What does sovereignty mean in the age of Brexit?

InvestUK Chairman Rupert Gather reflects on the new UK-EU Trade Deal in an article written for CapX


Finally they got it. In the end the EU team realised that Brexit wasn’t a dumb, dry economic calculation by deluded Brits, but was about the desire to become an “independent coastal state”, with all the risks and opportunities that entails. Ursula von der Leyen however, having belatedly identified the stick, firmly grasped the wrong end of it. Only now with Brexit upon us did she identify Sovereignty as the key driver, whilst claiming that real sovereignty is only achieved through working together rather than acting independently.


She was right in suggesting that Sovereignty is an abstract concept. True it has a legal structure and often can be born out of physical boundaries defined by an island, river desert or mountain range. But really it is about the effect that is has on the people who live within its jurisdiction. The emotional attachment that this engenders, the love of the sovereign nation, is how we define patriotism and where the EU struggles. We have to be cautious: Voltaire said “it is lamentable that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind”. But to understand the relevance of sovereignty in an age of Brexit, we have to understand at an emotional level what lies behind it.


Sovereignty is born out of enlightened self-interest. In the same way that a child has an innate loyalty and love for a parent, because of its need for physical protection and nourishment, it is inbuilt in us to form our group, our tribe, our country. Ursula von der Leyen should read a piece of Enlightenment wisdom in Thomas Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’. Hobbes sees the nation as embodied in a creature rising up over a landscape, rather like Godzilla. At its head is a crowned sovereign flourishing a sword as a symbol of protection, but if you look closely, what appear to be scales covering its body are actually hundreds of people acting in unison to give flesh to the idea of a sovereign state. A state’s power derives from everyone surrendering their own sovereign power in return for protection or peace. So, although patriotism is an emotional term and sovereignty is a legal term, they are in fact indistinguishable in why people come together and believe in a unifying authority.


But it’s clear that there’s another kind of protection that drives sovereignty – economic wellbeing – and this is where the EU claims to be on stronger ground. The search for prosperity is deeply personal, but the EU tries to reflect this with the concept of ‘Pooled Sovereignty’. Great idea, but the danger is that, in the same way as “no none ever washed a hire car”, something that is pooled is not owned, and something that is not owned is not cared for. What is missing is the direct and obvious benefit to individuals and families that in turn inspires loyalty, and why delays in distribution of COVID vaccine are so dangerous for the European project. Whatever we feel about the nation, Europe or for that matter any other aspect of globalization, we can all unite in the belief that it that it has to deliver well-bring for ourselves and our families or it is nothing.


Whilst physical and economic protection create the framework for sovereignty, attachment lies much closer to home. This starts in the mind literally as ‘hearth & home’, and explains the enduring popularity of the war poets. Some are sad, some inspiring, but they all seek sanctuary in the idea of ‘Home’. For WB Yeats it is the parish of Kiltartan and for Edward Thomas it is all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. The post-war master of a sense of place was John Betjeman who could make home as intimate as a mouse in a church or gulls reflecting in the sharp spring sun.


Home is not simply about place, it is also about people, our own communities. When a community comes together there is something transformative about the way it changes the way people feel. Boris Johnson realised the importance of Christmas as an idea in resisting further lockdowns, as Sovereignty, and the patriotism that flows from it, comes from a sense of the local and the familiar.


Sovereignty therefore starts from the need for protection, is enforced in the wallet and flourishes in the local. But there’s something even more powerful that unites us, which is our sense of belonging. This explains why fishing was such a totemic issue in both UK and France, because the “fishing community” meant something in terms of togetherness and self-reliance. Communities that come together to a common identity thrive because they feel that they matter to the world, but are small enough to feel that they matter to each other.


So Mrs von der Leyen, try and understand that what goes for Peterhead and Penzance, or indeed Port en Bessin, goes for the whole nation as we emerge into our post Brexit status as the world’s newest “independent coastal state”.