Rupert Gather: Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization

Guest post by Rupert Gather, United Kingdom

As Brexit continues its weary parliamentary journey, the intellectual discourse becomes more energized.

Finally the establishment figures that had rested behind the indolent assumptions of Project Fear have to think about the implications of their words.


This is partly driven by necessity, Brexit in a form is inexorable, and partly because of context – populations across Europe, and the world at large, are all seeking their own ‘Brexit’, but defined in local terms.

The cynics are right – what does matter it that 500 Iranians in statistical terms cross the channel in small boats or 100,000 cross the Mediterranean?

But they are wrong in assuming this is all about migration, when really it has been about people trying to define their place in the modern world with migration simply a symptom of that change.

In other words it has been about sovereignty all along.

Sovereignty is seemingly an abstract concept.

True it has a legal structure and often can be born out of physical boundaries defined by an island, river desert or mountain range.

But really it is about the effect that is has on the people who live within its jurisdiction.

Successful societies feel comfortable in their own skin because they believe in themselves whilst embracing the wider world.

See this TED talk on the subject:

The emotional attachment that this engenders, the love of the sovereign nation, is how we define patriotism.

We have to be cautious: Voltaire said, “It is lamentable that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind”.

But this can be differentiated quite clearly from nationalism which George Orwell thought was “inseparable from the desire for power”.

So to understand the relevance of sovereignty in an age of globalization, we have to understand at an emotional level what lies behind it.

Sovereignty is born out of enlightened self-interest.

In the same way that a child has an innate loyalty and love for a parent, because of its need for physical protection and nourishment, it is inbuilt in us to form our group, our tribe, our country.

It was best articulated in a piece of Enlightenment wisdom in Thomas Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’.

Hobbes paints a picture of the commonwealth as embodied in a creature rising up over a landscape, rather like Godzilla.

At its head is a crowned sovereign flourishing a sword as a symbol of protection, but if you look closely, what appear to be scales covering its body are actually people, hundreds of people acting in unison to give flesh to the idea of a sovereign state.

A state’s power derives from everyone surrendering his or her own sovereign power in return for protection or peace.

So, although patriotism is an emotional term and sovereignty is a legal term, they are in fact indistinguishable in why people come together and believe in a unifying authority.

But it’s clear that there’s another kind of protection that drives sovereignty – economic wellbeing.

The search for prosperity is deeply personal, but we can’t agree on what form of government or sovereignty is best placed to deliver it.

This all the more confusing in our globalized world and is what lies at the heart of the Brexit debate.

The EU tries to reflect this with the concept of ‘Pooled Sovereignty’.

Great idea, but the danger is that, in the same way as ‘no none ever washed a hire car’, something that is pooled is not owned, and something that is not owned is not cared for.

What is missing is the direct and obvious benefit to individuals and families that in turn inspires loyalty.

Whatever we feel about Europe or any other aspect of globalization, we can all unite in the belief that it that it has to deliver well-bring for ourselves and our families or it is nothing.

Whilst physical and economic protection creates the framework for sovereignty, underlying patriotism lies much closer to home.

This starts in the mind literally as ‘hearth & home’, and explains the enduring popularity of the war poets.

Some are sad, some inspiring, but they all seek sanctuary in the idea of ‘Home’.

For WB Yeats it is the parish of Kiltartan; and for Edward Thomas it is all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The post-war master of a sense of place was John Betjeman who could make home as intimate as a mouse in a church or gulls reflecting in the sharp spring sun.

Home is not simply about place; it is also about people, our own communities.

When a community comes together there is something transformative about the way it changes the way people feel.

Patriots attach themselves to the little platoon they belong to – whether it be fans’ appreciation of Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat, a troupe of Morris dancers or the Notting Hill Carnival, each are joyous pieces of a whole.

Sovereignty, and the patriotism that flows from it, comes from a sense of the local and the familiar.

Sovereignty therefore starts from the need for protection, is enforced in the wallet and flourishes in the local.

But there’s something even more powerful that unites us, which is our sense of belonging.

We are, to quote Nick Clegg, “all tribal people”.

This is defined by local tradition – at moment of national celebration like a wedding, patriotism is infectious.

But then in typically British way we try to work out if we should be happy, or just embarrassed at this outpouring of emotion.

Communities, nations that come together to a common identity thrive.

It doesn’t need to be all about marching bands and bunting.

Whilst we all got a temporary patriotic boost from a World Cup performance, the best example are the All Blacks. The New Zealand Rugby team has been victorious in nearly 80% of their international matches.

Why is this?

Why is it that this remote country manages to succeed while others fail, and make everyone like them while they are at it?

The answer is self-knowledge and self-confidence: they have created a community big enough to feel they matter to the world, but small enough to feel that they matter to each other.

The debate about sovereignty and patriotism is as old as civilization itself so we shouldn’t worry that it’s all a bit self-indulgent.

But we can use it as a basis for defining the relationship between the people and the sovereign state in an age of globalization.

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