England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions. In short, the nature, the structure, the very situation (conjuncture) that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals.
As Charles de Gaulle forewarned in 1963, the United Kingdom’s (UK) national culture would always be incompatible with that of continental Europe. More specifically, Britain’s political culture – the contingent set of emotional, historical and geographic principles that shape the British people and state – informs and structures the British conception of sovereignty, providing contextual realisation for the British state. Britons put an unshakeable emphasis on the union state as the final arbitrator of power. Hence, to remain as an independent country, the UK cannot be impeded by any higher actor.
The default condition of the British state, to be the supreme power over British affairs, internally and externally, was overhauled by supranational organisations such as the European Union (EU). Despite this, Britain’s conception of sovereignty has remained intrinsic, and will inevitably shape the fate of the country in the decades to come. There are two key areas, each playing their own role, which will continue to shape how Britain interacts with external bodies after the country withdraws from the EU. Through understanding both factors, inappropriate agreements, which will be incompatible with the British conception of sovereignty, can be avoided.
Ingrained beliefs lay down the boundaries of sovereignty and help the UK interpret whether certain forces are violating its national sovereignty. ‘We’ is confined to one’s country and where political sovereignty resides in the country, however, EU institutions distort these boundaries, disrupting the membrane of national borders and lessening the ability of an elected government to control national affairs.
Consequently, Britain’s accession to the EU was always spurious – particularly among the public. Britain’s political culture guides the UK towards a global destiny, not a regional one. This perception forms the exoskeleton for how Britain perceives itself and how it wants to be recognised internationally. The crux of the matter is that the UK’s conception of sovereignty is constructed on foundations that perceive the EU as an important, but not indispensable, partner – and as an entity distinct from the UK. As Britain embarks on reshaping its foreign policy, the following areas of contention within the British conception of sovereignty – which have always hindered its EU membership – should be taken into account, to ensure that future agreements post-Brexit remain compatible, enduring and beneficial.
British national sovereignty is embedded in the vehemently protected conception of parliamentary sovereignty. As Britain lacks a single, written constitution, parliamentary sovereignty forms the framework for how Britain governs itself. This is defined as ‘the right to make or unmake any law whatever…that no person or body is recognised by the law as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.’ The genetic makeup of sovereignty in the UK is based upon the principle of ‘political constitutionalism’, which ensures that Parliament is the omnicompetent facet of government. Subsequently, sovereignty engenders itself as a zero-sum game. Any encroachment on British sovereignty undermines the UK’s power as a sovereign state. If national sovereignty ceased to be located in parliament, then Britain would cease to be sovereign.
This binary composition contrasts with the continental European perspective of sovereignty. From this standpoint, sovereignty is seen as less absolute, where state sovereignty is pooled along a continuum, potentially with other entities, both higher and lower. The imposition of a continuous conception of sovereignty by the EU runs against Britain’s own absolute conception, forcing the country into a straight jacket. As such, these incompatible conceptions, binary versus continuous, manifest incompatibility. This dynamic undermined Britain’s relationship with the EU and led to the country’s permanent dislocation.
Therefore, if Britain is to succeed in negotiating ambitious trade deals with numerous nations, it must take into account the immutable nature of Parliamentary sovereignty. Any trade deal, or any international agreement struck post-Brexit, must allow for Parliament to have the final say over its structure and substance, and subsequent amendments that may follow.
British ‘international sovereignty’
British sovereignty has an international element – an ‘international sovereignty’ – that biases Britain towards entities the UK has an organic, historical relationship with. Subsequently, British ‘international sovereignty’ looks beyond the country’s backyard, towards the wider world. This emphasises the ‘Global Britain’ approach and helps to explain why Europe is not seen with the same lens as that of the Commonwealth or even, the United States (US).
Britain’s global connections retain an ever-present political pull on the national imaginary, which renders the European continent as little more than a distraction, even a sideshow. The Commonwealth, alongside the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US, fuels an extended linkage with the ‘Anglosphere’. The shared experiences of culture, language, and politics bind the UK and its sister nations into a society of like-minded states, something that Britain sees as missing from the European continent.
This area of British sovereignty underscores Britain’s global ambitions. Although Europe is a partner, it has never been Britain’s destiny to enmesh itself within the institutions of a supranational body. Instead, Britain prefers a spider-web-like network of global connections, not to automatically anchor itself to one place. British policymakers need to be acutely aware of the fact that when formulating new international agreements; these agreements must have a global purpose and aim to spread benevolent British influence around the globe. Moving into the future, Britain must harness the intrepid nature of ‘international sovereignty’ to maximise its leverage and realise its ‘Global Britain’ destiny.
Navigating the ‘bipolar’ behaviour of British national sovereignty
Britain’s unique conception of sovereignty has shaped how it manoeuvres and reacts to external entities on the international stage. European integration appears to invoke a choice; therefore, the EU has always been perceived as an option rather than a destiny. On the one hand, British sovereignty softens when directed towards the Anglosphere, yet, takes on an awkward stance when steered towards Europe. In practice, British sovereignty hardens when reflected towards entities that contradict its conception of sovereignty, and softens when oriented towards entities that harmonise with its conception sovereignty. Overall, British sovereignty is binary, exhibiting one of two behaviours depending on the external body – a ‘bipolar’ national sovereignty.
In practice, Britain needs to understand where the red lines exist within its conception of sovereignty. To ensure that agreements post-Brexit do not whip up the sort of conundrum that eclipsed, and paralysed, British politics throughout the 2010s, British policymakers should construct a network of international agreements that harmonise, instead of polarise, with the facets of the British conception of sovereignty. Thus, capturing the mellow side of the ‘bipolar’ British conception of sovereignty and avoiding abrasive supranational relationships that have constrained Britain.
In sum, the UK, when constructing its future relationships, needs to be self-aware to the extent that it knows the provenance, structure and effects of its own conception of sovereignty. What British strategists should grasp is that global integration can be forged with the UK union state at the helm. Britain should bear in mind the ingrained beliefs that have shaped its sovereignty, the constraints of Parliamentary sovereignty, and the ambitions of ‘international sovereignty’ when designing international agreements. Never again should British policymakers try to force the British union into compatibility with incompatible political entities.