To what extent has the location of sovereignty in the UK changed in recent years? Sovereignty is in essence ultimate and unchallengeable power, in the UK sovereignty in theory lies within parliament, A.V. Dicey said that ‘no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament’. Sovereignty was placed formally to parliament after the Bill of Rights act in 1688 when the monarch’s powers were removed. Ultimate power lies in parliament due to the fact that the electorate vote for the members of parliament in free, fair and regular elections. Two types of sovereignty exist, legal and political. Legal sovereignty is the principle that one body has the authority and right to change any law in anyway it wants to, legal sovereignty in the UK has been said to lie in Westminster Parliament. Political sovereignty is where power effectively and actively is used and implemented, in other words who holds political power and who has can influence it. For example, political sovereignty lies with the electorate at election time, but at other times lies with parliament when debating legislation and constitutional statues.
One factor which can be argued to of had the biggest effect in terms of changing where parliamentary sovereignty resides in recent years is the EU. The UK initially joined the EC in 1973 since then the EC has become the EU and has also become increasingly more powerful over the UK as time has passed, the EU could even be argued to be supreme over UK statues and the UK parliament. This is shown in the factortame case in which EU law took precedent over UK wishes, allowing Spanish fishing boats to fish in UK waters, this was the first time UK law was scrutinized and removed by courts due to EU law contradicting these laws. Furthermore, being part of the EU ultimately is a way of binding the UK governments successors partly due to the fact that if the UK left the EU there could be major economic issues to follow as a large percentage of the UK’s trading takes place with European countries and secondly the UK would isolate itself from the rest of world leaving it possibly vulnerable.
Due to the fact that all successors of parliament are now in theory bound to the EU, the location of sovereignty could be argued very reasonably as shifting to the EU, this makes the EU a direct threat to the UK’s parliamentary sovereignty. However the UK being part of the EU could be argued to increase the UK’s global influence and power as it is a international organisation which brings together many powerful sources of power from the world in effect creates a new source of ‘pooled’ sovereignty, this could be argued to have in fact very positive results for all members of the EU. Furthermore, if parliament does feel as if its sovereignty is being challenged and a government comes into power which disagrees with this, parliament still fundamentally has the right and power to withdraw from the EU at whatever time it wishes. Heywood argues that Parliament simply tolerates EU law and so still retains its own sovereignty efficiently. Finally the UK even has the right to veto certain legislation the which the UK does not want put into place within the UK, allowing another way for the UK to resist changes the EU may be trying to place in Britain.
A secondary way in which parliamentary sovereignty in the UK can be seen to be moving is though the introduction of devolution which is challenging the UK parliament’s sovereignty. The UK is a unitary state, so only one body can in theory can make, unmake and amend laws, and these laws will apply everywhere throughout the state. In a unitary state, powers can be devolved to regions to grant certain powers and responsibility to areas. However since 1997, devolution in the UK has become a more permanent feature by giving significantly large powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These new devolved powers have control over some areas of policymaking in which they have almost ultimate legislative influence and power, for example education and health. Scotland now has legislative authority over itself on all issues which are not reserved by parliament. Due to this shift in location of sovereignty it could be stated that the UK is now a quasi-federal state due to the fact that devolved powers do have some significant authority, but do not have totally equal power to Westminster parliament, due to the existence of reserved powers of parliament.
Furthermore devolved powers can be overruled and devolved states can be totally removed and returned to being under control of UK parliament, in a unitary state setting as the UK traditionally worked. for example the Northern Ireland Assembly has had its powers revoked four times, the most recent of these took place over 14th October 2002 to 7th May 2007. The power to revoke devolved state powers belongs to parliament. However the overruling of a devolved state presently however seems very unlikely; my reasoning for this point is the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, Scotland will have the chance to decide for itself its own future in an unbiased vote. Many MP’s do not agree that Scotland should gain total independence yet the referendum is still taking place, showing the reluctance of parliament to contradict devolved states.
Further ways in which it could be argued parliamentary sovereignty has changed within recent years is due to a rise of pressure groups. Strong pressure groups can challenge the authority of Parliament as they can influence the government, the biggest pressure group; RSPB has more members than any political party in the UK meaning its potential influence in comparison to parties is huge. A key of example of when pressure groups influence was recognised within the UK was during Margret Thatcher’s time in power in the ‘winter of discontent’ and miner strikes which took place, these showed how many people could support and rebel in the name of a pressure group. Margret Thatcher saw this as a violation of parliamentary sovereignty as the electorate were rebelling against those they voted into power. Pressure groups have also successfully pushed issues the public wanted parliament aware of on to the political agenda and gained access into influencing a multiplicity of times, such as how the BMA is an insider pressure group which has direct influence over medical policy, and secondly how the snowdrop campaign brought an awareness to the single issue of gun violence and get the legislation put in place in favour of the pressure groups member’s relatively quickly.
However the influence a pressure group has is only influence. A pressure group does not have the legal means to put a legislature in place without the approval of parliament. Furthermore, pressure groups can only achieve any real influence with the approval and support of government, this means only a minority of groups which support the party in power are able to influence legislature, and this usually benefits the government more than the pressure group as pressure groups are a source of key information need when debating an act to be put into practice. Groups such as occupy and other outsider groups are ignored by our current conservative/ lib Dem coalition government due to their aims and goals being disapproved of by the government or not as imperative as some acts that the government wishes to get passed within their term. However groups such as the Howard League for Penal Reform have huge amount of influence on government due to their peer relations with government members, previous links with parliament or generally similar aims as the government.
To continue, another way in which parliamentary sovereignty in the UK could be seen as changing location is through the increasing influence of popular sovereignty. When referendums have been used in the UK the government has never gone against the wishes of a referendum. Ignoring a referendum would be fatal to a government as the population would see their own government disapprove of the majority’s opinion and if parliament passed a legislation which contradicted the result of a referendum there would possibly be wide spread protests in the UK. In recent years catch all parties seem to be growing in popularity with major political parties such as conservatives and labour straying from their traditional ideologies in order to instead meet the current need of the current social climate of the UK. It seem that parties are trying to follow the mandate of the people presently on single issues, rather than focuses their policies on an ideological base. This means popular opinion technically has more sovereignty now than it has in the past when the UK was governed by ideological parties. However, when there is an election popular sovereignty is definitely exercised, as parties do not have direct control over the popular opinion of the public, and so this challenge to parliamentary sovereignty is very direct. However we must understand that after an election sovereignty migrates back to parliament and after a referendum power returns back to parliament, this shows the effects of popular sovereignty as simply a temporary and not binding threat to parliamentary sovereignty. It is not binding as societies opinions and accepted norms change throughout time, so will develop alongside the political structure of the UK.
Courtney from Study Moose