Brexit and the Fate of Sovereignty

For Brexit supporters, leaving the European Union was always about reclaiming nationhood

Leon Neal via Getty Images

On January 31, as celebratory crowds in London’s Parliament Square counted down to 11 p.m., the United Kingdom formally departed from the European Union (EU). It was a decisive ending to a rancorous and drawn-out process.

The battle over Brexit devolved into a nearly perfect specimen of the anti-establishment revolts that have shaken the world during the past decade. In the 2016 referendum on whether to Leave or Remain in the EU, British elites of every type, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as foreign dignitaries such as Barack Obama campaigned vociferously for the Remain side. Largely for this reason, the public voted to Leave.

There followed three years of muddled parliamentary maneuvers, an inconclusive general election, and transparent efforts to reverse the voters’ mandate. Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron as prime minister, said “Brexit means Brexit,” but in her desperate hour left the door open to a second referendum. Then she too was gone—replaced by Boris Johnson, one of the handful of elite figures to break ranks with the Remain orthodoxy and a prominent leader of the Leave campaign.

Only after Johnson’s Conservative Party won a landslide victory in the December 2019 general election was the matter settled. Brexit, the voters had decided, really did mean Brexit.

Opponents have charged the Brexit movement with the most odious offense of the globalized era: nationalism (in this case, an English rather than British nationalism) characterized by resentment over lost empire and a “Putinesque” compulsion to swagger. But for elites, nationalism, on further analysis, was just a cloak for a “grubby nativism”—hatred of immigrants and of outsiders generally. And nativism was another word for racism; Brexit, in the eyes of enlightened elites, looked very much like a spasm of revolt by white England against a racially diverse, multicultural, polyglot modernity.

To actual Brexiteers, however, the movement always felt like a long march toward the reclamation of national sovereignty. Johnson, for one, exulted over “this recaptured sovereignty” in his Brexit Day address. The implications were said to be far reaching. Corrupt elites in Britain and Europe had feasted on power that was transnational and thus unaccountable. Sovereignty, now reconquered, would restore democracy and enforce accountability. “We have taken back the tools of self-government,” Johnson proclaimed. The distance between government and a restless public would be erased at last, and the return of democratic accountability would make possible, in the words of the prime minister, “a moment of real national renewal and change.”

These formulations are not original to Johnson or unique to Britain. They stand at the heart of the rhetoric that has propelled the populist version of the global anti-elite revolt.

Ambitious politicians in democratic societies today confront an angry and disenchanted public. According to Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, authors of National Populism: The Revolt against Liberal Democracy (Pelican Books, 2018), pro-Brexit voters ardently supported democracy—in fact, wanted more of it—but felt a corrosive distrust of the ruling elites and believed that, in their own country, “ordinary people no longer have a meaningful voice.” The public wished to be part of the larger story: much of the political turbulence of recent years can be interpreted as successive, if inchoate, attempts to shatter the hierarchical structure of the representative system.

Enter populist politicians and their claims for sovereignty. Unlike their counterparts in the establishment, who appear mired in political correctness, the populists promise systemic change—if only national sovereignty can be snatched away from those unaccountable elites. Every populist issue points beyond itself to the breakdown of sovereignty: immigration, regulations, trade and tariffs, crime, terrorism. All exemplify the need to “Take Back Control”—the Leave side’s slogan in the 2016 referendum.

The nation, for the populist, is a cohesive community with a shared story—“our great national drama,” in Johnson’s words. Government exists strictly to serve the citizens who are members of this community. “A nation’s highest duty,” Donald Trump recently asserted, “is to its own citizens.” Such notions are less a revolt against modernity than an appeal to history and memory as the forces that will meld the elites and the public, rulers and ruled, into a single structure. As Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist prime minister, has pondered, “Can we discover . . . a new way of life needed for the 1,000-year-old community that is the Hungarian nation to be able to survive in the modern age?” Orban confessed that he found it “a very difficult, agonizing question.”

But, for Orban and others, the payoff for successfully answering this question is a return to national greatness. A resurrected sovereignty, President Trump has insisted, will restore “the bonds of love and loyalty that unite citizens.” With the public reconciled to democratic government, America will be made great again. In a similar vein, Johnson has affirmed that breaking loose from the EU will allow Britons to “rediscover muscles we have not used for decades” and lead to “the dawn of a new era.”

To a populist like Johnson, Brexit brings to a happy ending the revolt of the public. Other interpretations are also possible. The world is plainly living through a moment of institutional disintegration. The universal ideals that prevailed after World War II have given way to sectarianism and particularism. Globally, the revolt continues with unabated ferocity, and nations are unbundling under its centrifugal pressure. The government of Scotland hopes to leave Britain, much like Britain left the EU. In 2017, Catalonia declared independence—however unsuccessfully—from Spain. In the past decade, Sudan has split in two while Syria, Lebanon, and Libya have simply crumbled to pieces. In the United States, Democratic California views itself as a rival state to the Trump-dominated federal government. Sanctuary cities, like the city-states of old, claim the authority to accept or reject national law. Political parties have fractured into identity-driven war bands.

The populist quest, in each case, is for authentic self-rule, for a sovereignty that embraces the public and dissolves its grievances. The puzzle, given the temper of the times, is whether such sovereignty must necessarily operate at the national level, as Johnson and Trump seem to assume, or whether the public’s alienation from institutions will fragment political loyalties into ever-smaller splinters.

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