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Implementing the will of the people: sovereignty and policy conflicts in the aftermath of the UK’s referendum on EU membership

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Comparative European Politics Aims and scope


Deep constitutional, political and social conflicts have marked the aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Sovereignty has been one of the sites of these conflicts. British Euroscepticism has traditionally mobilized national sovereignty against the EU’s supranational institutions. Since the referendum, the focus has shifted to the meanings and practices of sovereignty within the UK. In this paper, we find that the conflicts of sovereignty provoked by Brexit have primarily been at the institutional level, in the relations between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Surprisingly, there has been little conflict around the abstract normative ideal of sovereignty as government by consent of the governed (“popular sovereignty”). Brexit was a source of conflict as much because of the content of the decision to leave the EU as it was due to disagreement about who rules. This discussion of the British case is a useful starting point for the comparative study of sovereignty conflicts in Europe, where institutional conflicts may be accompanied by substantive disagreements about “who rules?” This paper recommends that we carefully delineate conflicts of sovereignty from other sorts of conflicts connected to specific policy choices or outcomes.

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  1. Interview with a British MP, 9th April 2021.

  2. For an articulation of the view of the protesters, see Whelan (2016).

  3. Interview with a British MP, April, 2021.

  4. The exception to this are the conflicts between the central government and the devolved administrations, particularly the tension between London and Edinburgh. At one level, these tensions can be thought of as struggles over the very definition of the people. At another level, they are manifestation of the institutional conflicts generated by the clash between the Brexit vote and the devolved structure of the United Kingdom.

  5. Lord Saatchi, House of Lords Debate on Brexit 2019–10-02/799cc1678-1772.

  6. For a brief historical treatment, see Hinsley (1966). For a detailed treatment of the distinction between sovereignty and government, which has some parallels to the distinction here between normative ideal and institutional relations, see Tuck (2015). On the concept of sovereignty from a public law perspective, which again overlaps with the distinctions made here, see Loughlin (2003), ch.5.

  7. A point that was emphasized at the time of the restoration in 1660. As Christopher Hill put it, the Restoration was “a restoration of the united class whom Parliament represented, even more than of the King”. That class was, in the words on one member of the restored Parliament, “the greatest and the learnedest and wealthiest and wisest parsons that can be chosen out of the nation”. Cited in Hill (1961), 222.

  8. We would like to thank the reviewer for his comments on this aspect of parliamentary sovereignty in the UK.

  9. As the Supreme Court put it in its January 2017 judgement, the case was concerned with “the steps which are required as a matter of UK domestic law before the process of leaving the European Union can be initiated. The particular issue is whether a formal notice of withdrawal can lawfully be given by ministers without prior legislation passed by both Houses of Parliament and assented to by HM the Queen”. Para 2, SC judgement, 24th Jan 2017, p. 4.

  10. The immediate aftermath of the referendum in June 2016 had been the mass resignation of over 20 front bench members of the Labour shadow cabinet. This attempt to end Corbyn’s time as Labour leader was unsuccessful; he was re-elected leader in September 2016, by a greater proportion of the vote from the party rank and file than in his surprise victory of 2015.

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  17. House of Lords Debate on the European Union (Withdrawall Bill n°6 (2019–09-05/cc1148).

  18. House of Lords debate on European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (2018–01-31/788 cc1531-1584).

  19. House of Lords debate on European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (continued) (2018–01-30/788 cc1422-1530).

  20. Interview with a British Peer, 4/5/21.

  21. Interview with Martin Vickers, 7/4/21.

  22. Interview with a British Peer, 4/5/21.

  23. On the second referendum and its likelihood for MPs, see also the report Brexit votes explain by Caird, J., Wager, A., Bevington, M. (2019),

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  26. Interview with Lord Wallace of Saltaire, 21/4/21.

  27. House of Commons debate on European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (2018–01-16/634 cc729-841).

  28. House of Commons debate, Parliamentary Scrutiny of Leaving the EU Volume 615: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2016.

  29. House of Commons debate on Early Parliamentary General Election 2019–10-28 / 667 cc935-1016.


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Bickerton, C., Brack, N. Implementing the will of the people: sovereignty and policy conflicts in the aftermath of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Comp Eur Polit 20, 295–313 (2022).

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