Nationalism and sovereignty

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Chris Gilligan, author of Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-racism, introduces the first in a series of Blog posts on the topic of sovereignty and nationalism. 

Sovereignty seems to have become something of a buzzword for populist nationalists in recent years. American President, Donald Trump, for example, used the terms ‘sovereign’ or ‘sovereignty’ twenty-one times in his maiden speech to the United Nations, in 2017. In the United Kingdom (UK), the term was, and continues to be, widely invoked by advocates of the UK revoking its membership of the European Union (EU). The term has been employed by leaders of the official Leave (the EU) campaign, such as the prominent Conservative Party Member of Parliament (MP), Michael Gove, and by the more explicitly populist, anti-immigrant, campaign of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage. The term ‘sovereignty’ is, however, a somewhat elusive concept.

Sovereignty is not an elusive concept because it is difficult to define. The website of the leading UK academic research programme on Brexit, The UK in a Changing Europe, for example, provides the following simple definition. “Sovereignty can be understood as the authority of a state to govern itself, and determine its own laws and policies”. It is an elusive concept, in part, because ‘sovereignty’ is an overarching term that can be standing in for a more specific aspect of the authority of the state, such as: state sovereignty, national sovereignty, pooled sovereignty, popular sovereignty or parliamentary sovereignty. It is an elusive concept, in part, because sometimes it is employed for its connotative power to invoke emotion, rather than its denotative power to clarify meaning. The term, for example, has been invoked to conjure up a sense of a unity of purpose of a people and their state, against an external threat. It is also elusive because there are differing ideas about how states best determine their own laws and policies, as well as about where the authority of the state comes from. 

During the referendum campaign, the Leave and Remain campaigns had different conceptions of sovereignty and the power to determine laws and policies. Leave campaigners argued that the UK was not an independent sovereign state, because of the legal principle that EU law takes precedent over UK law, where there is a conflict between the two. The Conservative MP, Chris Grayling, for example, argued that the UK needed to be independent from the EU, so that ‘we’ could determine ‘our’ own laws and policies. Remain campaigners had a competing understanding of sovereignty. The late Lord Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, for example, argued that global forces constrain states’ capacity to determine their own laws and policies, and that consequently, ‘pooling sovereignty’ through EU membership, strengthened the UK’s ability to determine its own laws and policies.

After the referendum, competing conceptions of sovereignty continued to be a source of conflict. Differing conceptions of the source of the authority of the state can be seen in the difficulties that the Westminster parliament experienced after voting to trigger Article 50, the piece of legislation that started the clock running on the formal Brexit process. Advocates of an extensive break from the EU, (what was referred to as a 'hard' Brexit), argued for the primacy of the majority vote in the referendum, which was in favour of leaving the EU. In doing so, they invoked the notion of popular sovereignty, or, a specific version of popular sovereignty, that rested on the idea that the authority of the state is derived directly from the people, as expressed through the majority outcome in a referendum. Advocates of a ‘soft’ Brexit argued that the referendum vote was close to being a 50/50 split amongst the voters, and that Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected to represent their constituents, which included not just Leave and Remain (in the EU) voters, but also those who did not vote in the referendum. In doing so, they invoked the notion of parliamentary sovereignty, or, the idea that the authority of the state is derived from the people as this is mediated through their elected representatives. 

I intend to use the H-Nationalism Blog, Vistas, to try to make the topic of sovereignty a little less elusive for scholars of nationalism, through exploring the topic of sovereignty and nationalism. I expect that, at least initially, my focus will be on sovereignty, nationalism and racism (picking up on, and hoping to develop on, a discussion topic raised by Krisztina Lajosi on H-Nationalism in July this year). I aim to be both conceptual and empirical. Geographically, my focus will be on the UK and Ireland, areas where I am most familiar with the discussion. As a taster, here are the topics that I plan to cover in the next few Blog posts: Bernard Yack’s discussion of popular sovereignty as incorporating two different conceptions of ‘the people’; uses of the concept of ‘popular sovereignty’ as a form of ‘color-blind’, (or disavowed), racism; anti-racist struggles to change conceptions of who are ‘the people’ in the UK; changing conceptions of ‘the people’ and changing forms of racism in the UK; sovereignty, Brexit, immigration and the ‘Irish’ border, and; sovereignty and the ‘Break up of Britain’. 

I hope that these posts will encourage more informed debate and discussion around the theme of sovereignty and nationalism, in relation to the UK, through comparative examples and through striving for greater theoretical clarity.


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