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Ancram: Sovereignty and the nation state in the 21st century

In a speech at the Commonwealth Club in London this evening, the Rt Hon Michael Ancram QC MP, Shadow Foreign Secretary, will say:

"It is today almost axiomatic, if not yet a politically correct requirement, to preface any discussion on international events and relationships with the statement that the world changed on 11th September last year. Human beings like their history to be delivered in straightforward eras, in seismic changes and in new world orders. History, however, is not so accommodating.

"The vile acts that mark 11th September undoubtedly wrought changes. Certainly international relationships developed - in some cases in surprising directions - as a result of the horrors of that day. Certainly perceptions in relation to the threats of terrorism became sharper and awarenesses were heightened. But the world remained basically the same. New alliances and coalitions were built but the core elements of national self-interest still governed.

"September 11th was traumatic but it was not the end of history or the beginning of a new world order any more than the ending of the Cold War had been. Those who claim that they are delude themselves and endanger the interests of those whom they lead. The paths of history are littered with wheels which have fallen off passing new world orders; and history has a habit of taking its revenge on those who seek to deliver it in compartments.

"It has always been a weakness of Labour politicians, New and Old, that they seek to build on the world of their aspirations rather than the world of reality. We, on the other hand start from the world as we find it. Iain Duncan Smith recently summed up our approach as follows:

'Instead of aiming for an all encompassing consensus built on a vision of a new world order, my instincts are always to build from the bottom up; to derive policy from the instincts and values of the people we represent, guided by our own values.'

"This difference is now crucial.

"It can be summed up as a debate between those who see the future in terms of idealistic supranationalism - not just in Europe but beyond - as the base for their new world order, and we on our side who see our future at the centre of a confluence of dynamic and evolving relationships based on self-interest between self-governing and sovereign nations.

"This debate will be further developed by Iain Duncan Smith in a speech at Chatham House tomorrow, when he will set out in greater detail current relationships and opportunities in the international field, and our approach to them. I want tonight to approach this debate from a more constitutional angle.

"The kernel of this debate is the concept of the sovereign nation state. For us the sovereign nation state is the basic building block from which we build from the bottom upwards.

"It is the sine qua non of our policy and our approach to international relations.

"For those on the other side it is seen as a hindrance, a roadblock on the route to supranationalism. It is not surprising therefore that we have recently heard senior Labour politicians including the Foreign Secretary seeking to qualify and condemn as outmoded the concept of the sovereign nation state. National sovereignty is abhorrent to supranationalism. Terms such as "pooling sovereignty" or "sharing sovereignty" are deliberately being used to create an impression of continuing sovereignty when the real intention and effect is to destroy it.

"The reality is that sovereignty shared is by definition sovereignty surrendered. 'I cannot remain the master of the gate once I agree to share the use of the key.' Sovereignty pooled is sovereignty abandoned. To pool is to dilute, and to render incapable of discrete use.

"This is no semantic argument. If we are seriously to engage in this debate and to hold back the pressures of the drive towards supranationalism in Europe and beyond, we must be very clear what we mean by sovereignty. Sovereignty and the nation state are mutually inclusive, one not being possible without the other. At its most basic sovereignty is the lifeblood of the nation state, and the benchmark of national self-identification. It creates national cohesion, and is the justification for national self-determination. It is an identifiable if intangible force from which political, cultural, economic and military actions can flow.

"Given, however the attempts to dilute and redefine the concept of sovereignty, I hope to use this lecture to establish more clearly what it is and the vital role that we see it playing in evolving international relations in the months and years ahead.

What is sovereignty - in whom does it reside?

"Essentially sovereignty may be seen as a means by which states assert their unchallenged authority in certain areas, and which enables their participation, and membership of the international system. It suggests supreme decision-making powers at home as Jefferson suggested in 1774 when he wrote: "from the very nature of things, every society must at all times possess within itself the sovereign powers of legislation". It also suggests autonomy in foreign policy.

"But for all the superficial attractions of the theory, one must recognise the limitations that real world experience places on this concept. The poet John Donne, recognising the interdependence of human beings, wrote that "no man is an island, entire of itself". In today's world, even islands are interdependent. There is no genuine option for an isolationist existence, unconnected with the rest of the World.

"Some members of the Government, and others of the supranationalist tendency have used terms such as interdependence to claim that sovereignty needs totally rethinking, but in a way that essentially destroys its very essence.

"They suggest that it can be "pooled" without rendering it inoperative. They are pulling the wool over our eyes. Their suggestions undermine the relative exclusivity that is the basis of the concept of sovereignty. They argue in effect for the sidelining if not neutering of sovereignty without recognising the vacuum that they would leave behind.

"They purport to see sovereignty as irrelevant. Practical sovereignty is, however, always relevant as it determines who rules our lives. At home it shapes our future and influences what will decide the rules by which society is governed. In international relations "sovereignty" is still very much a fundamental principle. It suggests constitutional independence from others, and in a fluid international environment, with nation states the main players, it is elemental.

"At this stage it is necessary to discover in whom sovereignty resides and with whose authority it can be qualified or transferred.

"Historically and in theory sovereignty in Britain has been held to reside in the Crown, bestowed by God upon its wearer. In practice, even in the Middle Ages, the monarch recognised - albeit sometimes under the pressure of revolt - the realities of politics and accepted the need to consult beyond the confines of the crown itself.

"Over the centuries the growth of parliamentary democracy and the development of constitutional monarchy has recognised that sovereignty could not be exercised without the consent of the people because it had its foundations in the people themselves.

Parliament is now the effective vessel of sovereignty. Its power and its exercise of sovereignty springs from the democratic mandate granted it by the people through the ballot box. But sovereignty does not belong to parliament. It stems from the people, it belongs to the people and it cannot be alienated without the consent of the people. In theory and in practice the Crown in Parliament hold national sovereignty in trust for the people of Britain.

"And that should never be forgotten by the Executive and ministers who glibly talk about pooling, or sharing or qualifying sovereignty.

"The EU continues to encroach upon parliament's powers to run Britain's internal affairs, and Parliamentary sovereignty is constantly being diluted by an apparently inexorable slow-motion yet unchallenged surrender of its rights. A surrender without recourse to the British people. This drip-fed erosion of sovereign rights cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged. It will form part of the comprehensive work on the future structures of Europe, which we will be undertaking over the coming months.

Sovereignty in the specific International Relations context

"In the context of International Relations, sovereignty has an on-going, and vitally important, role to play. It, and the force it provides for the nation state to which it adheres, should be the basic building-blocks upon which international relations can be developed.

"In its theoretical form sovereignty implies a supreme authority to legislate within a particular territorial area. In the international arena it could allow, if one considers a Hobbesian interpretation, states to pursue only their own national interests, and in the absence of any supreme international authority, to make and break at a whim alliances to further those interests.

"I am certainly not however advocating such a free-for-all approach in International Affairs. In practice, it has never been the case that "sovereignty" gives any State a totally free hand. Nor however does it mean being bound by some overriding codes or protocols, which inhibit our basic rights of self-determination. The distinction must surely be between international conduct that goes beyond the requirements of our basic rights of self-determination and restrictions that prevent us from exercising those basic rights.

"We live in a world community where cooperation and assistance have enormously important roles to play.

"Throughout history we have entered in to trade agreements and diplomatic alliances as an essential part of thriving within that world community. Of course such arrangements guide our behaviour and in some ways regulate it, but they have always been carefully drafted and limited agreements. They have not dictated the overall course of our foreign policy, nor constrained our freedom of action.

"From this it is clear that 'Practical sovereignty', within the constraints of the political realities of diplomacy, is still a vitally important building-block in International Relations. That is why, in a world where supranationalism - the enemy of national sovereignty and the nation state - is on the agenda again, we must be vigilant. We must above all be wary of the ideas contained in the European Common Foreign and Security Policy that would limit our sovereignty and subsume it in a supranational European agenda. We need to understand the positive use that can be made of sovereignty within international relations - as opposed to the abdication or destruction of it - and then to pursue that path.

"It is the path of partnerships of sovereignty.

Partnerships of Sovereignty

"The Foreign Secretary and others argue that we must radically rethink our views of sovereignty, and that the key to the future is a 'pooling' or 'sharing' of sovereignties. I believe they have totally misunderstood the concepts they are dealing with.

"I have already suggested what those terms mean: dilution and surrender. There are further implications in terms of democratic responsibility and accountability. Sovereignty pooled or shared effectively bypasses them both.

"At the moment the Foreign Secretary is personally, and directly, responsible to Parliament. He is answerable for the foreign policy of this country to the people's representatives. If that policy is a failure or damages British interests, he can be held to account. If an explanation of policy is required he can come to parliament to explain the thinking behind it and, in theory at least, can be persuaded to change it.

"Where sovereignty is pooled, all decisions become collective fudges. The resulting dilution of sovereignty means that no one needs assume direct responsibility. Decisions and the democratic authority for them become divorced.

"Too often in arguing this, we are accused by our opponents of advocating isolationism, turning our backs on the need for Britain to be constructively engaged with her international partners.

"We are doing nothing of the sort. We are in fact reasserting the principles which over generations have governed our many and fruitful dealings with other nations. Partnerships of sovereignty.

"Partnerships are formal, but voluntary, agreements to work together. They create formal cooperation and coordination, they allow for joint action and restraint. They do not however diminish or destroy the basic individual rights of each partner, including the right to withdraw from the partnership. Their value stems from the principle that they are a combining of individual strengths and skills that remain intact. They are excellent examples of building strong organisations from the bottom up and retaining that essential strength which stems from the continuing individual rights of each of the partners.

"Reverting to 'partnerships' of sovereignty represents neither a new, or even a reactionary, departure, but a continuation of our traditional approach - one that involves no abandonment of responsibilities and rights.

"As it happens, and as the building of the international coalition against terrorism has so clearly illustrated, it also represents an approach that is far more practically effective in today's fast-changing world. Partnerships retain the flexibility and the layered levels of participation that are much more suited to today's dynamic environment than the more rigid corporate concepts that are demanded by supranationalism.

"The successful response of the British Government, and the international community, to the traumatic events of 11 September was possible precisely because each nation was able in the loose partnership that is the coalition to contribute at the level at which it felt most comfortable, and which was most compatible with its national interests. We were able to form the "agile partnerships" spoken of by President Bush, and required by international events. What is more, such partnerships dovetail effectively with existing partnerships of sovereignty such as NATO.

"The European Union should be such a partnership of sovereignties, with its legitimacy emanating from the partners - the national parliaments of the sovereign nation states that are its members. That was its origins. That was the concept. That should be its future. But more of that in a moment.

Sovereignty in NATO: Partnership not pooling

"NATO is in fact a very successful example of a partnership of sovereignties.

"It has sometimes been erroneously called in evidence of the benefits of pooled sovereignty. But sovereignty within NATO is not pooled, nor subject to the dilution which would have inevitably been a consequence of pooling. Rights of self-determination are not circumscribed.

"There has been no integrationist creep in NATO; it does not threaten our national sovereignty, for the simple reason that we are not required to pool it.

"The basis of NATO is, as it always was, a limited defensive military alliance, aimed at security and co-operation. Each nation contributes as it sees fit, as its resources allow, and on a mission-by-mission basis. Member states retain the right not to be involved in particular operations if they wish, and we subject ourselves to external control only as and when we so decide in a limited, defined context.

Sovereignty in the EU - limitations

"Conversely however, if the EU continues on its present course it will run totally counter to these agile partnerships of sovereignty. The increasing removal of powers from a national to an EU context, to a Central Bank, to the Commission, even to a Common Foreign and Security Policy, all move it towards becoming a more supranational body.

"The whole tone of the Nice Treaty and what followed it at Laeken smacks of a European Union from the top downwards, with its legitimacy flowing from a quasi-euro sovereignty rather than a partnership whose legitimacy flows upwards from the individual sovereignty of its national members.

"It is a mistaken tone that overlooks the fact that nation states' individual sovereignty and resources are what gives the EU its viability and legitimacy. To pool that sovereignty is to surrender it.

"In the preparations for the IGC in 2004 we must put forward clear and positive proposals for a flexible Europe of sovereign nation states that can recreate that spirit of partnership and popular engagement that an enlarged EU will need to prosper. We must work to create a flexible partnership of sovereignty, allowing the development of a flexible Europe, a Europe that recognises the vitality, the differences, the aspirations, and the individuality of each nation state.

"The dynamic for such a Europe must flow upwards from the national parliaments expressing the sovereign wishes of their peoples and combining in partnership to drive them forward for the benefit of the EU as a whole. Such a partnership would enhance European democracy and create genuine accountability. It would reduce current feelings of popular alienation and build a European Union that will fit more easily with more flexible international environment within which it will need to operate.

"The key to such a Europe is retained sovereignty and the maintenance of the nation state. That is why, in the European context, sovereignty is so central to the arguments that already are taking place. It is why the supranationalists are so keen to redefine sovereignty and by doing so to build into it the seeds of its own destruction.

"It is why we must for our part be adamant that sovereignty must be preserved to enable a true partnership of sovereign nations to emerge.

Sovereignty in specific territories.

"Finally I should like to touch on some specific examples of specific geographical areas where British sovereignty is challenged by the actions of the Government and where it is as risk. I refer particularly to two British Overseas Territories: Gibraltar and the Falklands. Here in a very tangible and emotional way sovereignty still matters.

"Gibraltar's British sovereignty is clearly under threat. In 1967 over 99% of Gibraltarians decided to continue with their link to Britain. Yet there are now on-going talks with Spain on Gibraltar's future status. All the signs are that the basis of these talks is an attempt to agree a means of sharing sovereignty indefinitely with a view to the eventual transfer of sovereignty over the Rock to Spain. The outcome of such talks would need to be endorsed by the people of Gibraltar - something that is not likely to be forthcoming. But there is a sub agenda which is based on a belief that once there is an agreement along these lines between Britain and Spain, then even if it is not implemented it will hang like a sword of Damocles above Gibraltar generating duress and pressure until the people there cave in. In the interests of better EU relations with Spain the British sovereignty so valued by the loyal people of Gibraltar is up for sale.

"It is a tangible example of the process of surrender of sovereignty that lies at the heart of the government's relations with the European Union today. It is wrong in itself. Sovereignty shared is sovereignty abdicated.

"It is also the thin end of the wedge.

"The Falklands may not yet be subject to such a debate. However, if British sovereignty in Gibraltar is anything to go by, how long will it be before the British Government decides to negotiate with the Argentines, over the head of the Falkland Islanders, about their sovereignty and status? British sovereignty in the Falklands is no theoretical concept. It is very real. In 1982, British people died in defence of the right to decide who exercised sovereign authority in the Falklands.

"The Falkland Islanders decided that their sovereignty was inalienable, and indivisible, especially in the face of aggression. They believe their sovereignty resides in the British Government still, as do many thousands of residents of other British Overseas Territories.

"Talk of shared sovereignty is disingenuous. It is not possible genuinely to share sovereignty without it losing its meaning and its effect. In the case of the Falklands, once another country has the power to make decisions relating to the governance of the Falklands, and the way the islanders live their lives, then British sovereignty over the Falklands is effectively surrendered.

"No number of weasel words can hide the agenda that lies behind this newfound keenness of the British government to share sovereignty. Our task must be to continue clearly to define and promote the importance of sovereignty, at home, in Europe and in our Overseas territories and in each case to fight to see that no alienation can take place without the freely and democratically given consent of the sovereign peoples involved.

Conclusion and ideas for future.

"The sovereign Nation State is still the basic legitimate unit in foreign affairs. Rights of self-determination still provide the strongest guarantee of the right of our citizens delivered by a democratically elected and accountable government. These concepts are however under greater threat today than they have ever been.

"At the start of the 21st century we have indeed reached a fork in the road. Down one lane lies supranationalism and the erosion of sovereignty and the nation state. Down the other lies the opportunity for greater and stronger partnerships of sovereignty and the maintenance of the nation state.

"These are big issues, issues that will have an enormous impact upon the 21st century. W cannot ignore them or pass them by on the other side.

"As we move away from the rigid bloc mentality of the 20th century back to the more fluid diplomacy of the 19th century, it is only by addressing them that we can meet the challenges of the future,.

"Much of the debate to come will be about the nuts and bolts of policies and structures. But the underlying question that must be answered first will be this; whether we will be inveigled down the road to supranationalism or whether we will find the will to resist what will undoubtedly be an enormous pressure to do so.

"Our challenge will be to recruit the support to build our future around the agile partnerships of sovereignty that can retain our Britishness and allow us once again to make our distinct contribution to the building of a better world. It is a daunting challenge because it will decide some very fundamental questions. It is a worthy challenge because the road of sovereignty maintained must be the road which generations to come will thank us for taking."


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