Peter North, 13/08/2020  

Particularly over the last thirty years we have seen an accelerated process of denationalisation where the boundaries of national sovereignty are increasingly blurred. The substance of sovereignty is eroded almost to the point of inertia. Nations no longer have the unrestricted freedom of action they once did. Nations states now find they no longer have the monopoly of power inside their own territories and the external reach of sovereignty is virtually nonexistent.

We see this today as Priti Patel tweets “There are legislative, legal & operational barriers to stopping small boats”. She doesn’t know the half of it. The nation state will always be the main actor in international relations but the unilateralism preferred by the Tories as they imagine the UK as a “sovereign equal” does not transpose into reality. Not without finding itself in breach of international law anyway.

The UK now has to make its own way navigating a spiderweb of global governance, much of which is either obsolete or simply not fit for purpose. It must seek reform, but it must seek allies to do it. It is therefore not a good idea to be antagonising our neighbours in Brexit negotiations. Though reform is not impossible, it is no less bureaucratic and long winded than accomplishing anything in the EU.

In that regard Brexiteers are in for something of a let down. Having notionally freed ourselves from the “burdensome” regulatory domain of the EU we find ourselves in a wholly new domain in which the EU is still an important and influential actor. The sovereignty the Brexiteers thought they had won has only limited applications, and just because you can pull a certain lever doesn’t necessarily mean it is wise to do so. Moreover, sovereignty without the political will to wield it, is something of a moot point.

This doesn’t bode well for Patel. The Tories were elected with a massive eighty seat majority and unforgiving Conservative party members expect this government to do something with it. Immigration featured largely in the Brexit debate and will remain a feature of British politics for as long as there are visible symptoms of it.

There is an expectation that a notionally hard right government (for which there is scant evidence), with all new powers and no opposition, should be able to bring matters under control in a matter of months. In that regard the only recourse may be unilateralism in breach of international law in the vague hope that no-one will challenge it. But of course they will while there are millions to be made for Human Rights lawyers.

Though if Patel had used her time constructively at DfID, instead of pushing populist agendas to chase headlines, she’d know all this. She’d know that we need a multi-spectral approach centred on aid, development and diplomacy. Beefing up the borders is a temporary solution, if it can be considered a solution at all. She has over promised and can only under deliver.

But this is a problem for all concerned. If, even after Brexit, the voting public cottons on to the fact that their votes are rendered meaningless by remote, anonymous global bodies and arcane treaties, their patience with traditional political processes will wear thin. The UK may be the first to realise it, but it won’t be the last. There stands that essential question. If a country is not permitted to control its own borders, is it even a country?

It is entirely within the realms of possibility that a new insurgency on the right will begin as it becomes clear that the post-Brexit establishment can only deliver more of the same excuses. Within twenty years or less it could reach the same level of influence as Ukip as kingmaker and agenda setter. We may then see a total disregard for all international law, sparking a major crisis in international relations.

In respect of that, if the populist right had done their homework they would have seen all this coming and not rolled over for Boris Johnson. But alas they were caught up in the misapprehension that the EU was the main and only constraint on meaningful sovereignty. They should also have known that a gimmicky “Australian points based system” was no remedy to a multifaceted problem.

Effective immigration policy was never as straightforward as simply “taking back control”. Much of the control is illusory and if we are ever to get results then we must appreciate that control comes from effective enforcement locally, nationally and internationally. Local behind-the-border controls are our most important weapon being that illegal immigration comprises of those overstaying their visas who had permission to enter. Militarising the borders does nothing to address that.

What we have seen instead, as regards to Covid measures and immigration, is clumsy attempts to rule from the centre, missing the points completely, doing all the same things and expecting different results. To take back control, Downing Street must learn to give up control and let local authorities do what they are good at. Being that it is unlikely to listen, it will have to learn all these lessons the hard way. So too with much else Brexit related.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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