The dream world that we go into when we use the word ‘sovereignty’


Not many of us used that word before the Brexit referendum campaign. Now it’s on everyone’s lips. But that doesn’t do much to help us understand what the word means in a 21st century world.

The US has just withdrawn from the JPCOA agreement with Iran. It will re-impose the harshest of sanctions on Iran and pursue any company that does business there. With the dollar still the world’s reserve currency, that means that US sanctions have global reach. No bank that wants to stay in business will dare finance anyone who touches Iran.

Businesses that trade in dollars or touch the US in any way will not be able to do business there. That includes more or less everyone – including the corner sandwich shop in Rochdale that has a bank account and therefore should not contemplate starting to export sandwiches to Iran.

Britain is not in any kind of transatlantic union. It is not part of a single market with the US. It does not have a customs union with the US. Britain and the US are both independent ‘sovereign’ states. Yet President Trump’s decision will have a dramatic impact on British businesses and will affect the British economy. In a complex interconnected world, what does ‘sovereignty’ really mean?

Those who support Brexit have successfully translated ‘sovereignty’ to a powerful slogan. Much like the chants on terraces full of football supporters, it has been used to whip up a frenzy while ensuring that there is not too much discussion about what it’s worth.

Making sure that those belonging to the tribe can still feel good about themselves, still kid themselves that they’re going to win the premier league when their team is six nil down and one game away from relegation.

Like chants, some words can be used politically to anaesthetise rather than to enlighten. To allow people to ignore the parlous state they find themselves in and to take focus away from the pain to come.

For the last two years ‘sovereignty’ has been the perfect anaesthetic – or laughing gas if you prefer. It has permitted people to sleep serenely, or even laugh, while some organs vital to their future prosperity are slowly taken from them. It has made them willing participants in their own emasculation.

Of course the use of powerful rhetoric and the separation of words from meaning are the bread and butter of every successful politician. In the case of the Brexit debate, it is remarkable how well these strategies have been implemented by Brexit supporters and utterly astounding how, even today, the anti-Brexit camp remains unable to find an adequate response.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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