Sovereignty and power


          Yesterday in the debate on UK Parliamentary sovereignty I asked How does a sovereign lose their sovereignty?

            Sovereignty is not the same as power. Confusion over this leads to some of the arguments about the EU. Those who favour a federal state say such a state would be more powerful than the British state acting on its own, that “pooling” sovereignty enhances our sovereignty rather than damaging it. Anti federalists point out that if you “pool” sovereignty you cease to be sovereign. The new larger organisation may well be more powerful, but you do not control it in the way you controlled your own country.  California is more powerful than Iceland, but Iceland has its own sovereign democratic government whilst the government of Cailfornia is under the direction of the sovereign US federal authority.

         However, sovereignty and power are closely related.  Why did the British Crown cease to be sovereign? It lost sovereignty through major transfers of power. Parliament wrestled away control of the money, the army and the machinery of government from the Crown. Parliament was then clever enough to vest its own new found power in a cloak of constitutional respectability through democratic enfranchisement, making it the people’s government and Parliament. Voters became sovereign, as they could dismiss Parliaments and governments they did not like when asked at regular intervals. In between elections voters could get government’s attention, as Ministers tried to find ways to please electors sufficiently to stay in office.

             So the issue today is how can the British people and Parliament lose their sovereignty? If it needs by general agreement a new Act of Parliament to buttress it, there must be transfers of power eroding it.

             By keeping control of our own currency we  still have monetary sovereignty. The UK Parliament still commands the UK armed forces. The UK Parliament still has substantial control over taxation and spending if it wishes. Yet in area after area now when it comes to legislation, when it is a question of who makes the rules, the truthful answer is the EU makes the rules.

              It is this which worries many electors and some MPs. It is this which has led to a reassertion that all EU law in the UK is the result of an Act of Parliament. Implied is the proposition that what Parliament has granted to the EU, a future Parliament could remove or amend.

              The question remains how much power can a country give away before it has lost its sovereignty? In the end that comes down to a question of political will. If a country never uses its theoretical powers and keeps giving powers away it may one day wake up to realise it is no longer sovereign. Like  the monarch before it, Parliament might retain ceremony and some privileges, but much of the purpose would have passed elsewhere.


  1. IanVisits
    January 12, 2011

    A question about the issue of Sovereignty that always puzzles me is why people care so much about what is frankly, an artificial political construct.

    Considering the fairly considerable benefits of being in a larger political/economic unit, why are people so determined to oppose such a merger?

    I accept that the EU is hardly the most ideal mechanism, but that is a debate about the means, not the why. Why are people so keen on being a small insular country as opposed to being a state within a larger federal body?

    That to me is the more important question – not what mechanism is used to grow the economic power of Europe, but whether we want to do so at all.

    It seems somewhat odd to my mind that the strongest opponents of a stronger larger economic/political power tend to be on the right of politics – the very people you would typically expect to support moves to boost economic growth.

    I often think the left prefer equality to wealth, and it seems the right prefer small sovereignty to wealth.

    What a pity so few politicians seem to want us to be richer.

    Reply: Many EU policies are obstacles to wealth creation.

    1. norman
      January 12, 2011

      Your argument scarcely mertis a reply but why not go the whole hog and create a one world government led by the UN?

    2. Winston Smith
      January 12, 2011

      The Left want wealth for themselves and equality for everyone else , as the history of Socialist regimes demonstrates.

  2. Alte Fritz
    January 12, 2011

    You are quite right.

    No one knows what arguments would be raised were a member state to declare through, in our case, Parliament, that it wished to leave the EU. Continued membership would be incompatible with retention of sovereignty, for obvious reasons, so the only means of asserting sovereignty would be to leave.

    Perhaps we shall all be off to the barricades one day?

  3. Tim Carpenter, LPUK
    January 12, 2011

    At the core, our MPs are lent sovereignty by us, to them. They cannot give it away lawfully, but it appears they have been doing just that “legally”.

    The transfer is done piecemeal, so that each step appears harmless and it is easy to ridicule and marginalise those who complain.

    I see these steps as a series of fenceposts. Each post does not hinder our movements as we go too and fro, but once all the posts are in place the panels can be rapidly slid in and we are enclosed.

    I am not confident that those elected are watching for those posts or aiding and abetting in their installation.

    1. Acorn
      January 12, 2011

      These EU guys appear to have been quite busy making fence posts. According to Europa, there are currently in force, 18,383 European “acts”, that mandate member states to do something. It stands to reason that you could not formulate a UK Act, without first checking that there is or is not an EU act, that has superiority in the first instance. With that number of EU laws, there is a large chance you are going to land on a snake rather than a ladder; every time you throw the UK law drafting dice.

      I have read that between a half and two thirds of UK law, vomited from the UK parliament; is the result of an EU diktat. But; in reality, every UK law must be. So, could someone please explain to me, what exactly is “sovereignty”, is it like virginity, and do you loose it in a similar way.

  4. Mike Stallard
    January 12, 2011

    You are bang on target – as ever – in this excellent and very lucid post. Well written!

    I looked and looked on all the News yesterday in vain. Newsnight was full of experts prating on about jealousy of pretty well the only successful industry left to us – banking. Where was this addressed? Even the Murdoch Media hadn’t noticed.

  5. lifelogic
    January 12, 2011

    Surely it has all but gone already in a country that cannot now decide who to lets in or out, who can vote, who is entitled to state benefits/grants/free medical care, cannot deport criminals if it chooses or regulate its own banking, industries and trade in the interest of the voters.

    The question is do you want a government that responds to british voters or one that does not even respond to EU voters as MEP have little power to respond anyway. In short do you want to be enslaved in an undemocratic new EUSSR?

    Would you like all the EU countries to have an equal vote in how the rubbish is collected in your street or what you children are taught at school?

    1. lifelogic
      January 12, 2011

      I see that even the right on BBC and their battery of lawyers cannot decide what is ageist. If you cannot chose TV and film people on their appearance it will be interesting to see how many Hollywood blockbusters start use 90 years olds for the love interest parts if filming in the UK.

      Great news for lawyers bad for everyone else – it will be interesting to see the reasoning behind this decision doubtless it will be as clear as mud to employers as they try to guess the next tribunal decisions.

      A great lesson in how to create a pointless and parasitic industry from nothing.

  6. Richard Calhoun
    January 12, 2011

    Fully understand your article John, but what to do??

    All the pressure groups and UKIP keep telling us the end result if we don’t take action, but nobody comes up with a programme of actions.

    We need a rallying point and we need some coordination of all those wishing to save our Sovereignty.

  7. oldtimer
    January 12, 2011

    A brilliantly clear description of the issue.

    It is, I believe, an unfortunate fact that in many areas Parliament has bound itself hand, foot and finger by consenting to majority voting on matters where competence has already been passed to the EU. It would be helpful if, at appropriate moments in the future, you could expose instances where this occurs and discuss the implications for the UK as it tries to haul itself out of the mess we are in. As far as I am aware, these consents amount to a ratchet – unless you can achieve a majority EU decision to reset the ratchet back a notch or two.

  8. alan jutson
    January 12, 2011

    Interesting Post this morning John, and in it you may have touched on the reason for our failure over past decades, and that of the EU which is to come.

    Your point about Parliament having from time -time to please the voters to get re-elected is a case in point.

    Pleasing the electors may not be the right thing to do in the long term, and increased Government spending on a whole range of ever increasing benefits and ever controlling regulation and law making, to try and micro manage almost everything, springs to mind here as one of the reasons why we seem to be going constantly backwards and further into debt as a Nation..

    The EU on the other hand does not have to please anybody, and whilst we do have elections from time -time, the results makes absolutely no difference what so ever as to how it behaves, as it seems to have been formed to please the (power hungry) Politicians, and over the years it has certainly done that in a big way.

    I do believe we have a long way to go yet before it all ends in tears, but sure as eggs are eggs, it will all end in tears, but only when the majority eventually wake up to what is really happening in their name.

    We need a Statesman (or woman) who has the courage, honesty, foresight, determination, and public will to change things, and turn it all around in the National interest. Our National interest.

    One thing is for sure, Governments and most Politicians of all Parties have over the past decades let this Nation down.

  9. Ron Forrest
    January 12, 2011

    This is one of the most incisive pieces I have seen on the EU question. Why is such a brilliant mind not in the Cabinet? The answer is simple : the Lib Dems would be afraid of him.

    1. norman
      January 12, 2011

      Or an even simpler answer, as proposed by an FT columnist a couple of weeks ago (I could probably dig up the link if it is necessary) when he speculated that Cameron ‘loathes the right wing of the Party’.

    2. lifelogic
      January 12, 2011

      The do not want anyone who things in the cabinet just people who take orders.

  10. Acorn
    January 12, 2011

    “The main goal of the EU is the progressive integration of Member States’ economic and political systems and the establishment of a single market based on the free movement of goods, people, money and services. To this end, its Member States cede part of their sovereignty under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) which empowers the EU institutions to adopt laws. These laws (regulations, directives and decisions) take precedence over national law and are binding on national authorities. The EU also issues non-binding instruments, such as recommendations and opinions, as well as rules governing how EU institutions and programmes work, etc.”

    That sounds like a considerable loss of sovereignty to me. It does not appear to have any built in limits as to how much national sovereignty the EU can annex. BTW; if you are having trouble telling apart EU regulations; directives and decisions have a read of this link.

  11. Figurewizard
    January 12, 2011

    A good example of this is the attempt by the EU to introduce tighter regualtion of hedge funds and private equity houses, businesses that are principally located in the City. As has been pointed out in the FT, this would be equivalent to regulating manufacturing in Germany or agriculture in France.

  12. Peter van Leeuwen
    January 12, 2011

    As a foreigner, it was very interesting for me to watch the whole debate on BBC Democracy Live last night. It showed how very different your legal system is from e.g. the Netherlands, where I remember watching the parliament debates about the Lisbon Treaty ratification. There is however also a great similarity: In both cases I watched very well informed lawmakers (MPs) debate the nuances of complex matters, resulting in the viewer being better informed.

    My concern is with the tool of “referendum”. It is almost utopian to state that in a referendum “the people” decide. Reality proves different. Most people aren’t well informed and follow a gut-feeling, often fed by the media. You knew the implications of the 1975 referendum, but many Brits now claim they did not. The same is likely to happen again. Your parliament was and is sovereign, but in practice you are giving power to the media, you won’t be able to control.

    1. backofanenvelope
      January 13, 2011

      The referendum in 1975 asked “Do we remain in the European Economic Community”, commonly known as the Common Market. Edward Heath was rather economical with the truth and we believed him.

      As Mr Redwood keeps pointing out, nothing will happen till we elect a different parliament. Given that the three main parties are pursuing the same line in relation to the EU, this is rather difficult for us to do. Any advice on how we might do so will be welcome.

  13. lojolondon
    January 12, 2011

    John, this was the most important thing to happen yesterday by far, but not even mentioned on the BBC news! The lead with an MP going to jail, the murder in Mauritius, even a 5 minute article on how the warming of the oceans will kill coral – allegedly. But not a mention of the soverignity of the UK being debated in parliament.

    It is time that the BBC was re-focused on what matters, and that the bias and misinformation was stopped, after all, they are funded by taxpayers.

  14. Iain Gill
    January 12, 2011

    I think the party system is letting the people down here

    1. alan jutson
      January 12, 2011



      It has for years, and that is the root of our problems.

  15. Graham Livings
    January 12, 2011

    William Cash MP

    The first occasion I’ve watched BBC Parliament, moreso was transfixed in the debate yesterday, you were at your best intellectual rigour, a true champion of those of us similarly inclined, the vast British electorate! You exposed the the nub of Cameron/Hague’s equivocation.

    I’m in membership of UKIP if only the Conservative Party would return to its constitutional stewardship betrayed by Edward Heath it would be invincible.

    Graham E Livings, Lilliput, Upper Milton, Wells. BA5 3AH

  16. Lindsay McDougall
    January 12, 2011

    In dealing with the EU, it is a matter of “Who dares, wins”. Suppose that in the next Parliament we were to pass an Act stating that
    (1) European Courts had juristiction only over certain narrowly defined matters of trade, and that the Law Lords would on all other matters be the highest court in the land.
    (2) EC Directives would be laid before Parliament but there was no obligation for Parliament to incorporate them into British law.

    That would solve 90% of our problems, would it not? Suppose further that we had received a mandate (at the next General Election) to submit a suitable Bill to Parliament, would the EU dare to expel us? I think not. It would not be in their interest to do so.

  17. JimF
    January 12, 2011

    Your arguments are refined but the question is how do we get from where we are to where we want to be?
    We want to do business with other European Countries, to travel to them and be able to work in them with the caveat of not bleeding their finances by claiming on their benefit and pensions systems. Yet this original aspiration has been expanded well beyond the bounds envisaged or on which the previous referendum was based.
    We want to make our own rules, guard our borders, defend our interests within the bound of inter-national treaties. These aspirations are either compromised or threaten to be. The only true, honest course is for a further referendum which defines where the British public want us to be in the next 25 years. Cameron had the ideal excuse for such a referendum; the Libdems want their AV referendum, so this could have been combined with the referendum which was long promised then ignored by your leadership.
    So your next question has to be – what to do when your leaders’ promises aren’t being honoured in government? There has to come a time when your principles overtake the expediency of being part of a government whose key drivers – economic and political, are just too wishy-washy and socialist to be worth staying with.

  18. BobE
    January 12, 2011

    Our leaders are Builderburgers and are committed to the EU superstate. Nothing will alter the loss of our country to Europe. Its a done deal.
    Sad days

  19. lola
    January 12, 2011

    As you say it is the soveignty of Crown in Parliament’. But it seems to me that it would be better to think of parliament as the ‘sovereignty of the people’. If so as far as i know, none of the electorate have ever been asked whether they want Parliament to give that Sovereignty away?

  20. theyenguy
    January 16, 2011

    I have two comments.

    ….. First comment is that implementation of European fiscal federalism means loss of national sovereignty.

    Europe this week launched a new era of economic coordination with the implementation of a first ever European European semester that institutes fiscal federalism as a principle of economic governance.

    The Leaders Framework Agreement for fiscal federalism cannot offset the problems stemming from disparate people with dissimilar economies using a common currency. Historical evidence suggests that most currency unions don’t survive.

    The Leaders in announcing their Framework Agreement waived national sovereignty and established the precedent for leaders to address continental issues. Confirmation of such comes from Donal Donovan, now a writer for Irish Times, who was a staff member of the IMF during 1977-2005 before retiring as a deputy director; he is currently adjunct professor at the University of Limerick and a visiting lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, writes Loss Of Fiscal Sovereignty Inevitable If Euro To Survive.

    And Steven Erlanger in New York Times article Europe’s Odd Couple, sees a vision for a German led Eurozone stating: “John Kornblum, the former American ambassador in Berlin and still a resident there, sees a model for Germany in the United States and the way it helped keep Europe together after the war, mediating disputes and finding compromises. “The Germans don’t see it yet,” he says. “But they will have to take on the role of the United States in Europe, and have the same kind of balancing role we had for such a long time.” At that point, Germany’s marriage with France won’t matter so much anymore.”

    The European Parliament Committee For Economic And Monetary Affairs reports: “Mario Monti on Thursday added his weight to Parliament’s drive for an economic governance model significantly different to that attempted in the first ten years of economic and monetary union.

    “The European Parliament can become a house for budgetary transparency and can serve to combat the cartel of nationalism which dominated the last years of economic and monetary union”, he said.

    At a brainstorming hearing on economic governance held by the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, Mr Monti, a former EU Commissioner and now President of Milan’s Bocconi university, joined other leading academics in explaining their ideas on the best way forward for economic governance in the EU.

    They were unanimous on at least one issue – Europe’s interest in greater economic integration must take precedence over national and electoral concerns, as the only way to ensure greater long-term discipline, which in turn is the only way to growth. The plans currently on the table show a serious lack ambition, they added.

    Participants also debated how to improve debt crisis burden sharing, notably through the possible design of Eurobonds.”

    And David Korosi, shares his views on the superstructure of the “economic giant” relating in article The Spinelli Phenomenon: “Altiero Spinelli was the heavyweight of the European federalist movement, first as activist, then as a very hardworking MEP. What do classic federalism want? “Prominent MEPs launched on 15 September 2010 the Spinelli Group, a network aimed at overcoming nationalism and promoting federalism across Europe”- says EurActiv informing us of the newest action of the (neo)federalist group of intellectuals. “I am still optimistic however, that the crisis will lead Europe to establish an economic union. I see no alternative” – said Joschka Fischer, member of the Spinelli Group.”

    The sovereign debt and bank debt imbroglio will only get worse, as central bankers have lost debt sovereignty to bond vigilantes who have taken command of sovereign debt interest rates. This has opened the door for currency traders to run currencies up and down at will.

    An example of their power, as they called the Euro, FXE, higher to end the week at 133.20, manifesting a “converge trade” in the Euro which caused the European Financials, EUFN, to rise to 22.69. The same traders executed a “dollar liquidity trade” that recently ran up the US Stocks, VTI, across the board, with everything from the mall cap stocks, such as the small cap discretionary shares, XLYS, small cap energy shares, XLES, and the small cap information technology shares, XLKS, to the trans-global companies like Exxon Mobil, XOM, receiving the currency traders moneyness.

    Soon, out of deepening European sovereign crisis, fierce European economic governance will arise, led by a Chancellor, that is a Sovereign, and a Banker, that is a Seignior, to rule and provide moneyness.

    Perhaps the Chancellor will be Herman Van Rompuy, as Open Europe in Press Summary for December 24, 2010 related that in NRC Handelsblad article: ‘Van Rompuy: Eurozone Wordt Politieke Unie’, EU President Herman Van Rompuy stated: “the eurozone will become a political union”. And in ForexLive Market News International article EU Van Rompuy: Political Will For Permanent EFSF Now Stronger he stated: “The general feeling among all the main-players, all the 27, is that they will take every necessary step to safeguard financial stability. This political will is now a lot more clear than a few weeks ago.” “You can be sure that, if needed, we will take any step to guarantee financial stability,” he said. Van Rompuy also said that weaker eurozone states must meet their fiscal targets in order to improve investor confidence.”

    Perhaps the Banker will be the EU’s top monetary official who said the euro 440 billion ($570 billion) bailout fund for debt ridden countries should be increased and given more powers. Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said that discussions with the 17 eurozone governments on boosting the size of the fund were currently going on “and progress is being made.” Rehn says “we need to review all options of the size and scope of our financial backstops,” according to Raven Clabough in New American article EU Officials Want Larger Bailout Fund

    ….. The second comment is that in the linked article entitled A History Of The Loss Of National Sovereignty By UK Citizens, I wrote: UK citizens lost their sovereignty on three occassions:

    1) UK Citizens lost their national sovereignty when the Maastricht Treaty entered into force, on November 1, 1993. It was at this time they became residents of a region of global governance.

    2) The UK leaders by submitting to the announcement and participation in the European Stabilization Mechanism of May 2010, made the UK citizens became liable for the debts of Greece, and thus had their sovereignty waived by UK leaders.

    3) By participating with in the November 2010, International Monetary Fund and Europe seigniorage aid program for Ireland, to prevent a European and world-wide financial meltdown, the United Kingdom is now fully integrated into a region of global governance with the European Union. The UK Leaders have waived national citizenship, and those living in the UK are residents of a region European Economic governance.

  21. Luke Bryan 2014
    May 8, 2014

    Thats funny! But thanks again because of this post

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