Selective sovereignty: UKIP and the independence of Britain

UKIP’s election manifesto is a confused document with a remarkably limited understanding of its two key terms: sovereignty and independence. 

Peter Hill
30 April 2015

Nigel Farage. Image: Flickr/ European Parliament

We have been hearing a great deal about UKIP over the last few months, although their level of support appears to be fading as next week’s election draws closer. Nonetheless, I have endeavoured to inform myself as to this relatively new political phenomenon; and I recently spent a couple of hours perusing the party’s general election manifesto.

And here I discovered something of an anomaly. For here is a party which claims to stand for the ‘independence’ of the United Kingdom, and which makes great play with the notion of reclaiming Britain’s ‘sovereignty’, so that this country may once again take its true place among the nations. But when we come down to specifics, we find these two concepts strangely narrowed, wrenched from the meanings in which I, for one, had grown accustomed to seeing them.

Thus we find that for UKIP (as well as perhaps many others on the British Right), ‘sovereignty’ means such things as ‘control of our borders’ (i.e. the ability to ban immigration); while ‘independence’ means independence from the European Union. They do not mean, or mean only very occasionally, in vague and muffled ways, sovereignty and independence in other senses that might come to mind: sovereignty with respect to NATO, for instance; independence from the United States or from the power of international Credit Rating Agencies.

As we may expect, the manifesto is filled with the rhetoric of ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’ in the EU-and-immigration sense; but its concern with other issues that might fall under these headings is remarkably limited. We have, it is true, a partial attack on TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), as an example of the follies to which Brussels bureaucracy can lead; UKIP’s immediate opposition to it is limited, however, to a commitment ‘to securing the exclusion of the NHS, by name, from TTIP.’ (p. 17)

We will pass over the question of the sincerity of UKIP’s stance as a champion of the NHS, in the light of Nigel Farage’s statements of support for, precisely, a US-style system of private health insurance. For in general, we are assured, the party believes that ‘we should leave the EU and negotiate our own free trade agreements again.’ (p. 17) As to the character of such ‘free trade agreements’ we are left in the dark, beyond the suggestion that Britain, having left the EU, would resume her seat on the WTO. (p. 63) We are left with a strong suspicion that UKIP would have no major objection to Britain as a separate signatory to TTIP. 

On the matter of NATO, too, we find a gesture of populism: ‘UKIP believes our parliamentary democracy should be consulted at every opportunity, before committing any taxpayer resources, or our forces, to combat situations.’ But this comes in the context of a statement that ‘Our commitment to NATO must be upheld and we will not shirk our responsibilities towards our allies’. (p. 67) In practical terms, UKIP is proposing an increase in military spending, to 2% of Britain’s GDP, precisely in order ‘to honour our NATO obligations’. (pp. 5, 65)

This is accompanied by much militaristic rhetoric about the ‘Military Covenant’, a proposal to create a Minister for Veterans, and the like. (p. 66) There is even a suggestion that Britain’s status as ‘the strongest European member of NATO’ might be used to ensure that other EU states retain ‘amicable’ relations with Britain, in the event of the latter’s exit from the EU. ‘With Russia once more flexing its muscles’, we will see European powers, perhaps, frightened into a military dependence on Britain – though above all, of course, on the USA. (p. 71)

This appears, at first glance, to sit rather oddly with the insistence, a few pages previously, that ‘Britain’s increasing involvement with European Union expansionism is putting us increasingly, unnecessarily, at loggerheads with Russia’, and that this is ‘yet another sign that our political leaders are willing to put our troops in harm’s way at the behest of other country’s political agendas.’ (p. 67) But for UKIP, of course, reviving the Cold War on behalf of NATO is infinitely preferable to doing it on behalf of the EU. For NATO is, by definition, an agreement into which the British people have entered freely and of their own sovereign will; while the EU is something into which they have been undemocratically cajoled. 

We should pause briefly to examine the accuracy of this assumption. It is not one shared, for instance, by all other parties running in next week’s election: Plaid Cymru, which ‘rejects NATO as a nuclear alliance and a product of the Cold War’, or the Green Party, which ‘would take the UK out of NATO unilaterally’, as well as ‘end the so-called “special relationship” between the UK and the US’. Nor was it until recently by the SNP, which only dropped its opposition to NATO membership in 2012, and remains dubious about nuclear weapons and participation in non-UN sanctioned NATO operations. But more relevant to UKIP’s position is that NATO membership can be construed as a substantial limitation on Britain’s sovereignty – indeed as a far greater limitation, in many ways, than Britain’s membership of the EU.

Britain’s NATO membership is, for instance, intimately linked to the considerable US military presence in this country. The facts of this military presence, in 10 US-owned-and-operated bases as well as on many RAF bases, are amply documented by such organisations as the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases, but apparently little known to the public.

To take one example, ‘RAF’ Croughton, on the Northamptonshire-Oxfordshire border, in fact ‘occupied and controlled by the US under the umbrella of the United States Air Force’, is currently ‘involved in intelligence-led warfare (using drones) and illegal surveillance and intelligence-gathering on all citizens’. The base is set ‘to become the largest intelligence hub outside the US’ in a $317m project, as Lindis Percy and Chris Cole report in Peace News, November 2014. As these authors helpfully point out, ‘There has been no debate in the British parliament.’ According to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the bases at Menwith Hill and Fylingdales in Yorkshire, part of the US-NATO Missile Defence programme, ‘operate outside British law and parliamentary scrutiny’.

Another feature of the US military presence in Britain which is not generally known is the exemption of US military personnel from British justice. To quote a briefing document issued in 2004 by Quaker Peace & Social Witness, written by David Gee: ‘While it is a fundamental principle of English law that all individuals are responsible for their acts, there is a specific statutory exception in relation to foreign forces in the UK.’ Due to their exceptional legal status under the Visiting Forces Act 1952, for instance, ‘US military personnel have avoided British prosecution for several serious traffic accidents, even when responsibility for an accident has not been in dispute. US personnel have submitted “certificates of immunity” to British courts, leaving affected citizens with no legal remedy.’

If we add to these points certain larger facts of Britain’s involvement in the Special Relationship with the USA – the fact, say, that in 2003 Britain was dragged into an invasion of Iraq in support of US ambitions – we may begin to question whether the EU is the major threat to the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, or to its pursuing an independent line in foreign or other affairs. Of all this hardly a whisper, in the manifesto of a party dedicated to reclaiming Britain’s sovereignty and independence: only that vague phrase about consulting Parliament before committing troops.

Nor does the UKIP manifesto noticeably dwell on certain other matters, which might also, to the uninformed, appear to fall under the headings of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’. We might cite, for instance, the concern, which has been raised occasionally even in the right-wing press over the role of investment in Britain by Sovereign Wealth Funds, above all those of Gulf states, in influencing British policy. Might, say, the fact that swathes of central London are owned by these SWFs, and Gulf private investors, have some role in Britain’s ‘independent’ decisions on whether to sell arms to the governments of such countries – arms which are then used by these governments against their own populations? Or, to take another example, the role of international Credit Rating Agencies in dictating the policies that supposedly sovereign states can follow, while maintaining ‘market confidence’.

These kinds of concern with sovereignty and independence do not figure, in general, in the discourse of the British Right, or indeed that of the mainstream of British politics in general. It would appear that the inviolability of ‘market forces’ has joined NATO membership and Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear arsenal within a special, reserved area of politics, which operates, like US Air Force bases, outside normal legal processes and democratic scrutiny.

But on certain selected matters, the drums of sovereignty and an independent future for Britain may be beaten with gusto. In addition to the fanfare over leaving the EU and regaining ‘control of our borders’, UKIP supports the renewal of Trident, ‘our nuclear deterrent’, in the face of ‘rogue states such as North Korea or Iran’. (p. 65) We know, of course, the old arguments for the retention, precisely, of an ‘independent’ nuclear arsenal by Britain, not least that it maintains the illusion that Britain is still a leading world power. This is an illusion Farage is determined to foster: freed of its ‘small, Euro-centric view of the world’, Britain would once more be ‘an independent, sovereign state, free to negotiate her own trade deals and determine her own foreign policy objectives.’ (p. 67) 

In the days when Britain really was, not a, but the leading power in the world, her ruling class had high notions of her independence from the petty concerns which moved other nations. As guarantor of the pax Britannica, Britain stood aloof from the vulgar fray of the other powers, great and small, in a posture of ‘masterful inactivity’. This was, of course, an aristocratic ideal; but since those days Britannia has suffered a sad decline in her circumstances, and the contemporary notion of Britain’s ‘independence’ has become thoroughly petty-bourgeois.

In UKIP’s version, Britannia figures not as a gracious Queen of the Waves, but as the owner of a small independent business, battling her way doggedly through the oceans of international trade and diplomacy, freed from her ill-considered merger with that monstrous conglomerate, Europa. This small business owner has, of course, aspiration as well as pluck, and Farage even foresees the day when she might claw her way back to some of her former imperial greatness, by playing a leading role in something called the ‘Anglosphere’ (p. 67).

This vision may be flattering to the self-image of those segments of the British middle class to which UKIP appeals, but it is as much fantasy as the Palmerstonian notion of Britannia as a disinterested queen. However it might wish to think of itself as ‘independent’, a Britain outside the EU, like a small business ‘freed’ of bureaucratic regulations, would still find itself unavoidably enmeshed in a several complex sets of relations, political, economic and cultural.

The effect of leaving the EU, in the manner proposed by UKIP, would be to loosen one of these sets of relations – those with Europe – while leaving others intact, or rather strengthening them. Rather than a Britain located, notionally, in a sphere of pure ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’, free to negotiate her own treaties and ties, we would find a Britain bound more closely to American interests, to the power-complex of NATO, to war-on-terror commitments in the Middle East, to multinational finance capital. We would perhaps see ‘American’, meaning Reaganite, models – the privatisation of everything, the doctrine of unrestrained free competition, the denial of climate change, militarism – gaining ascendancy all the faster for the lack of a ‘European’ counterweight. We might even find ourselves looking at a Britain that was still less an independent citizen of the world that it is at present; one which had become instead the subject of some North Atlantic superstate.

This is not to say that ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ need be entirely jettisoned, as concepts. But it is to suggest that there are other versions of them besides those of UKIP. It is also to stress that, enmeshed as the British state is in a complex nexus of relations, over which it can exert only very partial influence, the only possible way it might work towards greater ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’ is in fact through alliances.

The UKIP vision offers not the repudiation of all ties, but the strengthening of one set of alliances (NATO, the Special Relationship, US-dominated neoliberalism) and the weakening of others (above all the EU). A vision of genuine ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’, for the people of Britain, might involve an almost diametrically opposite selection of alliances, as well as the long-overdue abandonment of British imperial pretensions. We might envisage a withdrawal from NATO and the Special Relationship, and instead a strengthening of links, not with Europe as a bloc, but with independently-minded nations in Europe and around the world: with Greece around the issue of anti-austerity; with many European states over the issues of justice for Palestine, of sustainable energy and climate change; with Latin American states over economic sovereignty and the defiance of US imperialism.

It was perhaps the possibility of such an alternative set of alliances, among other things, that led so many people in Scotland, quite recently, to vote for Scottish independence from Britain. This independence might indeed have enabled them to free themselves from many international ties which UKIP’s ‘independence’ from the EU would strengthen. UKIP and much of the British Right would prefer it, of course, if any such possibilities were pushed firmly into the background: if ‘independence’ continued to mean, exclusively, independence from ‘Europe’, and ‘sovereignty’ such things as the right to close Britain’s borders to all comers.

They have been relatively successful, so far, if not in winning over public opinion, then at least in forcing the argument into these terms. But theirs are deeply impoverished, narrowed versions of the concepts of independence and sovereign freedom. The rest of us cannot allow their ideological capture by the exclusionist Right; and so those awkward questions of US bases, NATO, nuclear weapons, and economic sovereignty must be forced, once again, onto the agenda.

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