Who Decides Who is Sovereign?
The centre-left think tank Demos has just celebrated its 20th anniversary with a guest lecture from Michael ignatieff. The elegant Ignatieff – Iggy in the vernacular – in his slim-fit starched white shirt and power tie seemed out of place beside the more fustian figures of the English intelligentsia elite presided over by one of their energetic coordinators, David Goodhart.
Ignatieff who led his Liberal Party in Canada to a crushing defeat in his last year’s election defined progressive politics as being for fairness, the market, a sustainable ecology, for justice, for equality and just about everything everybody could approve of.
The only meat in his argument was the need for more sovereignty and less market. But whose sovereignty – the nation-state, the region or nations within states like Quebec, Catalonia or Scotland? The sovereignty of the trade union or of the boss? Which markets should be limited?
There is an interesting row going on at the moment over Amazon. After Iggy’s talk I read In the London Standard, the paper’s fine literary editor, David Sexton, attack Amazon saying its e-book operation was destroying small independent publishers. In France, the socialist culture minister, Aurelie Fillipetti, (the thinking man’s Maria Miller) has attacked Amazon because small bookstores are shutting down as they cannot compete with the massive discounting of Amazon prices.
This seems to read across to what Iggy was saying, namely that the sovereignty of small publishers or independent bookshops had to be protected against the assault of a book selling monopoly behemoth like Amazon. The contrary view could be found here in City AM where the paper’s editor, Alistair Heath, argued that Amazon über Alles was the correct market line because consumer sovereignty should triumph over small bookseller or small publisher sovereignty.
My problem is I agree with Heath, Sexton and Filipetti. I love Amazon’s cheaper books but I love small publishers (especially those who have brought out my well-remaindered books) and I love the fact that every town in France has books on sale.
Neither Iggy not the other elite intellectuals on the platform discussed whose sovereignty should triumph and who acts as the Solomon to judge between competing interests. The Government has decided that the sovereignty of local nimbys to oppose wind turbines is more important than the sovereignty of a wider community to have green energy. It seems that Labour agrees. On that basis it is hard to see how the NHS would have come into being as Aneuran Bevan crushed local control of hospitals in order to centralize health under Whitehall as the guardian of the nation’s sovereign right to have a uniformly, centrally administered free health care system. Whose sovereignty will prevail –local land or home owners or a wider national interest – if we want to develop shale gas or solve London’s airport congestion difficulties?
Ignatieff attacked Google, not over its zero tax payments, or appropriation of personal data on a much wider scale than the Prisim programme but as the modern equivalent of pre-1914 monopolies like Standard Oil or United Steel which gobbled up smaller players and dominated markets. No-one mentioned the big sovereignty debate as between UK and European legislation and jurisdiction. Is it a question of balance or is sovereignty absolute? In which case who decides who is sovereign – elected parliaments and council or referendums on key issues?
In Switzerland they say ‘Le peuple est souverain’ – the people are sovereign. The people, not the political or administrative class, take the final decisions and decide through referendums what the canton or confederation will do. That is why there was genuine upset amongst Swiss politicians of all colours when the rest of the world denounced the ugly Muslim-phobe referendum which banned minarets. ‘If you believe in sovereignty then the people’s will must be respected’ argued Swiss democrats even if they had opposed the overtly anti-Muslim referendum.
As demands grow in Britain for recall, for non-party controlled primaries to decide who shall be a candidate for Parliament, and as Britain faces up to a prospect of a referendum that is likely to take the UK out of Europe, the discussion of the meaning and applicability of sovereignty is more than ever relevant. Iggy only sketched some general ideas in his remarks but the sovereignty question is now out in the open and there is plenty of philosophical meat for Demos and other think-tanks to debate as Britain tries to shape its future.