Wednesday 9 December 2020

The Tory Sovereignty Fetish

"The thing the European Union just doesn't understand", intones any Tory asked about the state of trade negotiations, "is that Britain is now an independent coastal nation in charge of its laws, borders, and waters." Snoring boring, but this is the pat excuse of choice when Boris Johnson and his ghastly coterie are asked awkward questions about the Brexit talks. The implication being Brussels wants to treat the high and mighty Blighty like a semi-detatched vassal state doomed to take the rules emanating from the Commission if access to the European single market is to be retained. Getting all patriotic is good theatre to warm the gammon up, but preposterous posturing to anyone half paying attention to the Brexit deal saga.

As the Prime Minister bumbled and mussed his hair through an evening of face-to-face negotiations with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen this Weds evening, it is worth returning to this sovereignty trope, which is waved about like an overripe rabbit's foot. This isn't to say its rightwing uses haven't been deployed skilfully in the recent past. Readers shall recall the brute efficacy "Take Back Control" had during the EU referendum campaign, and how the argument over sovereignty tapped into and provoked a reaction among large numbers of people who felt powerless over their lives, estranged from the changes no one put in any manifesto, and were looking for a means of asserting themselves against an amorphous them. Be it anti-immigration poison put out by Arron "Magic Pockets" Banks's Leave.EU, or the small n, small s national socialism of the NHS Brexit bus, the Leave campaign cleverly fashioned something as abstract as state sovereignty into everyday language and common sense experience. Definitely something Labour's pitiful sloganisers could do with studying and learning from.

But why do the Tories fetishise it? Aren't they anti- the state, or at the very least about minimising the state? You know, the Thatcherite guff about states not being privy to perfect information which predestines intervention in the economy to be disastrous, and that it should be pared back to barest essentials. Such as the apparatus for locking people up and making war on others. The answer to that is ... one should learn not to take Tory principles too seriously. They don't, after all. Sovereignty, however, is different. This is not an airy-fairy principle scrawled from the quill of Edmund Burke and repeated by ostensible thinkers like the late Roger Scruton, but a coagulation of the Tory experience of the last 40 years, taken up, obscured and rendered seemingly rarefied by what passes for conservative philosophy. Marxism isn't the only social theory to formulate concepts on the basis of practice.

Let's stop beating about the bush. The mainstay of Thatcherism and its successors, right through to the professed one nationism of Theresa May and Johnson is authoritarian politics. The striking of a new class settlement through the punishment beating of the labour movement in the 1980s was because Thatcher tooled up the state. With no authority higher than itself, organised workers were brought to heel and war was declared on professions, local government, education, and the civil service. Everywhere their authority was undermined or scrapped and subject to direct central supervision. Under Major this continued, but the process of destroying the expertise-driven autonomy of parts of the state found the slack taken up by a mix of markets, "independent" regulators and inspectorates, backed up at all times by the central authority of the executive. Rather than scrap this, New Labour deepened it further by instituting a new ecosystem of regulators ultimately accountable to the state. The Tory/LibDem coalition undoing much of it and creating more top-heavy, over centralised relationships. The "bonfire of the quangos" only multiplied state bureaucracy elsewhere. Why did the Tories go down this route? Because this was an extension of class war. First batter resistance into submission. Second, set up forms of governance that promote competition between agencies and, therefore, workers. And third provide commercial opportunities for those companies nice enough to sprinkle a few pounds into party coffers.

This remains the case with the Tory handling of the Coronavirus crisis, which has produced a seeming incoherence from the standpoint of public health but not as far as the preservation of class relations are concerned. The state was the saviour, underwrote the economy (well, not all of it), enforced the lockdowns and is now pushing the vaccines out the door. But there was one potential check on the state, on sovereignty, on stopping the Tories from doing whatever they wanted to do, and that was the European Union. It is little coincidence the vast bulk of Brexity Conservative MPs are dyed-in-wool Thatcherites, because the EU presented itself as a barrier, a repository of alternative authority that conditioned the state's room for manoeuvre. Therefore if one's vision for the future is a deregulated clearing house for hot and dirty money, and is part of a faction (and fraction) who stands to substantially profit from pivoting the British economy in this direction, tearing up EU membership and going for the lightest possible trade deal obviously suits such interests, and is entirely consistent with the custom and practice of Thatcherism. In other words, the assertion of sovereignty is a very fancy way of announcing the assertion of class interests.

Our old friend Louis Althusser, once he recovered from his self-described "theoreticist deviation" characterised philosophy as the class struggle in theory. Like much else, the Tory fetish of sovereignty affirms the acuity of this keenest of insights. They don't stick to this otherwise mundane political concept because of its beauty or clarity, though some might find the distortions and contortions it pulls in the writings of establishment political thinkers beguiling. They feel it in their bones because, effectively, sovereignty is the flattering reflection their class-ridden, authoritarian politics projects into philosophy and provides a convenient shorthand for obscuring what they're really all about.

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Alan Story said...

Tony Benn was also very big on parliamentary sovereignty ( and Corbyn learned it from his political tutor's knee. )

TowerBridge said...

This is it. This is why the EU is a baddie for these people. The French are a check on their treatment of people. I would note that when asked, the only EU regulation that obnoxious Rees Mogg listed as being an issue was the Working Time Directive - that thing that enshrines our ability to not have to work all hours god sends.
That'll be one of the first things to go.

Anonymous said...

The UK voluntarily pooled some aspects of its sovereignty with other European countries in order to trade and cooperate more effectively. This happened mainly under Conservative governments (and particularly in the 1980s under Thatcher) and at the time it was seen as a good thing (by the Conservative media and the political class). The Conservative media and some parts of the political class then decided that this pooling of sovereignty was a terrible imposition (Fourth Reich, EUSSR) but this led to a referendum in which it was claimed that the UK could opt out of this pooling of sovereignty but still trade and cooperate with the rest of Europe in the same way.

Brexiteers were dishonest about the fact that the fact that EU rules were not an imposition, and that they were parts of trade and cooperation deals freely entered into. They dishonestly claimed that German car-makers or French cheese-producers would force the EU to allow the UK to continue to trade and cooperate without following the previously-agreed rules. Theresa May continued with the same dishonesty in her Lancaster House speech; she probably hoped to win convincingly in a General Election and then pivot to a more realistic deal after it, but that didn't work out. The Labour Party and the centrist media never put enough effort into busting these myths (presumably because that would mean getting into a fight with Murdoch).

The EU understands very well that the UK wants to take back this pooled sovereignty. It is the UK which appears not to understand that this implies not trading or cooperating with the rest of Europe. In a globalised world a great deal depends on pooling sovereignty. NATO and WTO are treaties and imply giving up some sovereignty: parliament cannot decide to unilaterally change some part of its involvement in NATO and WTO. The key question is the transparency and accountability of the process of pooling sovereignty.

So at present there is a Conservative Party fetish about sovereignty. Not so long ago there was a fetish for globalisation and international free trade, which implies agreements in which sovereignty is pooled.


Blissex said...

The idea missing from this article and from pretty much all discussion on "sovereignty" is at which level does sovereignty applies?

Because the tory "Leaver" notion of sovereignty is that "UK" should be sovereign, but Belfast or Greater Manchester or Dyfed or Scotland should not be sovereign.

My usual point is that what matter is that *voters* be sovereign, in these sense of having fair and effective representation at whichever level state functions are exercised. For example in the USA and Switzerland both the local and the federal states are "sovereign" in different areas of government. Therefore within the EU the citizens of the UK were sovereign, because they had fair and (less) effective representation, according to rules that applied to every member country.

But what is then "special" about restricting most sovereignty at the UK level, and denying it Greater Manchester or Dyfed or the EU? It is that at the UK level England has the overwhelmingly majority of the votes, and the Conservatives and New Labour and LibDems get the overwhelming majority of english votes, that is the english Establishment is solidly in control, while it has not been in control of EU or Belfast or Lancashire.

If England and the english Establishment had 90% of the votes in the EU Council and the EU Parliament, then I guess that the english Establishment would be very happy with EU sovereignty, as they are very happy with being in control of UK sovereignty today.

Boffy said...

" Getting all patriotic is good theatre to warm the gammon up, but preposterous posturing to anyone half paying attention to the Brexit deal saga."

Quite right, and what a pity that Starmer's Labour is pursuing the same reactionary agenda, rather than putting forward a principled international socialist opposition. Indeed there seems no depths of nationalism and jingoism Starmer is not prepared to plumb in following the Tories in search of reactionary voters to help get careerists Labour politicians the cushy jobs they have become accustomed to.

Blissex said...

«Rees Mogg listed as being an issue was the Working Time Directive»

That is not the big motivation right now: "sovereignty" means also being able to "lease" it to paying customers, by taking them or their money out of the the jurisdiction of other sovereign entities.

Setting up now the argument that english sovereignty is indivisible also means that when the EU asks for an agreement on money laundering and tax avoidance the UK will tell them "our sovereignty on financial and tax matters is indivisible too". The plan is to turn London in a bigger and better version of Monaco, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Channel Islands, Kingdom of Man, Switzerland.

London will be a fiscal paradise and money laundering centre just 1-2 hours flight away from most rich people of the continent, It will be where they can not only safeguard their money from the EU members tax and police authorities, but where they can also pop over to enjoy that money in an environment that is immensely more fun, richer, more cosmopolitan, more willing to cater to every vice, than any of the usually rather smaller and more boring places listed above. Dubai, but much nearer and less shallow and vulgar.

Basically the post brexit business plan is to be a haven not just for the russian oligarchs, but also for the EU oligarchs, and that require a "f*ck off" attitude not just to the russian authorities, but also to the EU member state ones.