To What Extent Does The British Nation State Retain Autonomy?

Autonomy refers to the state of self-governing. Today, Britain greatly retain the state of self-governance. In the UK history of sovereignty, King Henry VIII was among the key figures who fought for autonomy (Gamble, 1990). This is due to his decision to denounce the authority of Pope and as well going ahead to establish the Church of England. This decision is the foundation for the history of sovereignty. Henry's break from Rome was very significant in that, for the first time, sovereignty was related to a population and a set territory in England (Aalberts, 2004). Moreover, the British debate to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) has been widely covered by the urge to restore the UK autonomy. The debate reveals the need of Britain to “take back control" of sovereignty from EU governments and bureaucrats. There is a demand to differentiate between the country’s de facto autonomy and de jure sovereignty- legal sovereignty (Entin et al., 2019). Britain may soon be among the first states to leave the European Union, depending on the results of a June 23 referendum. Studies suggest that almost two-thirds of the country states need some powers held by the EU to be returned to national governments. Britain is not alone in its preference for a less centralized union. Almost 42% of Europeans citizens in more than 10 states reveal that they need to reclaim some powers from Brussels. Most people, in general, disapprove of the EU's ability to handle primary issues which could be driving the UK’s desire to increased autonomy. For instance, 70% of UK citizens do not support Brussels' handling of the refugee crisis (Baldini et al., 2018). With this knowledge, the major concern remains to be the extent to which the British nation retains autonomy, especially with the current challenges. This paper critically discusses how the country remains a sovereignty.


Studies suggest that effective Britain autonomy is dependent on a more complex web of social, economic as well as cultural interactions globally compared to the UK government’s formal political power (Baldini et al., 2018). The interactions are also suggested to erode the ability of the government as well as its citizens to make independent decisions. It has for years been suggested that membership of Britain to the European Union has eroded its formal sovereignty. However, social, economic as well as cultural interrelationships globally as suggested earlier erode sovereignty (Wind, 2017). Due to cooperative relationships in the English Channel, Britain's membership to the European Union created balance rather than erosion to the state's autonomy. This is from the fact that the British cannot legitimately suggest that the EU has adopted excessive regulations since Britain's decisions were taken to consider while making the decisions. Therefore, from the fact that all decisions made and taken to consideration were part of the UK vote, shows that the state itself is ready for sovereignty and that, it can attain self-governance.

In Britain, there is parliamentary sovereignty, which suggests the legislature as the top authority source and which is tasked with making laws (Rhodes, 1997). In most countries, parliaments are constrained by the constitution to review and annul laws that seem to conflict with the constitution. Moreover, the parliament gives the powers exercised by devolved governments, ministers, local authorities and other public bodies. Besides, the UK has a parliament that passes all-new primary legislation as well as secondary legislation made by ministers. Britain's autonomy and law-making powers are based in the parliament and today, these powers are being challenged by its European Union membership (McCombie & Spreafico, 2018). This indicates that the country can make its laws to govern the state hence having a high level of autonomy. However, on the other hand, the country is constrained in its actions by the treaties and agreements which were agreed upon by joining the EU. Studies also reveal that many states have international agreements either on human rights, trade, as well as other matters. These agreements constrain governments and sometimes require some changes to the domestic law i.e. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) (McCombie & Spreafico, 2018). Besides, most EU law overrides contradicts Britain's national law hence creating a dispute which can be solved by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Though member countries can challenge these rulings, there are still more questions on the current UK autonomy level. From this claim, it can be suggested that Britain is not able to rule itself due to its attachment to the EU bloc.

Studies suggest that, the weaker the economy, the less the sovereignty (Dunleavy, 1995). An economy that is weak and failing results in the loss of autonomy power in many ways. Studies around the world suggest that, Brexit hurts Britain economically (Coyle, 2016). For instance, Brexit has been associated with the devaluation of the pound to levels lower compared to the dollar which indicates that foreign investors may exit the UK national assets. The study also suggests that, if the pound continues to devaluate, more assets especially national assets may be controlled by foreign entities (Moggridge, 2016). Besides, increased inflation in currency and unfavourable terms of "Brexit” may see the UK rely on imports from states such as Russia. Moreover, another factor that brings division and further economic depreciation is Scotland's position to remain in the EU. Therefore, in consideration of the position of Scotland and the question of the Irish border, Brexit may see the UK break. This suggests that with the current condition it can be concluded that, the UK has a low level of autonomy.

Early studies suggest that sovereignty in the UK reside in Parliament, though it belongs to the citizens (Dunleavy, 1995). Sovereignty among the people of Britain can be shown via referendums use and in other activities such as voting which allows the citizens to make informed decisions concerning the state other than letting all the power and autonomy to lie to the parliament (Blakeley & Bryson, 2002). Studies also suggest that people's sovereignty is lent to members of parliament for the duration of a Parliament term. The people then regain sovereignty at the end of each Parliamentary term. At this period of the Parliamentary term, a member of parliament should use their judgment on every issue especially which are responsible for people's development. In making laws as well as initiating expenditure, the people owe their representatives. Therefore, regardless of other control from the eternal organization and treaties, the British state still retains its autonomy which cannot be bargained. However, the fact that the UK is in the European Union and the current decision to exit the EU raises the question of who represents and rules the people of Britain.

Furthermore, in 1972, the UK passed the European Communities Act 1972 which suggested that the EU law primacy was more recognized compared to UK law (Marsh et al., 2001). In the following years, this decision continued to deepen and extend. In recent days, there is push-back by many members of the European states after years of so-called judicial activism by the European court of justice. Studies revealed that the EU legislation now exceeded UK law's power (Coyle, 2016). This power stretch created the development of sovereignty bill which is trying to advocate for restriction of the EU legal authority. Therefore, in consideration of the current debate in Brexit, the legal terms that the country singed before joining the European Union and the other factors, it can be stated that the UK has a weak autonomy and cannot govern itself based on the current uncertainty.

Based on the dualist system, public national and international laws are different systems and every system is supreme in its sphere (Holliday et al., 1999). Moreover, it influences domestic law. The European law is applicable in the UK since the parliament incorporated the law into British law through a parliamentary act (Coyle, 2016). This indicates that the European Union law status in Britain is based on the initial Act of Parliament which was the earlier mentioned- the European Communities Act 1972. The law was specifically meant to entrench and reaffirm the EU law fate which also depends on the will of the sovereign parliament. Moreover, the EU Act reveals that no government can give powers to Brussels without parliamentary consent (Coyle, 2016). Moreover, section 18 EU Act is aimed at protecting parliamentary sovereignty and not altering the existing relationship between domestic law and EU law. This suggests that the UK still has autonomy though limited by the EU laws. Therefore, generally there is little autonomy to the state.

The Monarchy is an indication of sovereignty in Britain. Based on the UK constitution, the monarchy- queen or king head the country (Ling, 1998). The Monarchy is a constitutional monarchy, indicating that, though the Sovereign is head of state, passing and making of laws is the role of the Parliament. Currently, the monarchy has no political role, however, it plays a significant role in the life of the nation (Ling, 1998). On top of the State duties, the Monarch has a less official duty as the 'Head of Nation'. The autonomy brings national unity, identity as well as pride. Moreover, it gives a sense of stability to the country. From the history of Britain, it retains a symbolic role in government and signs and approves an Act of Parliament- Royal Assent (Entin et al., 2019). Therefore, with the monarch in place, and as the head of state, the UK can be classified as a state with high autonomy.

Studies show that Britain which is commonly referred to as the United is a sovereign state located off the north-western coast of the European mainland (Rhodes, 1997). Additionally, the state has a unitary parliamentary democracy and has a capital city known as London. Before the signing of the Rome 1972 treaty, legislation that impacts Britain citizens were made by their elected MPs (Diplock et al., 2002). The fact that the country accessed to the common market transferred sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels. Initially, Britain though was signing a free trade zone to entrench the Western Europe peace which had prevailed after 1945 (Purdue et al., 2015). However, the agreement demanded more harmonization of legislations to ensure that every member country operates on the similar grounds possible. The demand to achieve the more common market, the UK gained membership of the EU which was the biggest move in the state’s history. Scholars suggest that from this move both the Parliament and Britain itself ceased to be sovereign states (O'Gorman, 2016). However, this idea has remained to be a matter of debate. However, people who vividly supports the EU seem to play down its influence on the UK people’s lives.

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To conclude, membership of Britain into the European Union and other various reasons makes the state membership problematic. The main issue in membership is the urge to preserve 'sovereignty’. Britain has shown great ingenuity in creating various control mechanisms and methods to preserve sovereignty while still cooperating with Europe at large. However, with the outcome of several referendums, the terms between Britain and the EU seem very challenging and uncertain. Moreover, one cannot deny the fact that with a widening gap between the de facto supremacy of European Union law in the UK and the de jure sovereignty of Parliament, there might be a more radical phase adopted by Britain to opt-out of the European Union. Although the country tries to protect itself from external powers, it is also critical to note that, the most challenging issue to parliamentary autonomy usually comes from within the state where referendum is organised from within as well as from the British courts system, which inter alia, and have the duty to give impacts which are directly applicable European Union law as well as the interpretation of the domestic law simultaneously with EU legislations. Therefore, it is from this fact that the country's current sovereignty situation is a rather unsatisfactory one. This is also evident from the fact that the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, argued that Brexit is aimed at restoring Britain's position as an ‘autonomy country'. This indicates that, without Brexit success, the UK is not a fully sovereign state. However, the move beyond Brexit may also bring some unsettled realisation of Britain's sovereignty. It is, therefore, concluded that, regardless of the sovereignty level in Britain, the state is to the larger extent not sovereign due to the EU membership and other factors that limit its sovereignty, as discussed in this essay.


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