Popular Sovereignty and "Taking Back Control": What it Means and Why it Matters
Christopher Bickerton and Richard Tuck
11 June 2018
Today, "sovereignty" is widely derided and demands to "take back control" sneered at as mere code for populist, xenophobic attitudes towards immigration. In reality, for ordinary voters, "taking back control" means making politicians being accountable to them. And the EU has been one important way in which political elites have avoided democratic accountability for decades.
It has become a truism that in the referendum the majority of Leavers were motivated by hostility to EU immigration and, it is often insinuated, hostility to immigration as such. There is no doubt that immigration was a major theme in the campaign, but “taking back control” was actually more frequently voiced in polling as a reason for voting Leave (see Analysis #6 - Why Did Britain Vote to Leave the EU?). It has turned out to be very hard for Remainers to understand or accept this, and it is usually redescribed by them as another, this time coded, way of expressing hostility to immigration. The two reasons are of course connected, since for many people outside the ruling class the nature of the EU only became apparent once they became concerned about immigration, but that does not mean that their anxiety about a general loss of control was not a real and free-standing anxiety. Why has it been so difficult for Remainers to see this?
To answer this question, we have to realise that “control” means something very different for the poor and less educated from what it means for people in or on the fringes of the ruling class. For us - and we count ourselves unequivocally part of the ruling class - political participation is easy. We mix with politicians, journalists, lawyers and civil servants. Our views, however traitorous they seem to our equals, are taken seriously, and when we go to vote that is seen as only a small part of our political activity, and for many academic political scientists a rather pointless one, compared with the other things we can do. We can even expect to have the same kind of influence in Europe that we have in our own country - perhaps even more, since the European elites look so very like us.
But this is not what politics feels like to most people, and especially to those who are culturally and socially disadvantaged. For them, the vote is still what it used to be in the great days of expanding democracy. It is the key means of asserting some kind of control over their rulers. Before the expansion of the franchise they could have done everything they are supposed to do now - lobby, debate, protest, etc - but the poor understood then that without actual power all that would come to nothing for people like them. For those who lack the access to the professional and political networks that nowadays operate the levers of power, the vote is the only means they currently have to influence government. They do not need to be able to articulate this clearly for it to be true, and to be felt to be true by them at some instinctive level.
Concern with constitutional niceties might be cranky for members of the ruling class, but for those outside the establishment these niceties actually matter. And when the British were told for the first time that whomever they voted into Parliament, nothing significant could be done about EU immigration unless Britain left the EU, they suddenly realized that the basic political structures in which they lived had been transformed, and that there was literally nothing they could do about it. They were at best petitioners waiting on the result of secret negotiations between their betters across Europe. Though fear of this was inevitably intertwined with hostility to immigration, the fact of powerlessness was real, and it presaged powerless in other areas in the future. This is the key thing Remainers, and especially Remainers on the Left, have to realize.
Brexit is therefore above all about sovereignty, which is why the “take back control” slogan was so popular. Unsurprisingly, one’s proximity to the ruling class can be measured by how disparagingly one talks of the notion of sovereignty. Scholars have become accustomed to describing it breezily as a "convenient label", as "hypocrisy" and as a byword for chauvinism and for the spitfire nationalism of a country unable to accept its place in the world. Broadsheet journalists swiftly dismiss sovereignty as a “dream”. Those who profess to believe in the term quickly add that what they really mean by it is “pooled sovereignty”. This amounts to participation in international and regional organizations, but with scant regard for the distribution of power within them or their effect on the legislative and executive capacities of their own states.
Sovereignty refers to no more than self-government and political autonomy. As a principle, it identifies who is in charge and therefore who is responsible. It should not be confused with autarky or with cutting oneself off. On the contrary, the very idea of an independent and self-governing state presupposes a wider society of states. This is why the principle of sovereignty developed historically at the same time as the development of an international society. The sovereign today is not the prince or the monarch, it is the people, which is why we use the phrase, "popular sovereignty". The people rule, usually through their elected representatives; the government and the bureaucracy implement their will. The people are sovereign and the government is the delegated power.
Membership of the EU fundamentally challenges this basic principle but not in the manner that many traditional British Eurosceptics think. Fulmination against the “Brussels super-state”, regularly found in the pages of the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph misses the point entirely, as we explain in more detail below (see also Analysis #1: The EU's Democratic Deficit). There is no EU super-state. Indeed, there is nothing even closely resembling one. Member states are at the heart of the EU and rule through the European Council. Crucially, however, the EU system empowers national executives, not domestic publics.
At every step of EU policymaking – from the COREPER meetings and working groups in the Council to the trilogues and early agreements organized under the rules of "ordinary legislative procedure" – decision-making is kept well away from any direct consultation with domestic publics. The EU is the rule of governments. The role played by the people is secondary and usually on the terms set by governments and EU institutions. Instead of being the servants of the people, governments call the shots and the people are expected to acquiesce. This is why EU institutions and national ruling classes are so ambivalent about referendums: they stick a spanner in this well-oiled machinery.
The message of the Brexit vote was that the people no longer want to play this secondary role as a "delegated power". They want once again to be sovereign and to put government back in its place. The backlash against a perceived powerlessness is not a quixotic or an esoteric position to take. Neither is it misguided or evidence of ignorance about "how the world works". For vast numbers of the British public, it is their reality. The result was therefore as much a challenge to national politicians in the UK as it was to the EU, which is why the aftermath of Brexit has been so dramatic and damaging for domestic British party politics.
Defending popular sovereignty is not an anti-European view to take. The one who articulated this vision of sovereignty most clearly was the Genevan-born philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French Revolution best incarnated the translation of the idea of popular sovereignty into practice. The call for popular control over decision-making that has come out of the Brexit referendum is a European idea. It is one of the deep ironies of the EU referendum that opponents of Brexit take this very European act as the apotheosis of British anti-Europeanism.
 In the Lord Ashcroft poll taken on the day of the referendum, the reason most given for voting Leave (49%) was the view that “decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.
 For instance, see Stephen Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
 "Remainers can shape Britain once it is sovereign", Financial Times, 21 February 2017.
 Christopher Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alex Gourevitch (eds.) Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (London: UCL Press, 2007).
 For more details, see the section on "A Europe of Secrets" in Christopher Bickerton, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (London: Penguin, 2016).
About the author/s
Christopher Bickerton is Reader in Modern European Politics at the University of Cambridge. Richard Tuck is the Frank G. Thomson professor of government at Harvard University.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It originally appeared as part of the authors' A Brexit Proposal (2017), available in full in our "Archives" section. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.