Richard North, 21/06/2016  

Perceptive readers will have discerned that I have not written a great deal about sovereignty in the current debate on the EU referendum. Most of the references in this blog are quotes from other people, often added without comment from me.

The reason for my reticence is two-fold. Firstly, there is no clear-cut definition of sovereignty. It seems to be a moveable feast, with different people and bodies defining in separate ways, very often in a way that suits their particular arguments.

The second reason is that, taking my own personal definition of sovereignty, I don't accept that the UK either pools its sovereignty with the EU, or has lost sovereignty to it. In accordance with my definition, the UK is still technically a sovereign state. Thus I do not accept or buy into much of the "leave" rhetoric about the need to regain our sovereignty. We still have it.

Problematically, though, this stance does depend entirely on my definition. If you change the definition, my stance could very well change with it. But it can never really be clear-cut.

The Oxford Dictionary, for instance, offers three definitions. It will have sovereignty mean "supreme power or authority", as in the sovereignty of Parliament. It also declares that it is: "the authority of a state to govern itself or another state", as in national sovereignty. And it then takes the word to mean "a self-governing state".

Here, I don't like the idea of sovereignty being "supreme power or authority". Power (and to the same extent authority) is distinct from sovereignty. You can delegate power and transfer authority, which you cannot do with sovereignty.

Furthermore, in the doctrine of division of powers, a sovereign entity can have absolutely no power in specific domains. The sovereign Queen, for instance, is subject to the rule of law.

I can partially go with: "the authority of a state to govern itself or another state". However, I don't like the word "authority" in this context – for the reasons stated above. And the idea of a "self-governing state" simply will not do. I would argue that we are sovereign, but not self-governing. Government – like authority and power – can be delegated.

In the end, I rely on a variation of the definition offered in Wikipedia - not the best or most authoritative of sources, but one which – when modified – serves my purpose. I thus take sovereignty to mean: "The full right of a body to govern without any interference from external body".

The defining words here are "full right" – akin in earlier terms to "divine right". No definition, in my view, is complete without acknowledgement that sovereignty is a right, an absolute right to govern. It is one that is innate. It cannot be challenged, diluted or "pooled".

In the UK, we express our sovereignty in terms of national sovereignty, which defines the extent and limits of its jurisdiction. And then award the ultimate expression of sovereignty to Parliament. Within its domain, Parliament is supreme.

On that basis, we are indeed still sovereign. Parliament, if it so decides, has the right to abrogate the treaties from which the European Union gains its power in the UK. Without those treaties, there is no supremacy of EU law. Unless Parliament decides otherwise, EU law has no writ in this land.

This we get from the egregious Professor Michael Dougan who argues that the UK is an independent state under international law and Westminster is the supreme law-making authority.

Conversely, he says, there is no doubt whatsoever that the EU is not a sovereign entity. Far from being a sovereign state, he adds, it's not even a sovereign entity. It has only those powers that it's been given under the EU treaties. And if the UK courts sometimes give priority to EU law in the event of a conflict with domestic law, it's purely because our Parliament has expressly instructed them to do so.

So, Dougan asks, "is the UK a sovereign state?" Yes, he says. "Is Parliament our supreme legislative authority?" Yes, he says. This leads him to ask why we keep hearing about sovereignty in the EU Referendum debate. The fact is, he says, "sovereignty isn't really an issue in the debate. It's about power and influence. Sovereignty is being used as a short-hand to talk about power".

In terms of this EU Referendum campaign – and generally – this changes the whole picture. The treaties that have been signed represent successive governments delegating not our sovereignty but Parliament's power – its power to make, modify, refuse and repeal legislation.

Parliament is still sovereign but it has allowed government, though the process of ratification, to delegate much of its power to Brussels and EU institutions. It could have stopped that happening and now, in the face of popular consent it could order government to recover those powers. But it chooses not to. Instead, it stands idle.

And that is where Dougan is actually wrong. Sovereignty is part of the debate. If it so wished, Parliament could exercise its sovereignty, not over Brussels but over our own government, insisting that that its powers were returned.

Therefore, our argument is not with Brussels. We are held in thrall to the European Union by our governments, but only because Parliament allows it. The people responsible – as a collective – are our MPs. Our argument is with them.

This actually gives this referendum a very special status. It is our opportunity to address not Brussels but the ranks of politicians – the good, the bad and the ugly. They are so indifferent to their loss of powers, increasingly delegating it to Brussels, that it requires us the people to tell them to get off their backsides and recover them.

It ill-behoves these politicians then to blame Brussels for their loss. It was their predecessors who gave their powers away, and they who permit Brussels to continue exercising them. Having lost their powers, they – or some of them – want us to return them to Westminster. They want us to exercise our sovereignty on their behalf.

And this is where The Harrogate Agenda comes in. The group that has been so careless of their powers, and so indifferent to the prospect of recovering them can hardly be trusted to safeguard them for all time, and not to repeat their give-away. Thus, it is we the people who must recover our sovereignty, wresting it from Parliament which has been so reluctant to use it on our behalf.

That is the back story. Parliament is sovereign, supposedly holding it trust for the people. But, in failing to exercise it, the people themselves must act, and demand the recovery of powers that Parliament has so carelessly given away. And then, with the horse firmly back in the stables, we must bolt the door.

We the people, on Thursday, must make a start in recovering our sovereignty – not from Brussels, but from Westminster. We the people are sovereign, and this week we have an opportunity to exercise it. And if we don't, we the people have only ourselves to blame.

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