Ashes to ashes (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

June 22, 2023   7 mins

Sometime very early in the morning of 24 June 2016, I woke up, as middle-aged men tend to do. I looked at my phone to see the result. My only thought was: “Fuck, that’s a lot of work.” Then I went back to sleep.

And a lot of work it proved to be. The EU is a profoundly undemocratic form of government, which is why I had voted to leave it. Seeing the result for the first time, I knew that the very principle of British political equality would now be on the line, because no referendum against the EU had ever previously been acted upon. I also knew that very few of my professional caste (academics) would fall in with the majority view, and help to make sure that Brexit was implemented, or even that it was properly understood.

Worse still, I had read Christopher Bickerton’s magisterial European Integration: From Nation States to Member States. As a result, I knew that the Eurosceptics, who had just won the referendum, did not understand the EU at all. The institution was not, as many Leave campaigners presented it, a foreign superstate that ruled over Britain; it was the way in which the British political, business and professional elites ruled over Britain. It was British ministers and civil servants who made law and policy in the EU, in collaboration with the politicians and bureaucrats of other member states.

The failure to recognise this meant that the Eurosceptics did not understand the process they had set in motion, and that Brexit was unlikely to go well — a fact confirmed by Boris Johnson’s and Michael Gove’s infamous rabbits-in-the-headlights press conference later that day. The Eurosceptics had pretended their chief enemy was in Brussels when in truth it was at home, as we were all about to find out.

Another and bigger problem for me was that while I knew what I had voted against the day before, I was a lot less sure about what I had voted for. I could, of course, have said that I had voted for a stronger democracy. In fact, I did say it. But that didn’t really answer the question.

It’s certainly true that in the EU, politicians and civil servants of its member-states collaborate behind the closed doors of international diplomacy, cooking up laws that are adopted without reference to national legislatures. The whole system is backed up by treaties that allow capital and labour to shift around at will, out of the control of particular nations or of their pesky electorates. If a particular consequence of this was unpopular — such as, say, mass migration — then “Europe” could be blamed.

The essence of the EU is this evasion of political responsibility within its member states, which explains why Britain’s political system has become so sclerotic and dysfunctional. It is an evasion that depends on a centrist oligopoly of dominant political parties, able to take their domestic constituencies for granted. But in 2016, the question remained: in voting against this system and for national sovereignty, how would our democracy be strengthened? What did national sovereignty even mean?

For Eurosceptics, national sovereignty meant escaping the clutches of the Brussels bureaucracy, and returning the ultimate law-making power to our sovereign parliament. But, if the true heart of member-statehood is the evasion of political accountability at home, then the underlying problem was still going to be with us, in or out of the EU. That problem is a political class which is much more comfortable hobnobbing with the cosmopolitan elites of other states in intergovernmental forums, and finding its policy cues there, than it is with the less glamorous process of actually representing their citizens. How was national sovereignty going to solve this problem?

So I did some study. I wrote articles. I joined a network. Brexit itself has been an excellent teacher — in both its successes and its failures.

Over the past seven years, militant Remainers have continued to demand to know what the advantages of Brexit are. They are naturally blind to its chief benefit: that the demand of a majority of the electorate for national sovereignty has revealed the political void at the heart of the British state. With Brexit, the electorate bowled balls that none of the major players in the political class have been able to play. All have been stumped, humiliated.

First, the Labour Party paid the price for its unwillingness to respect the political equality of its poorest voters. After 2019, Labour’s century-old one-party states in the “Red Wall” are gone. They may win most of these seats back at the next election, but they will never be secure again. Complacency is no longer an option.

The Tories were next. They had a clear mandate to level up and to invest in deprived regions. They did neither. Instead, the pandemic hit and they trailed along with a globally inspired, technocratic suspension of civil liberties, imposing draconian rules that they chose to ignore while being unable to keep their hypocrisy secret. After Johnson was caught out, they next indulged the extraordinary farce of the Liz Truss government before retreating back to a centrist in Rishi Sunak. Bereft of new ideas, they blew a massive parliamentary majority managing to alienate both their 2019 gains from Labour in the North and their wealthier, more Europhile core in the South.

The SNP has now followed the Tories, its ersatz “independence” project falling into disarray once the security blanket of the UK’s single market membership was taken away. With the UK out of the EU, Scottish independence is just too demanding a prospect for the culture warriors in Holyrood who have survived its corruption chaos.

On the face of it, both the SNP and the Tories have been disgraced by petty scandals and poorly handled policy choices, rather than Brexit. But what makes the minor scandals so damaging — not just for the individual leaders involved, but for the parties themselves — is those parties’ fundamental inability to deliver on the policies at the core of their mandates in the wake of Brexit.

In this we can see the first lesson of 2016: there is no way back to national sovereignty. The old parties and their traditions are zombies, stumbling around without knowing that the political life has drained out of them. They are incapable of making anything of parliament’s restored legal sovereignty. Indeed, the reason they died is that they ceased to make any plausible claim to represent the nation (British or Scottish). As long as we were in the EU, they could carry on pretending and so could we, but Brexit has exposed their exhaustion. It was the first step on the road forward to national sovereignty, a clearing of the ground for a new project: the project of nation-building.

Brexit has illustrated how true sovereignty always required more than the Eurosceptics’ call for the legal supremacy of a sovereign parliament within the territory it rules. As Martin Loughlin, Britain’s leading constitutional theorist, has long argued, parliament’s legal supremacy is worth little if it is not underpinned by a relationship of political authority between the rulers and the ruled. For politics to function, in other words, voters must believe that parliament, and the government that is answerable to it, really represents us, so that we recognise its laws as our laws. And it is this which generates the real power of government to get anything useful done. Yet today, those with eyes to see — and that’s now most of us — know that our major parties can no longer sustain this kind of authority.

If Brexit has made the void of political authority inescapably apparent, merely leaving the EU has not done much to fill it. Without new politics and a new electoral system, our clapped-out political parties will continue to find their policies in the forums of the cosmopolitan elites: Net Zero, mass migration, identity politics, information control, proxy war. They will limp along offering nothing too innovative: more green austerity, more culture wars, more censorship. They will stay close to the Single Market, relying on the strictures of the Northern Ireland Protocol, rather than trying to conjure up something new.

For a little while, our first-past-the-post system will keep this rickety show on the road, but it will not be strong. Labour will probably take power next year on a reduced turnout and be widely loathed within months. There may be talk of the national interest, but it will take the form of a warmed-up repackaging of the de-risking element of Joe Biden’s new global cold war. It certainly will not be a claim based on representing the needs of voters conceived of as citizens of a nation-state, engaged together in the task of self-government.

And so, after Brexit, the British state is in the strange condition of being neither member-state nor nation-state. It is a new kind of contradictory entity — a post-member-state. In Taking Control, my co-authors and I argue that Brexit has posed the need for a new politics of national sovereignty understood in Loughlin’s political sense; as a question of developing the relations of trust and authority that come from effective political representation. Once we take this nation-building perspective, novel solutions to the familiar problems of our age will surely arise.

For at its heart, such nation-building is a process of investment in the nation’s people and in the infrastructure, both economic and political, that we need to rule ourselves. It allows us to identify the real obstacles in our domestic constitution to the revival of our collective public life, emphasising equal citizenship over narcissistic identity and ethnic or religious divides. And, crucially, nation-building is inherently internationalist — as opposed to cosmopolitan and intergovernmental. After all, respecting one’s national sovereignty includes, and even depends on, that of others’. Far from being isolationist, then, Brexit remains a huge opportunity to break free from the decaying structures of globalism and Atlanticism, and instead to make friends not only with the restive peoples of Europe, but also with the rising powers of the Global South.

On the seventh anniversary of that great ballot box rebellion, the mainstream of British politics presents a terminally sad spectacle: obsessing over the foolish misdemeanours of failed leaders, while the government-in-waiting confirms its willingness simply to go back to following EU rules, only now without any say in the making of them. What few seem able to imagine is what was still obscure to me when I momentarily regretted being on the winning side that morning in 2016. The majority of voters were demanding that they too were represented at the feast. In so doing, they laid the basis for a new project of national sovereignty. It is by its nature a most invigorating project — if we are willing to embrace it.

Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and the co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit.