Non-belligerent national sovereignty

26 August 2020

In the fourth and final instalment of this series, Ben Hunter and Chris Carlon reflect on the discourse regarding a supposed ‘return of the state’

Ben Hunter
Christopher Carlon
zjtmath / Shutterstock.com

To read the previous part in this series, click here.

If an expansion of democracy provides broader access to power, and if economic statecraft provides a purpose for that power, national sovereignty offers a framework of legitimation. During the Brexit debates the concept of sovereignty was often reduced to the following three words: ‘Take Back Control’. Although this is partially the case, sovereignty, one of the modern society of states’ fundamental anchors, cannot be reduced to a simple zero-sum game of control and power. Sovereignty isn’t something you can take back and lock away again. It’s best understood as a tool – and from a constructivist perspective, a social tool. For example, the UK leaving the EU doesn’t mean that the UK becomes sovereign again. The only reason it could join and then leave the EU was because it was sovereign in the first place.

Sovereignty doesn’t mean the UK can simply do what it wants either. Sovereignty means that the UK theoretically has the authority to be an actor on the international stage, to join multilateral institutions, and speak in the name of its citizens, and so on. Furthermore, The UK is expected to uphold international law and to participate in fashioning future forms of multilateral institutionalism that may necessitate the further pooling sovereignty. This may entail entering relationships which, indeed, limit the UK’s actions and some elements of state power, but the country would be no less sovereign because of it. In fact, concerning its relational elements, sovereignty was, and still is, very much part of Scotland’s attempts to gain full independence from the UK, with many observers trying to understand what role Scotland would play as a sovereign state within the institutions and networks of global governance – such as discussions regarding the idea of an independent Scotland joining NATO. This issue is referred to in academic literature as the ‘sovereignty–role nexus‘; while sovereignty gets you a place at the dinner table, you need the correct attire and table manners too.

With the social nature of sovereignty in mind, it is clearly an essential part of the expansion of democracy and the embrace of economic statecraft. However, so we are clear, these changes are not to be sought with an eye to compete with other nations for competition’s sake, nor to take back control on the basis of a rash power trip. Domestically, especially since the installation of the welfare state, controlling the legitimate use of force over a territory is no longer sufficient to provide legitimacy for states’ authority – people expect their government to uphold a high quality of life and provide forms of protection, and rightly so. The coronavirus has exposed the inability of the British state to provide adequate protection from the pandemic, and its economic response has been to uphold an existing economic system that, for many, offers little in the way of progression or self-actualisation. We believe that it is on this basis that the UK should articulate its desire to fully embrace the political authority sovereignty provides – not as a tool to withdraw into a form of chauvinistic insularity, but as a tool to ensure the British public live safe and fulfilling lives, and that the state contributes to a more stable international order.

The coronavirus has shown us that both economically and politically the UK possesses many fragilities and in some major areas, such as in effective PPE provision and the isolation of care homes, the UK state failed to provide adequate protection, for which it should be held accountable. If we fail to do so, then how can the state’s power be justified? A progressive return of the state therefore requires a reformulation of national sovereignty, embodied through a renewed purpose, both substantive and symbolic in nature, and that provides a mechanism of legitimation. Brexit may be seen as an attempt to move in this direction, yet one without any tangible path or direction, an exemplification of an empty nationalism that the terminology of sovereignty has, in the eyes of the left, come to represent. From our perspective, a rejuvenated national sovereigntycould become a potent framework for an expansion of democracy, a statecraft approach to economic and industrial policy, and the legitimising idea behind a refurbished state intent on progressive societal change.


To conclude, we argue that discourse regarding a supposed ‘return of the state’ is contoured by a cyclical perception of the state’s evolution that obscures the nuances inherent to its complexity. This lack of complexity, when applied to the government’s COVID-19 response, has led to premature analyses which assume a direct causal link between interventionist policy instruments and a broader interventionist state. The causal connection between an interventionist policy – such as through the JRS programme – and a return to the interventionist state isn’t necessarily linear, and a deeper appreciation is needed of the government’s governing practices, as well as of what a ‘return of the state’ would entail. We therefore suggest that, with regards to the former, the pre-virus governing practices of neoliberal financialisation and a monetary-based value for human life remain firmly entrenched within the ideational and physical structures of power in the UK. On the latter, we argue for a ‘return of the state’ that necessarily involves a reformulation of the state’s social purpose, a bar not met thus far.

In seeking to outline the form a revitalised state could take, we highlight three areas of significance. First, an expansion of democracy – encompassing parliamentary reform and devolution to places of work as well as regions – would counteract the government’s centralising tendencies so visible in the pandemic response. Second, the concept of economic statecraft highlights some of the ways in which the government could truly aim to shape the British economy, both to improve lives and to reorient a post-Brexit Britain in an increasingly uncertain world. Finally, a renewed notion of national sovereignty could provide the ideational framework for both of these objectives, by abandoning Brexit’s belligerent nationalism in favour of a progressive reconception of the state and its duty to the citizenry.