Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit

27 September 2023 , categories: Brexit, Democracy, European Union, Manchester, Meetings

Professor Peter Ramsay joined the Manchester group to talk about how Brexit exposed the chasm between rulers and the ruled, and the void where representative politics used to be.


On 27th September 2023, Manchester’s Politics in Pubs members welcomed guest speaker Peter Ramsay.  Peter is a Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and co-author of the following book (which formed the basis of his presentation):

Britain officially left the EU on 31st January 2020.  Yet three and a half years after Brexit’s political earthquake, little seems to have changed for the better.  Apart from one crucial revelation…

Peter and his co-authors argue that the Brexit referendum – followed by the tortured process of leaving the EU and its aftermath – has exposed the chasm between rulers and the ruled, and the void where representative politics used to be.  The ruled can see what has been uncovered but the rulers cannot – and they have failed to rectify it.

The Leave campaign, summarised by its ‘Take Back Control’ slogan, tapped into a widespread feeling that the electorate had lost any real influence over the political life of Britain as an EU member-state.  Brexit’s legacy has been to place what were previously abstract questions of the people, the state, sovereignty and democracy at the centre of many political discussions.

Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit  addresses these questions and makes the democratic case for national sovereignty and a forward-looking reconstitution of the British nation-state through strengthening representative democracy.  Peter identifies Brexit as just the first step of this journey.

What is sovereignty?

Peter described Thomas Hobbes’s seventeenth century Leviathan illustration of sovereignty showing the King’s body made up of his subjects.  In other words, it depicts the subjects consenting to be ruled and the King’s acknowledgement that a monarch’s right to rule arises from that consent, not from a divine right bestowed by God.

Note the way the king is made up of his subjects, and how this is reflected on the cover of Peter’s book, though with outward facing subjects superimposed on an iconic image of the north, the centre of the drive for Brexit.

Sovereignty is therefore a contract between the sovereign and the subjects where the former has gained the trust of the latter to rule them for their common interest.  A sovereign state is one that has the authority of its people to represent them.  The Stuart kings’ failure to represent the people led to removal of sovereign power from the monarchy.  The authority to rule was transferred to Parliament and is exercised by a government of MPs commanding an electoral majority.

Authority to rule

Sovereignty requires trust that the common interest of the people will be represented but Peter argues that modern day MPs rarely try to represent their constituents any more.  A recent poll showed that more than half of people do not feel represented by their MPs.

In spite of leaving the anti-democratic EU, democratic accountability between the British electorate and their political representatives has not been restored.  Politicians are often seen as neither trusted nor trustworthy – they don’t seem to believe in anything and the political class appears ‘brain-dead’.  There is a huge void where representative politics used to be.

Not being recognised as properly representative is causing a serious problem for our political class:  the chasm between rulers and the ruled is widening and the state is beginning to lack the authority it needs to rule i.e. using power on our behalf and in our interests.

How Leavers and Remainers both misunderstood what they were voting for

Some Remainers viewed the EU as a benign peace project – it is not.  Many Leavers saw the EU as a supranational nanny state ruling over us – it was not that either.  The truth is that as one of the 28 member states, the UK Government actively collaborated as an equal partner in making EU laws and regulations affecting our country; and all behind the EU’s closed doors at meetings without any minutes being published.  This realisation illustrates the transformation of representative politics from one where elites from individual EU member states stopped being orientated towards their subjects – i.e. us – to one where they are orientated towards each other i.e. other elites.

One consequence of this unfortunate transformation is that our own political actors and domestic legislatures have become infantilised.  Criticism of the new laws cascading from Brussels was easily deflected onto the EU, thereby making it impossible to hold the British Government to account for the decisions it was making jointly with its fellow European Union member states.

Post-Brexit, this transformation is being perpetuated by the growth in international bodies and NGOs – elite law students at universities like the London School of Economics do not aspire to become lawyers, civil servants or experts in cities like Manchester or Sunderland: like the EU they are internationalist – facing outwards towards other countries rather than inwards towards the UK.

Mind the gap

Over the last few decades, politicians have busied themselves with destroying the old British values and way of life without creating very much new to replace them.  Politics has become a squabble rather than the process by which important matters are addressed – such as how to organise society.

Unresolved issues such as wage stagnation, dereliction of public services, the housing shortage and unprecedented levels of uncontrolled immigration packaged as ‘freedom of movement’ have further damaged the sovereign relationship and increased the perception that our politicians are neither representing us nor are they in control of the common interest.

During the EU referendum in 2016 these issues represented explicit manifestations of the void between the rulers and the ruled.  Voters sensed it – politicians did not.  Leave campaigners like Boris Johnson failed to recognise Brexit as a meaningful economic project: instead they patronised voters with the NHS bus banner and wounded Brexit by agreeing to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

At the same time, the Remainer establishment of politicians and other elites – sensing that their ‘Project Fear’ campaign was losing control of the referendum debate and the population – responded by labelling Leavers as ‘racists’.  This provided the perfect excuse for Remainer politicians to ignore the concerns of people on the Leave side of the argument.  It also ‘justified’ the subsequent three year campaign of anti-democratic attempts to overturn the referendum result – which may have been the point at which UK voters from both sides of the debate realised that the British political class was an active partner in the EU establishment, not a victim of it.

Brain dead politics and the collapse of leadership

Close on the heels of Brexit and its brain dead political leadership came the Covid debacle.  Politicians of all persuasions handed emergency powers to the executive – sacrificing hard-won civil liberties in the process – and fled from Parliament without a backward glance. The British Government’s subsequent response to Covid has been the single most disastrous public policy – lacking in scrutiny, proportionality or any attempt to calculate the financial or human cost and its impact on the population.

Net Zero is another representation of the collapse of leadership and its pernicious impact on us.  While most certainly not in the interests of the UK as a nation-state, Net Zero’s illogical war on carbon-emissions is used by the political class to justify the lack of infrastructure such as house-building and power stations.  The common interest of British people is way down the agenda of our political leaders.  While discussion of Ukraine’s national interests is permitted – discussion of the UK’s interests is not.

So, what do we do?

Peter refers back to Hobbes’s explanation of sovereignty:  that rulers must have the consent of the people in order to rule but consent from the people requires trust that their common interest will be represented.  Failure to represent the common interest can only inevitably mean withdrawal of consent.  So the old ways are dead: voters are shedding their old party loyalties and parties show open contempt for their voters.  Traditional ideas of left-wing and right-wing politics have failed across the world.

But the case for national sovereignty is alive and kicking – Peter argues that we must start again, rebuilding a radical forward-looking reconstitution of the British nation-state through strengthening national democracy.

Proportional representation would be a pre-condition for breaking into the political oligopoly.  An end to corporate and trade union funding of political parties would be another requirement.  Disbanding the House of Lords would strengthen the roles and decisions of elected law makers in the Commons.  Ending devolution in Scotland and Wales would serve both countries better – as would the reunification of Ireland. Opposition to ‘global Britain’ would make it more difficult for British politicians to face outwards towards other elites, rather than inwards towards their constituents to whom they are accountable.

The politics of self-determination

The following is quoted from the final page of Peter’s book:

“The democratic politics of national sovereignty requires us to subordinate our fears to the task of self-government; to see our fellow citizens not as the problem to be solved but as the potential solution to our problems.  It demands a spirit of civil liberty and robust political engagement with each other, rather than the lazy demonisation and silencing of those who disagree.

Politicians and activists in many parts of the void exhort us to demand official protection from those they say we should fear.  Perhaps the most alarming, difficult and inspirational aspect of replacing the void with a powerful national sovereignty requires us to stop hiding behind our fears.  Taking control demands that we stop simply blaming others – and instead embrace our responsibility for our life together as a people.”


Peter’s fascinating talk inspired a wide variety of comments and questions, with everyone wishing to contribute able to do so.  Lots of interesting points were made, mostly in support of Peter’s argument. A small minority did reject Peter’s view of Brexit and his interpretation of Hobbes’ thesis.  So many people contributed to this well-attended meeting that we might have to think about starting the meeting earlier!

A recurring question from many in the group was What practical steps could we take to start rebuilding democracy? In answer Peter reiterated that this isn’t an issue of left and right, it’s about articulating the big questions of national interest and then seeking solutions that directly address that national interest. He mentioned housing as an obvious one. It’s fair to say that many left the meeting feeling that this is the sort of question we should be focussing on more in the future.

Thank you

Politics in Pubs would like to thank Peter for joining us here in Manchester.  As always, a big thank you to our hospitable hosts at The Welcome Inn.  Cheers all!

Peter’s book can be purchased from Polity and other retail outlets:

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