Sovereign is as sovereign does

scotlands_parliamentWe hold this truth to be self-evident; that the people of Scotland are sovereign. That the people alone are the source of legitimate political authority. That the people are the final arbiters of all public policy.

This is the starting point for any discussion of the process by which Scotland’s rightful constitutional status is to be restored. Not the labyrinthine confusion of Brexit or the arcane complexities of the British political system or the bureaucratic procedures of the EU. Only this! That the people of Scotland are sovereign!

It is reasonable, therefore, to ask why the people of Scotland should suffer constraints on the exercise of our sovereignty such as are imposed by the Union. Why should we accept that the will of the Scottish electorate may be overridden by the choices of voters in England and Wales?

Why do we submit to the authority of the British state? How, in the 21st century, can executive power based on the claim of a divinely-ordained monarchy take precedence over the democratic mandate of the people? How can the asserted authority of the British state possibly be superior to the authority of the sovereign people of Scotland and the Parliament which we elect?

Why should we accept that the exercise of those rights which flow from our sovereignty, such as our right of self-determination, may be subject to a veto by the British political elite?

Why the excessively circuitous route to the point where our democratically elected representatives make “a strong political commitment to another independence vote“? What requires us to first jump through all those hoops contrived by the British political elite? What is to prevent them continuing to manufacture hoops until we are exhausted jumping? How long must we continue in the forlorn hope that there might be a final hoop and a last weary leap to independence?

How can we sensibly suppose that the ‘right time’ for a new referendum will spontaneously emerge from conditions all but entirely under the control of forces which are determined that there should never be another referendum?

How might we win the fight to restore Scotland’s independence if we do not first seize ownership of the process by which our independence will be restored? How can we claim to be worthy of independence if we allow that process to be controlled by others?

Power is not given. Power is taken. Power that is given is not real power. If we accept that independence is conditional on the permission and approval of the British state then the best that we can hope for is something far less than that to which we aspire.

The people of Scotland are sovereign. It’s time we started acting accordingly.

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3 thoughts on “Sovereign is as sovereign does

  1. The phrase, if not the underlying idea, “the people are sovereign” is nonsensical, although I think it is understandable how this language gets used. One could just say the opinion of the people is what matters. The language of sovereignty is just how we talk about the exercise of power. However, the whole notion of sovereignty is in fact bullshit, and not just in Scotland. Much of political theory is taken up legitimizing sovereignty, i.e. the power of a monarchy or some other form of government i.e. the power of a small part of the population over the population as a whole. Think Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and most political philosophy since.

    David Hume called bullshit on all these arguments. There is no theory that legitimizes political arrangements and the power of the state. Hume replaced philosophy with history and sociology. States arise in different forms out if a variety of contingent events. Some are better than others. But in large, complex societies some authority is needed to seciure order, the general peace, and public welfare. This is a purely a practical matter. One obeys the state because it provides security and other functions that serve the population. When the state fails to provide as such, one doesn’t, although there is no magic formula for when one slips from one to the other. It’s purely a matter of judgement when the costs of one outweigh the risks of the other. There’s no sovereignty thing that provides a magic formula for what is and isn’t a legitimate state.


    Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular….Opinion is of two kinds, to wit, opinion of interest, and opinion of right. By opinion of interest, I chiefly understand the sense of the general advantage which is reaped from government; together with the persuasion, that the particular government, which is established, is equally advantageous with any other that could easily be settled. When this opinion prevails among the generality of a state, or among those who have the force in their hands, it gives great security to any government.

    Smith, following Hume, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

    The love of our country seems, in ordinary cases, to involve in it two different principles; first, a certain respect and reverence for that constitution or form of government which is actually established; and secondly, an earnest desire to render the condition of our fellow-citizens as safe, respectable, and happy as we can. He is not a citizen who is not disposed to respect the laws and to obey the civil magistrate; and he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens. In peaceable and quiet times, those two principles generally coincide and lead to the same conduct. The support of the established government seems evidently the best expedient for maintaining the safe, respectable, and happy situation of our fellow-citizens; when we see that this government actually maintains them in that situation. But in times of public discontent, faction, and disorder, those two different principles may draw different ways, and even a wise man may be disposed to think some alteration necessary in that constitution or form of government, which, in its actual condition, appears plainly unable to maintain the public tranquillity. In such cases, however, it often requires, perhaps, the highest effort of political wisdom to determine when a real patriot ought to support and endeavour to re-establish the authority of the old system, and when he ought to give way to the more daring, but often dangerous spirit of innovation.

    The political writings of Hume and Smith were of course well-known by James Madison and many others in the American colonies. There’s a track record of ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment feeding into political reform of government by the British state. 

    The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, came to somewhat similar conclusions as Hume and Smith on the matter of sovereignty theory:

    The monarchy presented itself as a referee, a power capable of putting an end to war, violence and pillage and saying no to these struggles and private feuds. It made itself acceptable by allocating itself a juridical and negative function, albeit one whose limits it naturally began at once to overstep. Sovereign, law and prohibition formed a system of representation of power which was extended during the subsequent era by the theories of right: political theory has never ceased to be obsessed with the person of the sovereign. Such theories still continue today to busy themselves with the problem of sovereignty. What we need, however, is a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done.


    1. You clearly don’t understand the principle of popular sovereignty. So, you post some stuff that has little or nothing to do with popular sovereignty imagining that you have thereby ‘proved’ the term to be “nonsense”.

      This is surprising only in that the concept itself is so easy to comprehend. As the constitutional historian Leonard Levy explains it, the “doctrine” relates mainly to the source of constitutional authority and supremacy, rather than its operation. I’m not sure what is unclear about this. I certainly find nothing nonsensical in it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Alan, how is the notion of sovereignty “bullshit”, as you so eloquently put it. Whether you like it or not the world is and will for the foreseeable future remain as a collection of states/countries, large and small. When a state or country seeks to secure or protect its interests, it does so through the exercise of its sovereignty.

    Scotland.s problem lies with the fact that for 300+ years another country has assumed its sovereignty for it. Now we want it back and we’re not going away till we’ve got it back.


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