Sovereignty is not bullshit

Written in response to an article on the Grumpy Scottish Man blogsite ─ Sovereignty – equals bullshit when it comes to colonized Scotland.

Due to historical factors, the term ‘popular sovereignty’ is most commonly described in the context of the US Constitution (see linked article). But the princple is universal. That principle is essential to democracy. Democracy starts from the understanding that each individual is sovereign. Each person is the absolute ruler of their own self. The practicalities of living in human society, however, make the full and unexceptional exercise of this personal sovereignty effectively impossible – no man is an island. Aspects of exercising personal sovereignty must be subordinated to the functioning of the community – government. It is the manner in which the exercise of personal sovereignty is constrained for the purpose of maintaining a large, complex and generally beneficial community that determines whether that community is democratic or otherwise.

Democracy is pooled sovereignty. It is the choice of individuals to link their own sovereignty to that of the other members of a community in order to make the community work. In a democratic society each individual remains totally sovereign even though a large part of the effectiveness of their sovereignty is combined with that of others so as to get stuff done that needs to be done. Maybe we could all manage our healthcare, education and other services as individuals retaining full exercise of their sovereignty. But would we want to? Would it be efficient? Generally, we are content to exercise our sovereignty only through participation in the democratic process. Which for some (most?) people involves no more than voting once in a while, but for others it will be a fuller exercise of sovereignty through active membership of a political party or some form of political activism.

The point here is that a person’s sovereignty cannot be taken from them. It is inalienable. It is part of what makes them a person. What can be taken from a person is their ability to exercise their sovereignty ─ basically, make choices. In some societies, the ability to exercise personal sovereignty is stripped away as completely as it might be using overtly coercive methods. We call this dictatorship or totalitarianism or some similar term all of which can be described as undemocratic or anti-democratic.

But the capacity to exercise personal sovereignty can also be constrained by persuasive rather than coercive methods. In fact, it is usually the case that in undemocratic countries a combination of force and disinformation is used to limit the ability of individuals to exercise their sovereignty. In all societies there is a degree of coercion and manipulation alongside the subordination of personal sovereignty by choice (mediated by practical necessity). Democracy may be said to exist where the elements of coercion and manipulation are kept to a minimum. There is no perfect democracy. It’s only as good as we make it.

Popular sovereignty is “the idea that the government is created by, and gains its power from, its people, and that it must operate in conformity to the will of the people”. ( In pooling our personal sovereignty we create government and in exercising our personal sovereignty in the ways that the pooling arrangement permits we ensure that the government operates according to our collective will.

I would define popular sovereignty as the principle that the people are the ultimate source of all legitimate political authority. This sovereignty is inalienable. It cannot be otherwise being the aggregate of inalienable individual sovereignty. The sovereignty remains even where the full and proper exercise of that sovereignty is constrained by some device. For the purpose of discussion of Scotland’s constitutional issue, that device is the Union ─ both as an instrument in itself and in terms of all that stems from this instrument. The Union does not and cannot deprive us of our sovereignty. It can only limit what we do with our sovereignty. In order to regain the full and proper exercise of our sovereignty we must end the Union. Which may also be stated as restoring our independence.

Sovereignty is not bullshit. It is a concept which can be differently understood according to context. But it is always fundamental to democracy and therefore crucial to Scotland’s cause.

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2 thoughts on “Sovereignty is not bullshit

  1. Peter

    Thank you for your views on sovereignty. Please don’t think I was having a go at you personally as that was not the case, I was having a go at the word. I understand the various connotations of the word sovereignty, its contexts, and its use. It is the overuse of the word within the Yes movement, and from too many politicians, that grates on me. You hit the nail on the head for me when you said

    Popular sovereignty is “the idea that the government is created by, and gains its power from, its people and that it must operate in conformity to the will of the people”.

    We sadly don’t have politicians who carry out the will of the people. They use words that dangle the carrots with little or no action behind them, or any, more to the point. Maybe I am getting old and even more grumpy, certainly at the lack of action on the part of our politicians as our political vehicle to change our current, in my mind, colonial situation in all but name. That is where my frustration comes from, maybe not rational, maybe not even making sense to some or many, maybe even out of context with the words used but it is how I feel right now with the wider debate but again thank you for your thoughts and excellent articles.

    Liked by 4 people

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