I will try to look at sovereignty in this post, and it will be part of a series - the contents page is here.
What is sovereignty?
Or what do we mean by sovereignty? If we take sovereignty to mean the ability to decide matters within a territory without the input of other extra-territorial actors, then we immediately face questions about who exercises sovereignty, and what are the limits of sovereignty in practise? And where does sovereignty come from?
Who exercises sovereignty?
This is usually a question that is settled within the territory by a constitution - the most popularly held theory in the west is that sovereignty, or the decision-making power, needs to be spread or divided between several state institutions. The idea behind this is that if sovereignty is concentrated in a single person or institution, there would be no effective check on the possibility of tyranny. Therefore the executive, legislative and judicial functions of the state are usually divided between different institutions, though in practise it's never achieved exactly as is may be conceived in pure theory.
(Questions of effectiveness also impact on how far sovereign power should be divided: if the legislature cannot influence the executive, and the executive cannot introduce/initiate legislation, then how far is effective (and democratically responsive) governance affected?)
In some cases sovereignty may not be as divided or constrained as this: the UK's unwritten constitution is a good example of this, with sovereignty vested solely in parliament. Such constitutions are more political (they give the most power to (hopefully elected) politicians) than the codified constitutions that are more familiar nowadays - codified constitutions usually allow the judicial branch to trump the legislative and executive branches since the courts can decide whether or not they have acted/are acting constitutionally.
Who is sovereign?
Or where does sovereignty come from? The two commonly referred to models are those of popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty. Parliamentary sovereignty is where the parliament is sovereign, perhaps in the style of the UK constitution, though in theory this could derive from the idea that the people are sovereign and the parliament, as the representative of the people, should thus be sovereign constitutionally. In the UK, parliamentary sovereignty derives from an older form of sovereignty: the monarch was previously sovereign (somewhat in the style of absolute monarchs) and over time and through conflict this sovereignty was "stolen" by the parliament. Under UK constitutional theory, and in some other similar constitutional systems, the people are not sovereign.
Popular sovereignty is where the people are considered sovereign: e.g. the Irish constitutional system. In practise, of course, this doesn't usually translate into much more than a more direct say on constitutional issues, but it is perhaps a more modern way of looking at the issue. However, it does raise an interesting theoretical issue: whereas in structures where sovereignty is vested and sourced from the top, the state is defined by itself - its own power - and is self legitimising ("It controls, therefore it is"), states based on popular sovereignty could be said to conditional - power is (in theory) delegated to the organs of the state because they can effectively enforce, through good governance, the will of the people.
When the question turns from the fixed idea of sovereignty as solely a fixed territorial notion to the effective translation of the individual or the community into practical governance (for how else in our modern world can we justify the imposition of political power by the state on the individual?), then the question becomes: does the current state, in its current form, have the ability to deal effectively with the issues affecting the area it governs (or, more importantly, the individuals its governs)?
By fixing sovereignty at the individual level, the resulting thinking could take some very overtly federalist tones: which powers, and at what level, should be pooled by each of us to ensure the best environment for the expression of both individual and collective wills in an effective manner, and in a manner which minimises the conflict between them?
Constitutional questions thus remain forever open, and assertions of traditional fixed forms of states loose their value as arguments in themselves. At the same time, this thinking contains by its very nature the individualism of strands of western political thought: by viewing sovereignty as an individual quality, protection of the individual should remain central to the states resulting from it.
This does have the effect of changing and blurring the original definition: sovereignty becomes less an absolute concept, and one of relativity and power-balancing and effectiveness. It also becomes blurred on the territorial front: the state doesn't become more mobile - it still needs to be fixed to a defined territory - but its sovereignty/power derives less from the land it controls, but from the individuals who happen to live there (it's not because the state controls the area that it can control the individuals to an extent; it's because the individuals in a certain area require a way of effectively administering to the shared needs across a certain area).
Sovereignty becomes less of a value in and of itself, but a question posed of how we balance the values we hold and how we handle the power distribution which affects those values in practise.
In my next post in this series, I'll look at the nation-state, sovereignty, and the EU.