The week before the May First General Election, Robert Harris wrote in his Sunday Times column that the interminable electoral campaign had probably been a waste of time for the outgoing government. It had made no difference to voting intentions because ‘the tectonic plates had shifted’ already to deter the outcome. I think this was more than just a striking phrase. Deeper pressures had indeed asserted themselves, and are continuing to do so. The
Theorists of nationality-politics have invented the term ‘ethnoscape’ to describe certain aspects of traditional national identity.footnote3 By analogy, what we are dealing with here might be called the ‘sovereigntyscape’ of the United Kingdom—the deeper configuration of central authority inherited and taken for granted, and in practice grafted on to most ideas (including popular ideas) of the nation, of ‘what it means’ to be British or English. I think it is in this zone that the tectonic shifts are occurring. The two outstanding manifestations so far have been the precipitous decline of the Monarchy since around 1990, and 1997’s electoral earthquake, ‘the Labour landslide’ as most comment called it—appropriately enough in the context of Harris’s metaphor. But there is another old-fashioned metaphor which might be applied too. It could equally be said that ‘a crisis of the State’ is going on. Marxists used to be fond of this idea, which implied that social forces (notably economic ones) were out-pacing and undermining the existing power-structures, and hence bringing about an inevitable ‘collapse’ (with any luck, a ‘revolution’) from which Progress would emerge victorious, guided by Marxists. A crisis of the State is by definition a crisis of Sovereignty.footnote4
Sovereignty is the ultimate or last-resort power of decision over a given population and territory.footnote5 The question is a fundamental one, but I do not propose to tackle its philosophical side directly here. Everyone knows that in Great Britain a peculiar mysticism attaches to the notion, reflecting the metempsychosis of the late-feudal Crown into a representative Parliament, after the Revolutions between 1640 and 1688. Given the aristocratic or patrician nature of the resultant English representation, an extraordinarily centralized and elitist apparatus of power and administration was created. It was voiced literally by James vith and ist
It is tempting but erroneous here to speak of the old regime as having ‘scraped the bottom of the barrel’. That would imply that there had been something else in the barrel, previous stratagems or reforming devices attempted and found wanting until, in extremis, the political class just had to go for the bilge-water. Of course this was not so. Mother-of-Parliament-land had no requirement for such stratagems and devices: historic-exemplary status implies that nationalistic status-anxiety is for wimp-lands alone. Where first-born nationhood is threatened, therefore, there is only the barrel-bottom: it can’t be our fault, so they must be to blame. Hence identity may legitimately be redefined by the crudest means to hand: in this case a spluttering concoction of warm beer, bicycling clerics, filthy abattoirs, plotting foreigners and Sir James Gold-smith.
Beneath the rotting barrel lies the sand, fortunately: a ‘sovereignty’ which will outlast the fall of Britain. But the banks of sovereignty are now themselves shifting rapidly in new tides. The locus of debate has at last shifted decisively from the economy to the state. It always used to be said by conscious and unconscious apologists of Old Corruption that the people ‘had no interest in constitutional questions’. Well, they seem to be acquiring one fast. That was in any case always a piece of Westminster dullardry. Ah for the days of such pseudo-shrewdness and unflinching self-admiration! Naturally there was little popular concern with reforming a Constitution which everyone had been taught to revere alongside the State Opening and Vera Lynn. But all this meant is that people used to behave themselves. In the 1980s they stopped behaving themselves. Then the Royal Family and the Tory Party stopped behaving themselves too. And finally Britain’s last hope of rectitude, the Labour Party, embarked upon a noisy and compromising—though possibly brief—affaire with democracy. About the same time as the National Lottery, identity-Angst crept at last into the British soul and led it to query ‘the way we’re governed’—which means sovereignty.