What can we call sovereign now?

This week John Key’s flag write-in referendum starts. Polls are two-to-one against. But Super-Richie is in favour, which might count for something. He is officially a national treasure, an ONZ, one of 28, including quintessential New Zealander Prince Philip.

The flag is a national emblem. That Key wears his minority alternative on his lapel says he is not a stickler for protocol — which is a plus in his lengthening marriage (the honeymoon is long over) with a majority of Kiwis.

The present flag, with its anachronistic Union Jack, is a government redesign in 1908 of one Parliament authorised in 1902. Nevertheless, the real Union Jack still often flew for decades. Prime Minister Sid Holland enthused in 1950 about “our dear old empire”.

Key at least isn’t ramming his fern through Parliament, as he did with asset sales, which closely similar percentages opposed but for which he claimed a mandate by having won the previous election.

Unlike in the asset sales case, Key is binding himself to the flag referendum outcome — just as well, because significant numbers in his party don’t want change or don’t want it done by his process, which included internet crowd-ticking.

A parallel use of this new-technology mass democracy was the crowd-funding that secured Awaroa beach in sovereign ownership.

This was one of our periodic environmental surges. A National cabinet backed off wrecking Lake Manapouri 45 years ago after a huge public campaign including many of its own conservatives (conservationists).

In 2010 Gerry Brownlee ran aground on a similar surge with his plan to open up conservation areas to mining. Maggie Barry was quicker to catch the surge and back the Awaroa crowd-funders.

Barry is a member of the party’s by-far strongest policy advisory group, the Bluegreens, set up in 1998. Thirty-eight MPs thought it politic to join in a Bluegreen photograph with Key and Bill English last year. Eleven MPs journeyed to Tekapo for the annual forum on February 20, where Barry declared war on wilding pines and Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett conceded the carbon price would have to rise.

The Bluegreens are persistently ahead of the cabinet, most of which still sees economic and environmental policies as tradeoffs — an “or” not an “and”.

But how far can such an “and” be applied in a highly globalised world which punishes producers whose costs are out of global line?

Or, to take another case, can this country apply economy-wide the (voluntary) “living wage” — raised yesterday to $19.80 an hour and with 47 accredited employers, including even a cleaning firm?

Just how sovereign can this country still be?

This is a matter for big countries, too.

Trumpism in the United States plays on sovereignty issues: imports from China, immigrants from Mexico.

London Mayor Boris Johnson among many Tories wants to claim back Britain’s sovereignty in the June “Brexit” referendum on whether to leave the European Union (EU).

He brushes aside the fact that a “sovereign” Britain would need to negotiate a mind-boggling suite of arrangements with the EU, as outsider Switzerland has. Britain depends far more on Europe’s markets than Europe does on Britain’s. And any hoped-for offset deal with the United States would, as in all such deals, require some sovereignty to be traded off.

But how low might sovereignty reach? Scotland might well demand to leave a Brexited Britain but stay in the EU because it would gain more from access to Europe than to England.

And, if a “sovereign” Scotland, why not Cornwall or Yorkshire (or Penzance or Ilkley)? What is sacrosanct about Westminster as the locus of sovereignty,?

Cross the Atlantic. Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett recently wrote that the United States’ broken federal politics masks a lot of positive state-level initiatives.

James and Deborah Fallows write in this month’s Atlantic Monthly of finding multitudinous new ideas and experiments in smaller cities and towns.

One big positive was libraries, now “bustling civic centres”, with technological “makerspaces” and educational and community activities. Early in the Key government’s life (it has since thought better of it) it thought libraries were a dying “nice-to-have”, too costly on rates.

The Fallows found myriad startup firms. They found diverse arts activities. Both deliver economic and social benefits.

Across this country enterprising new firms can be found. And small-city Wellington (dying, Key said) this month has its thirtieth-birthday arts festival featuring global and local acts. Wanaka hosts an Anzac weekend of arts and writers, one among many smaller places doing these sorts of things.

This localness can take many forms. One was the revolt last week against Auckland’s housing density plans.

Sideline events? Or a new democracy?

The big sovereignty debate is around losing it outwards to global forces. But might a local sovereignty also be starting to be rebuilt? Might there in time be localism alongside globalism?