Sovereignties of Birmingham
By Dr George Kyris, lecturer in International and European Politics
In this post, George Kyris discusses the role sovereignty has played from the time of King Henry VIII until today’s Brexit Britain. This topic makes up the Being Human event ‘Sovereignties of Birmingham’ which fundamentally asks who is sovereign, the people or the parliament?
This autumn, the world stood in awe watching Kurds and Catalans voting to establish new, sovereign states. As the conflict in Iraq flares up again and as Catalonia poses a new challenge to Spain and Europe, sovereignty strikes back as a popular idea. In the UK, as Brexit is unravelling, sovereignty was one of the most googled words during the past year. Yet, what sovereignty really is remains a mystery. Is it taking back control? Is it legitimacy? How does it shape our local and national history, past, present and future and Birmingham in particular? Join ‘Sovereignties of Birmingham‘ to learn about and explore this topical idea. The talk will explore how sovereignty is continuously ‘lost and found’ throughout the ages, especially in relation to how places in Birmingham might relate to the history of sovereignty.
In 2014, the Royal status of Sutton Coldfield was symbolically recognised after a long campaign of local politicians, media and residents. This status was initially given to the town by King Henry VIII, who also donated his hunting grounds, which today is a beautiful park in Birmingham. Yet, in the history of sovereignty, King Henry VIII is mostly remembered for his decision to denounce the Pope’s authority and establish the Church of England in 1534. The trigger for this was the wish of the King to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. While, notoriously, the King went on to have four more wives, his decision is a focal moment in the history of sovereignty. Sovereignty now meant control of the King rather than the pope over a range of matters in this country.
A few more centuries down the line, a Birmingham politician would play an important role in the expansion of British sovereignty throughout the world. Joseph Chamberlain was a Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1895 and 1903. But while the British Empire extended Britain’s sovereignty around the globe, an array of developments in the first half of the 20th century led to a wave of anticolonial movements and by the sixties most British colonies enjoyed a newfound sovereignty as independent states. Today, one of the most iconic landmarks of Birmingham’s skyline is named after Chamberlain: the clock tower, also known as ‘Old Joe’, at the Edgbaston Campus of the University of Birmingham, which Chamberlain helped found in 1900.
It was under this tower that then Prime Minister David Cameron along with other politicians held their last rally advocating for Britain to remain in the European Union, one day before 52% of the public voted to leave the EU on the 23rd June 2016. A few months later, Theresa May gave her famous ‘Brexit’ speech, at the Conservative Party Conference, in the International Convention Centre, at Birmingham City Centre. Amidst pro-EU protests outside, May vowed that Brexit would allow the country to do ‘what independent, sovereign countries do… decide for ourselves how we control immigration. And… be free to pass our own laws’. As a modern Henry VIII, May understood sovereignty as control and sought to bring it back from Brussels to the UK.
Yet, as Britain embarks on this journey to find a new place in the world, the country seems more confused, if not divided, than ever on the issue. This, for example, became all too obvious in the controversial court case of R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, which had one simple yet complex question at its heart: can the government act on the result of the 2016 referendum without consulting the Commons? In other words, who is sovereign, the people or the parliament? Join us at ‘Sovereignties of Birmingham‘ to discuss what sovereignty really is and explore how it continues to shape our lives and communities.