Sovereignty and the national question

The British media's sidelining of Scotland and its referendum is part of a history in which questions of nationality are smothered by the UK establishment. Today, it is increasingly clear that popular sovereignty is incompatible with the UK state. Yet avoidance is still the name of the 'British' game.

Over the period which has seen the serious possibility of self-determination in part of the UK (we might date it from 2010, 1998, 1988, the 1950s, or the 1880s, depending on which story is being told), the challenge faced by the British press has been how to get the left to look the other way when the question of popular sovereignty appears. This is key to understanding some of the defensive reactions to the 2014 referendum in Scotland, an event which begs the question of whether the UK has ever cohered in a single sovereignty. This cohesion only holds if the logic of precedent is seen as replacing the 1706-07 Acts of Union, in which the sovereignty of the people was secured for one part of the country. Moreover, after empire and neoliberalism, there is little motive for the rule by precedent which allowed for the seamless slide outwards of British values. Constitutional rupture therefore tends to appear at a national level, but its significance goes beyond any one nation. 

The avoidance of the question of national sovereignty in Britain has relied on the implication that the progression from nation to nation-state is more or less uniform around the world, which in sovereignty terms is highly questionable. The British state was established less as a protection for an existing national elite, ethnic or civic, than as a new body for capital rationalisation. Its creation accompanied the Dutch-imported expansion of credit in the 1680s-90s (a process visible in the work of Locke and Defoe) – and only interpolated a ‘national’ culture when the post-Napoleonic expansion of empire needed a cultural exemplar (Burke, Bentham, Coleridge). Central to the phase of universalist capital globalisation known as empire, this sovereignty model would retain its ideological power till the 1950s-60s, and, crucially, into the era of the welfare state, which would later have little resistance to neoliberalism. The finance state has been characterised by a rejection of constitutional formalism, as confirmed by the whig victories which echo down through mid-twentieth century consensus, so that the price of saving the welfare state seems to be the resistance to popular sovereignty wherever it arises – telling us a lot about the Labour Party’s eclipse in Scotland.

The great ideological victory of Britain then the UK was to present itself as beyond the national (which of course it is, in terms of capital) while continuing to describe the imperial (or financial-racial) form, paradoxically, as more inclusive. Thus the now-fading assumption, popular in the 1990s with state-multiculturalism, that the UK is more open than its constituent nations, despite indicators linking it to systematic inequality, despite the new internationalism afforded by the harrowing of universalist imperial sovereignty, and despite the perception of national parliaments as more democratic throughout the whole UK population.

This British nationalism which seems to exist beyond the national, always recreating ethnic types in order to seem to exceed them, and always dependent on commodity alienation as instinctual, is almost never questioned by the mainstream UK press. And given the double-bind of whig progressiveness, it shouldn’t be surprising that there is less questioning in its apparently liberal wing, which also often has to guard against what it calls nationalism, which in practice often means popular sovereignty. Under these sovereignty assumptions, the progressive can then go hand in hand with the acceleration of inequality – so that the weary question of whether Scotland can ‘go it alone’ is taken seriously beside news that the UK has become the most unequal country in the west. 

It is is an ideological oddity that calls for self-determination away from universalist and commodity-dependent sovereignty should be seen pejoratively in terms of nationalism, while British nationalism remains so thorough. The point is that British state-nationalism has the whole political class on its side, with whatever level of awareness, while self-determination movements incorporate a wide grass-roots alliance of constitution-sceptics – however vigorously they are reduced to one party and its leader.

This ‘instinctual’ or ‘invisible’ British nationalism can take quite aggressive forms, from the personal smearing of cultural figures sympathetic to self-determination, to an SWP tendency to conceal its previous blocking of democracy, to unionist celebrities panicking about the (unfounded) prospect of being left behind. Recently after an appeal to ‘Labour in Scotland’, Owen Jones claimed that revenge for the benefits cap would come in 2015, apparently unaware of a more fundamental challenge to the entire political class in 2014. Mostly though, the ideological power against popular sovereignty takes less aggressive and more assumed forms, and the promise of reform of the sovereignty of parliament typically remains too strong a temptation. For a constitution reliant on precedent, on removing potential actors from history, reform is really a confirmation of the old whig settlement; the starting-point for sovereignty capture can only be the rupture of refusal, rather than reform. So despite the laudable and creative schemes of nation-building, the independence question is in the first instance a negative one, and a refusal which has significance far beyond Scotland.

The difficulty of being seen to ‘reform’ a Labour Party dependent on parliamentary sovereignty has been a source of teeth-gnashing for think tanks like IPPR. Previously Labour have been able to fall back on a common pseudo-internationalist assumption of the need to recreate the state beyond the nation, especially since in psephological terms not to do so would risk a ‘leftover England’ imagined to be naturally conservative – though we have to remember that these psephological indicators are British; there is no good reason to make such assumptions about a post-British England. 

Day to day, it would difficult to know from the British press that anything constitutionally serious is going on. Alex Salmond’s face next to stories provides a ready assurance that this is a local question, not one facing the whole UK constitutional settlement. The recent horrors of the Coalition government have allowed Guardian columnists almost unlimited use of the ‘payback in 2015’ line, and the call for the return of the other team, overleaping a much more fundamental question. The national politics are particularly strained here: this is by now an English newspaper unable to declare itself as such because a national declaration would threaten the bond between state-multiculturalism and parliamentary sovereignty (in an OurKingdom article from 2012, Gerry Hassan put similar questions about Labour’s support for the political class to the largely deaf ears of Polly Toynbee, one of the key apologists for Labour conservatism).

So also with the BBC, key ideologist for capitalist consensualism and tireless linker of the UK and the national, which recently reported that the Belfast ‘flag riots’ were making front page news around the world, even as they were being largely disregarded within the UK, and by the BBC itself. Ireland, like Scotland, has been a noted constitutional trigger, and by now, after a year of trying to reinvent the power of the union flag, the export of the British cultural exemplar had to be supported, even long after its expansive rationale had gone, a blind repetition or postcolonial melancholia. 

For much of the commentariat, the UK remains the only possible referent, despite its commitment to state-capitalism and its constitutional ultra-conservatism. This nationalism-without-nationalism, dragging in most of what is still called the left, has been a democratic disaster, leaving the possibility of popular democracy almost invisible amongst the stories of warring party tribes.

So where the constitutional question is most pressing, in Scotland, agreements are already being created across party lines amongst the political class, as in this council alliance of all three anti-popular parties. Increasingly, the conflict is boiling down to one between those recreating or mandating parliamentary sovereignty and commodity continuity on one hand, and those refusing to do so on the other. 

Much of the British-nationalist left, bound to the resistance of popular sovereignty by the received form of the welfare state, still struggle to see that the independence referendum might really bring to the fore the natiure of the power exercised by the increasingly narrow political class. Correspondingly, there has been little reporting of the extraordinary experiment in crowd-sourced constitution in Iceland, a country once pilloried for its inclusion in an ‘arc of prosperity’ - openDemocracy being the honourable exception. Indeed the longstanding economic quibble over ‘Scotland going it alone’ ignores the effect of inequality, rather than absolute revenue, on quality of life. 

At least, outwith the likes of the Daily Mail (or the frequently-alarming referendum No campaign), we have more or less abandoned the idea that this is a question of ‘national pride’. The fallout of the 2008 panic may have led back to a scrambling for the comfort of union on one hand, but on the other recalls the ‘democratic deficit’ of the 1980s, as anti-Thatcherism coalesced in ‘stateless nation’ terms around campaigns on attacks on education and workers’ rights, inequality, and nuclear weapons – as well as a 1950s New Left largely based in England which paralleled a Scottish tradition of constitutional scepticism. By 2013, it is tough to argue that popular sovereignty can be carried by a UK state whose form would remain miraculously untouched.

On an English level, the continuity of ‘British national’ qualities have been increasingly questioned. On the more obvious Scottish level, and in an auto-destruction of the Diceyan logic of precedent as constitution, the challenge to parliamentary sovereignty may already be happening in the road to the referendum. Although sections 5 and 6 of the Scotland Act 1998 were carefully drafted to avoid fundamental claims on the constitution, as Gavin Drewry has observed, the 1997 devolution referendum may itself have confirmed the existence of a latent popular sovereignty – a condition amplified by the time of the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement which gave Scotland the right to run its own referendum, as corroborated on 15 January 2013 (and studiously disregarded by the UK press).

It is likely that rather than driving us back to the comforts of the ‘heritage’ constitution, economic stress will show that this process can only really go in one direction: ever-starker inequalities make the binding of precedent and capital harder to hide, in what is an increasingly minor ‘British nation’. The UK has been represented by one historical sovereignty form, but one whose viability has dipped dramatically. Alternative sovereignties arise via the national, but this does not makes them nationalist as an end in itself, or the question confined to one region.

This article is part of the series, Re-birth of the nation? Challenging 'global citizens'

About the author

Michael Gardiner is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at The University of Warwick and author of fiction and non-fiction, including short-story collection Escalator (2006) and critical work At the Edge of Empire: The Life of Thomas B. Glover (2008).