The matter of national sovereignty was the clamorous stake in the 2016 referendum on the uk’s membership of the European Union. For the Leavers, whose rhetorical dynamism was unflagging, even in the midst of all the warnings of economic dislocation and slump, the struggle was one for rebirth, a reassertion of British independence in the face of an overbearing Brussels superstate and the launch of a recharged ‘Global Britain’. For the Remain camp, this was not only economically reckless and fanciful but a cultural nightmare, portending a future of inflamed racism and xenophobia as a rationally pooled sovereignty was undone in the name of an idealized national autarky. These projections came in numerous variants—with other arguments besides, though none making significant running in the polemical heat of the referendum’s campaigning and counter-campaigning—and both were fundamentally mistaken. So maintain the four authors of Taking Control, their manifesto (not their word) for Brexit’s ‘unfinished business’, which does indeed concern national sovereignty, though in a sense that neither ‘right-leaning Eurosceptics and populists’ nor ‘liberal and left Europhiles’ can understand.
The eu is not a superstate achieved or in the making, they argue. In fact its strategic purpose has been precisely not to be or become such a thing, but to create a mode of rule that is structurally ‘evasive’, combining a formal claim of democratic legitimacy (the European Council and Council of Ministers are made up of elected members of national governments) with an ever-ready political alibi for unpopular decisions (‘Brussels’, they shrug, and that’s that). In the shape of the eu, ‘Europe’s ruling elites have voluntarily surrendered national sovereignty in order to lock in their preferred neoliberal policies against popular opposition, and to avoid having to be responsive to their own domestic constituents.’ The complementary certitude, that Brexit rode to success on the votes of reactionary nationalists, racists, xenophobes and worse, sits ill on the tongues of the official cosmopolitans, whose compassion ends punctually at the borders of the Union. It is not vindicated by the available data, which do, however, support the plain hypothesis that a majority of those voting Leave felt alienated from public decision-making processes. (By 2016, more than half of all workers and non-degree-holders had stopped voting entirely.) The extent of popular disaffection was captured in the finding that nearly half of Leavers—46 per cent—expected the referendum outcome to be rigged. ‘The vote laid bare the enormous gulf between the electorate and the political elite’, the authors write, or, in the trope they borrow from Peter Mair, ‘the void’.
Taking Control includes a documented resumption of the referendum campaign and its still-unsettled aftermath, but its crucial historical span is longer, reaching back to the middle of the previous century, which witnessed the decisive shifts in the forms of political rule, and looking ahead to the prospects of a struggle for democratic renewal. Britain, as it took shape in the forties, fifties and sixties, was no longer primarily imperial in orientation: its priority was domestic, its governing rhetoric a kind of national collectivism in which Labour sounded the keynote even as the Conservatives held office. Then came the Thatcherite revanche of the seventies and the ascent of neoliberalism, which Blair’s New Labour would duly confirm as the new normal of economy and society, with destructive consequences for ‘the British nation as a political association’. There followed a decline in political participation expressed in reduced electoral turnouts, dwindling party loyalty, membership and activism, and fading party policy differentiation, all these favouring the emergence of a homogenized ‘governing class’ (Mair again) and its counterpart below, an unmoored, fragmented, ‘intersectional’ population—citizens of a void. The enfeebled sovereignty embodied in the status of ‘member-state’ is ‘the ideal shell for post-democratic neoliberal politics’. ‘The political spirit of European integration is appropriately characterized as “authoritarian liberalism”: the interests and protection of private property are elevated over the will of democratic majorities’—as voters in Greece and Ireland will not fail to recall. Its political content is ‘the opposite of national sovereignty, even if the formal shell of legal sovereignty ultimately remains intact and can be asserted, as Britain has now done’.
That distinction is crucial for Cunliffe and his co-authors, whose case is that the Conservative Eurosceptics’ inability to leverage their Brexit success for any wider project has been owing to their failure to comprehend the nature of the eu as a neoliberal entity and their own doctrinaire part in creating it. (The partisans of ‘Remain and Reform’, on the other hand, scarcely had the measure of the Union’s basic procedural documents, which were so crafted as to make success in any drive towards greater democracy a gruelling improbability.) Their own sketch for a programme of reform, hostile to the regressive ‘back’ in the Eurosceptic ‘Take Back Control’ and more so to ‘the Corbynite socialists, . . . the militant wing of the Europhiles’ authoritarian liberalism’, is a slate of ‘radical democratic’ demands specifically political in character and all ‘aimed at breaking up the existing oligarchy’ and recharging popular sovereignty. This is ‘the unfinished business’, of which Brexit was the necessary but misunderstood condition, in a political culture they repeatedly describe as ‘exhausted’.
‘Filling the void—rebuilding political representation—is the main task of democratic politics today’, Cunliffe and his co-authors insist, ‘and representation requires sovereignty.’ However, sovereignty can only be exercised within a delimited space and population, with an elsewhere in which other sovereignties prevail. The main task, more precisely then, is to build ‘democratic nations’. These would be ‘new nations’ not to be traced from exhausted traditions or homogeneous cultural or ethnic identities’. Emerging from ‘the contradictions and wreckage of member-statehood, . . . their only possible basis is a shared commitment to collective self-government.’
Eloquent and emphatic as it is, Taking Control is a book that does not escape the vices of its pedagogic virtues: methodically laid out and expounded, with patient signposting and summings up, it could have been significantly less repetitious. Here follows the democratic programme for the uk, focused on three basic contradictions in the uk state. First, the slogan of ‘Global Britain!’, launched by Theresa May, was a signal to the political and business elites internationally that Brexit would not fundamentally change Britain’s mode of operation in the world. Its political class knows no other, as the record since Brexit attests. This hubris should be rejected, in favour of a consistently democratic, sovereigntist foreign policy. Intergovernmentality such as that of the European Council entails an inescapable derogation of national sovereignty and has been rejected as such. The uk should quit the nato alliance, another intergovernmental body, establishing a wholly independent nuclear deterrent, and at the same time move to liquidate its remaining post-imperial territorial claims.
Second, Brexit was carried out by a political class upholding critical weaknesses in the constitution of the uk itself, above all in relation to Northern Ireland, where Westminster’s authority is chronically dependent on the cooperation of the Irish Republic. Britain claims to rule not only where it should not—the familiar nationalist claim—but where in fact it cannot. This state of affairs can be resolved only with the ending of the Union and the reunification of Ireland. A further weakness is devolution, which has promoted ‘a parochial, authoritarian separatism’ in Scotland and Wales. Defeating Scottish separatism is ‘a key test’, calling for ‘a vision of British democracy that can convince Scottish voters not merely to reject secession but to abandon devolution’.