Parliamentary Sovereignty

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The following  is largely reproduced from a submission to the Commons Select Committee for Political and Constitutional Reform for their ‘New Magna Carta’ consultation.

As a central tenet of the constitution, the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty needs to rest on solid foundations. In its current form, however, it has become detached from the circumstances which gave rise to it and now violates the principles which once gave it strength.

The doctrine developed at a time when Parliament consisted of three independently powerful bodies – Crown, Lords and Commons. Two of those bodies, however, have since had their power vastly eroded, with the result that the checks and balances which were inherent in Parliament have been significantly weakened. The strength of the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty came from a pragmatic recognition of where power lies, and the system’s stability lay, historically, in its inclusion of all significant vectors of power.

In the modern world, power is rooted in the electoral process so behind today’s doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty lies a tacit recognition of the sovereignty of the people. As the only body within Parliament in possession of a democratic mandate, the House of Commons has become overwhelmingly dominant. But Parliament’s legitimacy is undermined by the presence within it of bodies which have no democratic mandate – the Crown and the House of Lords.

However, there are bodies outside Parliament which have their own democratic mandate but which are excluded from legislative authority. These bodies – democratically elected local councils – are therefore in a position to challenge the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty in the courts.

Is there any reason why votes cast at a local level should be regarded as conferring any less of a mandate than votes cast at national level? Surely, it is at the very local level that we have the best opportunity to judge our representatives, and that they have the best opportunity to understand what we want from them, and it is at the very local level that most of the omissions and failings of government make themselves felt.

Nor is there any support in history for the dominance of national representatives. The Lords were originally local rulers, which meant that, during the period when the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty evolved, the interests of local authority were represented in the legislative process.

The exclusion of local authorities from the legislature did not happen by design – it was simply a by-product of other changes – and it has left a powerful constituency unrepresented within Parliament. This is clearly a potential source of conflict.

In our page on Local Autonomy, we outline a proposal  which would make the House of Lords once more the representatives of local government in the legislature. This would reduce the likelihood of conflict between local and national government and it would also enhance the legitimacy of the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty. We also propose a stricter separation between Parliament and the Executive and we discuss the possibility of more radical reform of Parliament in our page on Polarised Representation.



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