Parliamentary Sovereignty, Put Simply

With the Supreme Court ruling that the executive (the government) does not have the power to invoke Article 50 without the consent of the legislature (Parliament), there has been a lot of talk about ‘Parliamentary Sovereignty’. But what is this abstract principle, and does it exist today?

What does it actually mean?

Well, Parliament’s website tells us that “Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution. It makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law.”

So, whilst the UK does not have a written constitution (learn more about the constitution, here), Parliamentary Sovereignty is often considered to be the key feature of our uncodified constitution. This means that Parliament is, or should be, the most powerful institution in the land.

Why is this important?

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that for Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to be triggered by the government, an Act of Parliament must be passed to grant this power. Article 50 is the part of the Lisbon Treaty that sets out the procedure for any member state to leave the European Union. It states that ‘in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’, the member state should serve a notice of that intention and that the treaties which govern the EU “shall cease to apply” to that member state within two years thereafter.

This ruling has reaffirmed the status of parliamentary sovereignty, stating that “an Act of Parliament is required to authorise ministers to give Notice of the decision of the UK to withdraw from the European Union”. This denial of the use of the government’s prerogative powers (powers granted by the Crown to the Executive, that do not require parliamentary approval) has strengthened the position of Parliament, as the body of representatives in the United Kingdom.

Does the UK’s EU membership infringe on Parliamentary sovereignty?

There are plenty of arguments for and against the idea that the EU infringes on parliamentary sovereignty, many of which were thrown around during the referendum debate. Some argue that the European Communities Act (1972), the piece of legislation that allowed us to join the EU, and which gave EU laws superiority, damaged the principle of parliamentary sovereignty as it limited Parliament’s power to make or amend any law. For example, EU Regulations have a direct and immediate effect within the Member States, as soon as they’re adopted.

However, some have argued that there is a clear distinction between the pragmatic meaning of sovereignty and the symbols of sovereignty. Modern sovereignty, as described by David Cameron, “really means: are you able to get things done? Are you able to change things, to fix things?”. Some suggest that the EU has only enhanced this ability in an increasingly transnational society.

For more on these two debates, try these articles:

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