Via Political Theory Daily Review, a pdf article providing an interesting (if flawed) overview of the development of the concepts of “sovereignty” and “the nation state” which EU-sceptics often seem to get so worked up about, as well as the concept of international law. There’s also a nice little section on Hobbes, demonstrating that his ideas about sovereignty, contract theory and the individual’s relationship to the state (which seem to have been swallowed wholesale by many EU-sceptics) were very much of their time (although I’d suggest reading a bit of Quentin Skinner to get a more in-depth understanding of the pros and cons of continuing to see Hobbes as relevant to the modern world).
Anyway, I digress. Included in the article was a quote (from G. Kitson Clark’s “The Modern State and Modern Society” in Heinz Lubasz (ed.) – The Development of the Modern State, New York; Macmillan, 1964; pp.94) which is worth reproducing in full:
A Soveriegn State is autonomous, it is the sole judge of its own actions, no appeal lies to anyone against it. The sovereignty of Sovereign States is most often considered in the international sphere, in connection with a State’s autonomy in its relations with other Sovereign States; but it is important to remember that it exists in the domestic sphere as well. In a Sovereign State the subject has no legal right against the State at all, the power of the State is absolute. This is palpably true of the total State, but it is true of the liberal State also. It is true of Great Britain. In Great Britain the subject has important rights against the executive, he can sue the policeman, the soldier, the borough official, Her Majesty’s Government itself, if he believes they have infringed his rights. But he has no rights against the law. In England, a rule which is acknowledged part of the English Common Law or the result of a statute duty passed by King, Lords and Commons, may seem to an Englishman to be absurd, unjust and generally intolerable, but he must obey it or take the consequences. there is a moral restriction on the actions which a liberal state may take against its subjects and it is very valuable, but there can be no legal restriction on those actions.
After recent developments in this country, I for one would welcome legal restrictions on the ability of the state to interfere in our lives through unjust laws. I would like there to be lines in the sand, over which no government can step. At present, there are none. A government could force us all to carry ID cards with detailed information about every aspect of our lives stored in a central database which it could then, if it passed a law saying it could, use for any purposes it so desires. A government could grant itself the power to detain any and all of us without trial. All it would need is a sufficient majority in the House of Commons, and then to wait around for a couple of years if the Lords refuses to pass its legislation before using the Parliament Act to override all objections.
If we ratify the EU constitution, we ratify a document which firmly binds us to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights – out of which the British government has currently opted to enable it to do things which all other signatories of the Charter consider, by definition, to be violations of fundamental rights.
If we ratify the EU constitution, in future no government would be able to deny any of us a trial. No government would be able to pass a law allowing its agents to torture us. We would be legally free from tyranny.
If we ratify the EU constitution, for the first time in this nation’s history the state would ACTUALLY, rather than merely theoretically, have certain definite responsibilities towards its citizens. We would no longer need seventeenth century theories about some mythical “original contract”, nor would we need to continue to repeat – albeit using different terminology – seventeenth century complaints about “the Norman yoke” and various pieces of abject nonsense about the rights granted by Magna Carta (based on yet another seventeenth century misinterpretation of what that document actually means) whenever the state gets out of hand.
If we ratify the EU constitution, the British state – and every state in Europe – would be bound by international treaty never to oppress its people. Considering Europe’s turbulent past, and considering the way Britain currently seems to be headed – surely the state’s sovereign right to persecute its citizens is a sovereign right well worth losing?