“Britain has been a sovereign, independent nation in the past and we can be again,” said Michael Gove during Jeremy Paxman’s fascinating BBC programme about the EU Referendum and British sovereignty. This is the heart of the debate about Britain’s future, so it seemed a bit eccentric of Paxman not to press the Justice Secretary on when Britain was last truly a sovereign, independent nation,and whether this absolute independence can be regained again.
Was the Justice Secretary thinking of the Tudor period, the years of the East India Company or Victorian Britain? When – exactly – did this golden age of sovereignty exist? Or was it perhaps the period immediately before Britain finally committed to the EEC, following the referendum on June 5 1975? That’s the only comparison that makes sense, if we are trying to predict what sort of power and control Britain will have outside the EU.
It is certainly true that in the Britain of the Sixties we did make all of our own laws and we had control of our borders, which, incidentally, even included a £50 currency limit on everyone travelling abroad from the UK on holiday. Britain was beset by economic problems but at least we were independent of the pettifogging regulations issued from Brussels and we endured none of the directives on straight cucumbers and bananas.
Yet the reality of this period was that Britain’s sovereignty was profoundly compromised on the most essential business of government. From 1956 to 1969 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made five separate loans to the United Kingdom and these were accompanied by increasingly stringent demands on money supply, taxation, domestic debt and currency controls. The depth of scrutiny by the IMF in the mid-Sixties, when the government was subject to inspections by IMF officials, who, by the way, openly doubted the word of politicians and Treasury officials, is hard to credit. The situation was nowhere near as bad as the debt crisis in Greece, but the British government certainly suffered humiliations that remind us of what Greece is going through.
It is now known that the Treasury ran two sets of books in order to deceive their masters in the IMF. Eventually they came clean in 1966 and the IMF focused on telling the British government how “to bring public expenditure under control. ”In 1968, the IMF sought agreements on spending cuts. Officials even considered giving the IMF an undertaking that would be kept secret from the House of Commons.
Are these the glory days of independence and sovereignty Gove is thinking of? I doubt it. For the truth is that there was never is a golden era of independence and self-determination in modern British history, which since the end of World War Two has been the story of decline, followed by adaptation and revival as a member of the EU.
What Michael Gove and Boris Johnson know but cannot admit is that it’s impossible for a medium-sized modern economy to go back to some historic idyll of autonomy. More important, this kind of sovereignty cannot be acquired, regardless of economic performance. And yet it is for this illusory prize that they are content to brush aside the warnings about the dire consequences of Britain exiting the EU from the Treasury, Bank of England, LSE and practically anyone who can do basic arithmetic.
The word sovereignty exerts a powerful hold on the imagination in the Leave camp. Unlike the rather more pedestrian words ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’, it stirs the heart, particularly among the English. There is a romance to it; it carries the gold braid of Nelson and Wellington’s uniforms; and somewhere off in the wings it prompts the cry “God for Harry, England and St George.”
At one stage in his TV show, Paxman, who I should mention is a good friend of mine, evoked this romantic view of history when he said to a bewildered British student, whose studies on the continent were made possible by an EU grant, ‘the UK struggled for 1,000 years to assert its right to make our own laws only now to be unable to change laws imposed by Europe.” It was a significant moment in the programme because the word sovereignty and the history that Paxman mentioned had no resonance whatsoever for the young student. She and her friends were refreshingly concerned with “personal sovereignty” and freedom of movement – two things they felt the EU gave them.
The real point about sovereignty, if we are to use this gilded word, is that it is about power. We know what sort of influence we have as a member of the EU and as an important contributor to the Western alliance. We understand the limits of British power, as well as what we can achieve with it, which is not inconsequential. In short we are more reconciled to our position in the world than at any time in the last seventy years.
Leaving the EU will profoundly disrupt our place in the world: while proclaiming our newly won independence, we will of course be much less influential and much less powerful. And that will mean that we will have to rethink ourselves as a nation, particularly as an exit from the EU will almost certainly result in a second Scottish Independence referendum and cause problems in Ireland, where religious and national divisions have gradually eased because, among other reasons, people of both churches and on both sides of the border are all citizens if the European Union.
The truth is that you cannot seek to increase your sovereignty as a modern nation by taking actions that will decrease your power and economic wellbeing. It would be a rich irony indeed if we were to damage beyond repair such power and independence as we possess now by seeking this mythical sovereignty of Michael Gove’s and Boris Johnson’s speeches.
The word sovereignty should be used with care, or otherwise left in the dressing up box.