Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy after Brexit

Written 24 April 2024

I read this some weeks ago and have been meaning to put some thoughts down on it. The writers are people I came across on Twitter and podcasts during the long, interminable Brexit wars of 2016-20. They were among the few decent commentators I found on the whole sorry spectacle, certainly ahead of any elected politicians, mainstream SW1 think tankers or media journalists, largely because they had a coherent analysis of the nature of both the EU and the UK and the relationship between the two.

Analysis is the key word really. There were few on the Leave side of the debate who offered any sort of coherent analysis of the reasons for leaving the EU. There seemed to me to be even fewer on the Remain side able to articulate well why we should not. The official campaigns were awful. Everyone in the country has a right to feel let down by a political elite1 that even years after the referendum were unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between a customs union and the single market and a political culture that allowed the most ignorant and hysterical voices to hold such sway.

This book is in some ways a longer form of output from this period but also provides in hindsight an explanation for why the process was so chaotic, long drawn out and painful. It then goes on to set out what steps the UK can and should now take outside of the EU.

Taking the first part the authors offer up what I think is a compelling analysis of what the EU is; it is neither a putative suprastate nor an internationalist peace project but a means by which national governing classes evade meaningful democratic contact with national electorates. Membership leads to the disintegration of meaningful and accountable politics, which can only occur in reality within and between genuinely sovereign nation states. The member state is not a truly independent or sovereign state; real decision making takes place at gatherings of unelected technocrats and identikit politicians against a background of long since outdated treaties. As millions of ordinary people have noticed, the result is a quintessentially patronising politics where There Is No Alternative is the only really binding principle with a ratchet mechanisms to keep the whole thing moving in one direction. This, of course, is the logical end point of the revolution started in the late 1970s by Margaret Thatcher and similar Western leaders. Now this would not be such a problem if European populations, and the UK in particular, were enjoying rising living standards and hope for the future. But they aren’t, rather the opposite in fact. The current European settlement ran out of road a quarter of a century or more ago and it’s not going to get back on track. Europe has stagnated and its current settlement does not offer any way out. European electorates have voted for less of the same time and time again but only more of the same is on offer. The analysis of the EU as standing at the summit of a dysfunctional and out of date globalised technocratic order that evades contact with democratic process is the crux of the issue.

So if our politics is not one of effectively sovereign states how does this play out? We still have politics, indeed in many ways our societies are more consumed by politics than ever before. But it is a politics in which very little matters because very little can be changed. We have a politics of lawyers not statesmen, characterised by a narcissism of small differences and a destructive tribalism in which friend/enemy distinctions are everything but come down to very little of substance. What passes for debate consists largely of childish ultra-moralising histrionics and name calling. Legitimate class and national interests are never articulated because there are no political actors to credibly set them out. These interests are clear for millions to see but people who wish to change the game don’t enter politics in the first place and so our political class falls ever lower in the estimation of voters.

As the Man said, what then is to be done? The proposals are radical, consistent and derive from a coherent analysis of the UK as a state set up largely in step with Imperial enlargement and then decline that has always regarded governing at home as rather low grade. The key steps proposed are simple and radical and come down to clarifying how the UK should be refounded as a properly democratic nation state that rests squarely on the historical heritage of a sovereign parliament with no ifs and no buts. So it’s in with PR for the Commons, out with the Lords, out with party funding except for small individual donations. The authors are republicans but don’t think abolition of the monarchy is a priority, it’s largely a diversion and will come in time. In terms of foreign policy, the most important proposal is for the UK to withdraw entirely and unconditionally from the island of Ireland: Britain’s colonial entanglement with Ireland has been to the disbenefit of Britain and means that we are unable to think clearly about our role in the world. It leaves us still half inside the EU through Northern Ireland. More broadly the UK should withdraw from NATO and maintain a genuinely independent nuclear force. Expeditionary forces under NATO are out.

While the authors all regard themselves as of the Left they are also dismissive and despairing of the Left in its current formulation (progressive identitarianism etc). To me they sound rather like much more optimistic versions of what Peter Hitchens describes himself as being: British Gaullists.

I really enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it. I like people whose politics is confident, genuinely reforming, progressive and democratic; everything the Tories and our cringing middle class Remainer elites aren’t, so I suppose I was kind of hard wired to like it. We should be of good cheer. Leaving the EU has delivered very little transactionally (it was never going to in the short term: no sunlit uplands and no economic collapse, both campaigns were wrong), but the important thing is that space has been opened up: we can see how and by whom we are governed and can entertain genuine reform and progress. The vote to leave the EU was a vote for change as much as anything else by a population that is far ahead of its political establishment. It is a defining moment and the current government will not be the last to be destroyed by failing to deliver reforms required by populations. We look set for a change of Government shortly, my bet is that they will fail much as the Tories have done. The Labour Party simply doesn’t have an analysis of where the UK and world currently are that will survive contact with governing as opposed to crafting attack lines on social media. Keir Starmer should read this book but I think it would be an uncomfortable experience.

  1. I know it’s a cliche but it’s a handy shorthand ↩︎

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