Passing Bull 231 – Tripe about sovereignty


And faced with the prospect of a deal on World Trade Organization terms that would mean a sharp rise in tariffs and border disruption, the EU hopes Mr Johnson and Mr Gove will eventually blink.

But this runs entirely counter to the hardening of the language from Mr Johnson’s government, which has placed sovereignty above the interests of business.

Financial Times, 3 March, 2020

When England broke with Rome and achieved a Home Rule for its church, you could have had a meaningful chat about sovereignty.  The pope could no longer law lawfully seek to assert authority over a subject of King Henry VIII.  The English, for better or worse, applied that maxim in the New Testament that a man cannot have two masters.

You see how large this shift was when you recall that after the English struck their deal with their king in Magna Carta, the pope purported to annul what the English came to call their first statute.  John, who was a rat, had purported to turn England into a vassal state of the Vatican.  That shows how large the notion of sovereignty loomed in the Middle Ages.  But is it anything other than grandstanding waffle to talk about a loss of sovereignty when talking about the obligations a nation assumes when it enters into binding treaties about trade or the environment?  Every time I enter into a binding contract, I limit my freedom in some way – but it would be silly to suggest that it follows that I have therefore undergone a change of status.

I remarked elsewhere:

When the French herald, Montjoy, came to deliver the message of his king to King Henry V of England before the battle of Agincourt, he said that the French could have dealt with Harry at Harfleur, but that ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial: England shall repent his folly.’ (In those days, it seems, kings used to address each other by the name of their kingdom – a little bit of mutual vanity in the union of royals.)  A little later that night, Harry moved among the sad and depleted English troops in disguise – ‘a little touch of Harry in the night,’ comments the playwright.  ‘What are you?’ the king asks.  Pistol – a swaggering drunk – replies ‘As good a gentleman as the emperor’.  This leads the king to say: ‘Then you are better than the king.’

So, if Shakespeare knew the English language – and there are problems in asserting the negative – an emperor was above a king.  This might upset an English king, who might then be moved to assert a supremacy, and one of a distinctly imperial hue.  The notion would sorely upset one English king who was a defender of the faith, the eighth of the name, Harry.  The result would be what we call the English Reformation. 

Before we come to that, we need to understand the means by which Harry and England sought to assert the sovereignty of the English nation, but can we make one thing clear at the outset?  The Reformation had little to do with religion, even less to do with God, and nothing at all to do with the Sermon on the Mount, or any other teaching of the tearaway friend of the meek who had started out from a Jewish carpentry shop.  It was a brawl – a nasty brawl – between State and Church, and little else besides.  It was about power and jurisdiction, not doctrine or faith.

When Henry IV, dies, Prince Hal, before he is crowned King Henry V, seeks to reassure some very nervy subjects, including the Chief Justice who had brought the law down weightily on the prince.  He said ‘This is the English, not the Turkish, court.’  Later he said:

Now call we our high court of parliament

And let us choose such limb of noble counsel

That the great body of our state may go

In equal rank with the best governed nation.

Shakespeare was reminding his audience that an English king was under the law, and that when he wanted to move strongly, he would call together a body that he called ‘our high court of parliament’.  Having done that, the government of England would have no superior in the world – in truth, a large part of the audience probably thought that the ‘Turks’ started at Calais.

If ‘sovereignty’ says anything, it says something about supremacy.  The English Crown in Parliament was supreme before the English subscribed to the Treaty of Rome and the like and it was supreme after that.  Invocations of sovereignty in this context better resemble a footy club war cry or the haka than a political or constitutional argument.

If you want to flirt with terms like that, you might descend into the error of the French in 1793 who put parts of their ideological dreamtime into words in their Constitution – ‘Sovereignty resides in the people: it is one and indivisible, imprescriptible and inalienable…..Any individual who usurps the sovereignty may at once be put to death.’  You might as well try to legislate for the Trinity or Real Presence – but it was a bit rich for people to lay down the death sentence for usurping sovereignty when they had to come to power by doing just that.  The Bastille stood for everything rotten in sovereignty in France when it fell.

And did they really want the gillets jaunes?


The text says that any trade deal must contain “robust” policy commitments “to ensure a level playing field”. The UK insists that the EU’s interpretation of this idea, which includes keeping Britain within the EU’s state-aid regime and limiting divergence in key policy areas, amounts to vassalage.

Financial Times, 28 February, 2020.

The reference to ‘vassalage’ is just lazy labelling at the other end.

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