Time to take back control of our language

Written by Colin Mair on 17 December 2018 in Comment

Former Improvement Service chief Colin Mair on the "sovereignty" red herring and other misuses of language around Brexit

Colin Mair - Improvement Service

As the current Brexit plan death spirals its way to the UK Parliament, Theresa May and her opponents actually share a lot in terms of their assumptions and their language.

May wants to sell the deal in terms of “sovereignty” and “taking back control of our borders, our laws and our money”. Her opponents are attacking the deal precisely because they don’t think it does that.

What both share is the assumption that we somehow “lost” sovereignty and control by belonging to the EU and that only leaving can rectify this. This is simply an attempt to claim that some high constitutional principle is at stake. It is not.

The UK’s membership of the EU was a sovereign decision of the UK parliament, and all the relevant legal frameworks that followed have been legislated into British law by our sovereign parliaments over time.

We have had exactly the control over our borders our “sovereign” parliaments and governments decided we should have; we pay to the EU exactly what we have “sovereignly” agreed to pay; and we sovereignly agreed to the appropriate jurisdiction of European courts. In short, our involvement with the EU has been a choice about how to exercise sovereignty and control, not a loss of either sovereignty or control.

Any choice to join a club or partnership is a question of costs and benefits and limits the autonomy of all parties to such an agreement. This is as true of golf clubs as for membership of the EU but we freely choose to accept such limits to get the benefits of membership we want.

Put simply, we often make the sovereign choice to accept limits and restrictions in return for benefits that we value more highly. This is not “loss” of control; it is use of our ability to control in line with our preferences.

The Brexit debate is therefore not about whether we have sovereignty or control or not: we do have sovereignty and control. It is about how we exercise sovereignty and control and it is right that proper accountability exists for that. It may suit politicians to pretend they have no control but that is dishonest.

The major migration of Eastern European workers to the UK in the 2000s was a choice of the then UK government who saw it as economically beneficial (it was!) The reason May never met a single net migration target as Home Secretary was that the targets were economically witless and unattainable, not that membership of the EU stopped us.  

If we don’t confuse “sovereignty” and “autonomy” then we get to a more honest account of the past but also to a more honest discussion about the future. Any imaginable future trade deal with the USA, or China, or India will come with conditions, requirements and reciprocal obligations that limit our autonomy.

The sovereign choice is about whether the benefits of such deals are worth the limitations and restrictions they place on us. They will also require arrangements for legal oversight and dispute resolution that are not controlled by the UK alone and potentially, as India has already indicated, arrangements for the movement of people as well as goods, services or capital.

A really stupid way of going forward is to carry on presenting the issues here as “constitutional”, about whether we are going to have sovereignty or control or not, rather than about how we best use the sovereignty and control we have always had and still have.

Leaving the EU would not be to become autonomous: it would be about using our sovereignty to sign up to new deals, including with the EU. That will limit our autonomy in different and distinctive ways. The debate should now be about the different future options available, including remaining in the EU, all of which actually presume we have the capacity to make controlled, sovereign choices about the benefits we want and the costs we are willing to carry to get them.

The only truly constitutional issue now is about how we enable young people who were excluded from the initial referendum, but are now of voting age, to have a meaningful say in their own future.

Treating sovereignty as episodic rather than as continuous and open to change, by fetishizing the 2016 referendum result, excludes the very people who will have to make the post-Brexit world work. That is a constitutional issue worth serious thought but neither May nor her “Brexiteer” opponents care about it at all.

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