovereignty is the authority of the ages. It is the legitimacy of power, as well just the mechanism of power.
The American constitution gets its legitimacy because it offers the most basic human needs as its fundamental value system. Its failure to live up to those values might erode the faith people have that the system has their best interests at heart, but it does not erode the legitimacy of those values themselves. That was what the Civil Rights Movement was all about. Salvaging the values of the constitution, from those who abuse it.
What’s wrong with the EU
In both the American constitution, and the British constitution, it is important to notice that economics did not create the country, however much economic interests powered the energy of change that helped those constitutions to emerge. Rather, the values, and the desire for the largest amount of peace for the largest amount people, were the main drivers in creating sovereign societies.
The core problem with the European Union is that it seeks to create a state, a very large, and comparatively centralised one, out of nothing but trade deals. It is nation-building at the hands of economists.
As opposed to the ideal embodied in Magna Carta, the 1688 Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Arbroath, and the American constitution, the European Union is a state built on economic ideology, rather than commonly held values.
You could argue that the European Human Rights Declaration acts a document of commonly held values. However, that document is the not the chief constitutional document. It exists separately from the EU. And as the disputes over the Lisbon Treaty proved, the apparatus of state legitimacy is an ongoing post-hoc activity. First came trade deals, second came the values of statehood.
Why is this a problem? Because the citizen is of secondary importance at best, to the economic ideology that happens to govern the foundational trade agreements. If a society exists for trade agreements first and citizens second, how can you say that there is a binding set of values and common interests?
What we saw with Greece, was the imposition of economic interests, and financial ideologies, over and above the needs to citizenship. For those who wish to the defend the legitimacy of the EU, they will have to accept that citizenship is not the chief concern, but trade.
If they admit to that, and they really must, then they cannot claim that the EU places a fundamental value in human life, but only in wealth creation.
One of the chief problems in putting this criticism forward is that most people regard harping on about citizenship and sovereignty as archaic, unrealistic, anachronistic even. Economics, says the over-educated mob, has always been the driving force of society. Citizenship and constitutions, we are told, have always been the propaganda of the bourgeois.
Even conservatives will use this kind of line of argument, not realising that they are simply regurgitating oversimplified Marxism and class conflict theory.
Perhaps it is time for a refreshed idea of what a society really is, and the mechanism that keeps it together. It is time to see economics as part of a wider evolution of social values, not the other way round.