Thinking about sovereignty in a confused UK

On Sunday in Birmingham, the University of Birmingham’s George Kyris will be part of a discussion on sovereignty in a changing 21st-century world.

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Kyris writes for the Birmingham Perspective:

This autumn, the world stood in awe watching Kurds and Catalans voting to establish new, sovereign states. As the conflict in Iraq flares up again and as Catalonia poses a new challenge to Spain and Europe, sovereignty strikes back as a popular idea. Yet, what sovereignty really is remains a mystery — a mystery that made it one of the most googled words in the UK as Brexit was taking place.

Is sovereignty taking back control? Is it legitimacy? How does it shape our local and national history — past, present and future — and what does it mean for a city like Birmingham?

In 2014, the royal status of Sutton Coldfield was symbolically recognised after a long campaign by local politicians, media, and residents. This status was initially given to the town by King Henry VIII, who also donated his hunting grounds, in what today stands as one of the most beautiful parks of Birmingham. Yet in the history of sovereignty, King Henry VIII is mostly remembered for his decision to denounce Pope’s authority and establish the Church of England in 1534. The trigger for this was the wish of the King to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon so could he marry Anne Boleyn. While Henry notoriously moved to have four more wives, his decision is a focal point in the history of sovereignty. Sovereignty now meant control by the king, rather than the Pope, over a range of matters in this country.

A few centuries later, a Birmingham politician played an important role in the expansion of British sovereignty throughout the world — Joseph Chamberlain was a secretary of state for the Colonies between 1895 and 1903. But while the British Empire extended Britain’s sovereignty around the globe, an array of developments in the first half of the 20th century led to a wave of anticolonial movements, and by the 1960s most British colonies enjoyed a newfound sovereignty as independent states.

Today, one of the most iconic landmarks of Birmingham’s skyline is named after Chamberlain: “Old Joe”, the clock tower at the University of Birmingham, which Chamberlain helped found in 1900.

It was under this tower that then Prime Minister David Cameron and other politicians supporting Remain held their last rally, one day before 52% of the British public voted to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016. A few months later, Theresa May gave her Brexit speech at the Conservative Party Conference in the International Convention Centre in Birmingham. With pro-EU protests outside, May vowed that Brexit would allow the country to do “what independent, sovereign countries do, decide for ourselves how we control immigration, and…be free to pass our own laws”. As a modern Henry VIII, May understood sovereignty as control and sought to bring it back from Brussels to the UK.

Yet as Britain embarks to find a new place in the world, the country seems even more confused — if not divided —
than ever on the issue. This was all too obvious in the controversial court case of R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, with one simple yet complex question at its heart: can the government act on the result of the 2016 referendum without consulting the Commons? In other words, who is sovereign, the people or Parliament?

The debate remains open. While people might seek to try to define sovereignty, the idea remains in the hands of politicians who shape or even manipulate its meaning.