In the 21st century it is perhaps naive to expect politicians to avoid myth and illusion, yet the campaign for Brexit and commentary after its conclusion and results can be characterized as such. Claims of historical precedent and constitutional basis have tumbled together with a mix of sheer ideological cant to produce the confusion we see in the media. The situation is certainly a crisis, with officials in Northern Ireland and Scotland calling for their own exit from the UK. British citizens are looking to accomplish their own individual exit by gaining Irish passports (Vincent Boland, "British citizen swamp Ireland with passport applications, Financial Times 28 June, 2016). There are calls for new referendum and their are constitutional questions, especially regarding sending the results to parliament and whether it is a binding referendum or if the devolved government can block it. But their this calls into question what is the nature of sovereignty in the UK? Since there is no formal constitution, it appears there is a de facto process that has evolved and places sovereignty in the hands of Parliament. Do the people of the UK not understand their history or are they such strangers to their government that they cannot perceive the nature of it? Most arguments in the FT over the past months of the campaign over Brexit, and the last few days since the vote, have focused on money, on the costs of Brexit, but the essential and most important issue is sovereignty. A book by Richard Tuck (The Sleeping Sovereign, 2016) and the review of it by Paul Sagar (TLS, "Of the People, for the People") address examples of this problem on a larger scale for Anglo-Americans. Dr. Tuck sets up a dichotomy between the myth of democracyof ancient Athens and the illusion of the effects ofthe Girondin during the French Revolution. He also relies on the metaphysics of Hobbes who invoked a Gnostic-like view of the sleeping sovereign. Rather, we can look to Polybius whose examination of Roman and Greek government and history produced a useful model for the transitions of human society (given Western cultural foundations) from democracy, aristocracy and tyranny. Giambattista Vico built on this model adding an examination of institutions and their elements in the process of government and corruption modifying Cicero's views, while Douglas North and Amitai Etzioni recently have spend substantial energy studying the role of rules. The first problem is typical of European historians who saw in the Athenians their image. This was to be expected as the Athenians hadslaves, created and empire and refused participationin law and government to women. So any question of democracy has to begin withassumptions of who this democracy is for. The same problem plagued the partisans of revolution in America, there was seldom presented any ideaof freedom or democracy for African slaves in thenation and the country's institutions were framed toignore or prevent that participation. The same canbe said for the role of women.
Often discussions of Athenian government are contrasted with ideas of Spartan life, but its history was written (with few exceptions, as that of Xenophon) by her enemies. Like Athens she had a representative government, the Ephors represented the mass of the people, elected "kings"and the various classes fought together, even the supposed state slaves, the Helots, who Toynbee questioned being slaves at all. But European historians have generally seen Athens as the perfect representation of the combination of capitalism and empire, yet her greed and brutality was factors in her defeat at the hands of "communistic" Sparta. Yet how does this inform us of the nature of sovereignty in the UK? There is a considerable debate on this issue, for example, while there is no British constitution, or one that was voted on ever in the UK, there are scholars who argue that one has been given assent by indirect means. See: Turpin, Colin; Tomkins, Adam (2007). British government and the constitution: text and materials.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The nature of the initiative and referendum is idealized by both Sagar and Tuck, it is remarkable that both seem to forget that the U.S. Constitution was ratified by a vote and that many people, including Franklin were opposed to the way it was undertaken. Charles Beard estimated (in his 1913 book) that less that 5% of the American population was involved in the poll. The time allowed for farmers to reach polling places and to qualify to vote limited participation. Slaves could not vote nor women and there were states limitation on voting rights, some based on property or wealth. All 13 states ratified by election by 1790. Again the question is who is the process designed to engaged in democratic institutions? Certainly the American framers of the Constitution were affected by events in France during the French Revolution, and efforts were made to fashion American institutions so that it would be more stable. Yet, stable for whose benefit? Yet the Girondin had little effect in this, or in latter efforts to create democratic states, the authors of the revolutions of 1848 as Patricia Robertson has noted in her comprehensive book, were more influential in this development. But for the UK, the confrontation at Runnymede that created the Magna Carta was led by a group of rebel barons and was to be governed by a council of them, not for all people in the British Isles. It was annulled by Pope Innocent III and led to the First Baron's War and to a final confrontation that produced a stripped down version by King Henry III. Later it was established by treaty at Lambeth in 1217. But as time went on confrontations and violations continued until the Civil War when the victorious Parliament seized power by force of arms. Does that power define sovereignty in the UK today? If so, then the referendum is only an exercise in advice and not one of determination. California has had a referendum and initiative process since the Progressive era and yet today it is largely dominated by big business to subvert legislation passed by the representatives of the people. Therefore, the question facing the UK today is not Brexit, but the nature of government. Can sovereignty be exercised by the people directly, and thus as Tuck argues, is the UK governed by the people, is it a democracy or is it a representative government?