Where does sovereignty lie?

By Yasir Ali


First and foremost, let us define what sovereignty is.

‘Sovereignty is a supreme authority within a territory.’

Now that is out of the way let us move onto where we can assume that sovereignty is ignited and withheld in the UK...


But, again, to truly understand ‘sovereignty’ we have to understand its true meaning.

The history of sovereignty has been debated severely but it is clear that there is a source from the 17th century; specifically the Peace Of Westphalia, 1648. However, then there was a blur and up until the Second World War it was severely dismissed and only reappeared out of necessity for control of the state.


Primarily in the UK there are 5 sources of power (comment if there are anymore please!): Parliament, The People, The Judiciary/Courts, The Executive, The Monarch. Collectively, all these bodies hold the most sovereignty within a state, but we have to quantify the distinction between them, who now holds the most sovereignty?,

Thus from this we can distinguish where it truly lies.


-Parliament makes up the House Of Commons and House Of Lords: they are 2 bodies. The oldest existing bodies in the world that ensure that the rights of people are met by acting in accordance with the people’s belief and trust in their MP’s.


-The people are… well they’re just people. They allow for the functioning of the state through representatives in the UK to act on their behalf and voice their opinions through them; if they did not there would simply be anarchy.


-The judiciary up until 2009 were part of the HOL/’Law Lords’, who are the party that interpret laws like common law/statutes by Parliament and ensure that justice is dealt with rather than served, as they merely act to preserve the rule of law.


-Then there is the Executive: this is where it can get a bit more confusing. The Executive and The Legislature is merged in the UK. So the UK Executive (currently in 2021, that is the Conservative party led by Boris Johsnon) also serves in the Legislature, so that being Parliament. This, of course means that the Executive can heavily influence the purpose of Legislature in his/her way as they were voted in by a majority, people voting on the law/bill will agree with the leader of the Exec. This is of course problematic for the functioning of the country, whereas in the US the Executive is split into the House Of Representatives and the Senate who debate laws, whilst the Executive merely executes laws… see what I did there? No? Carry on reading then. However, the Representative can be affiliated with the Executive/president if they are from the same party, so there is a primordial problem already with the executive but we will talk about that in another article.


There is also the Monarch, in the UK we have, a ‘Constitutional Monarchy’, Some people do believe that it is important though that there is a defined head of state that functions as the final ‘rubber stamp’ on Parliament and the many systems in the UK, whilst others argue a traditional monarchy brings about the horrors of the past and the selfishness that the monarchy did back then is too much to bear, thus all should be left to the people/Parliament. But you know us British people, we like to feel special, so we did both!


Now that’s out of the way: here we go...


What institutions hold sovereignty?


  • Firstly, let's begin with Parliament. In the UK there is a phrase coined for Parliament's power being ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’. Very British right? Well let’s evaluate the extent to which Parliament holds sovereignty. The lower chamber: House of Commons is an elected chamber of MP’s who represent the electorate that vote for them, the most MP’s that have been an elected for the same party wins a majority, making this party the government. Usually this is Labour or Conservatives. Then there is the upper chamber: House Of Lords, who are unelected members of parliament (‘Lords’) who scrutinise parliament's actions to ensure that they are acting right.

  • The fact remains that parliament is elected by people, so they have been given a mandate to act on the people’s behalf and act in their best interests, The HOL ensures this is met, even though they are unelected, as they scrutinise HOC actions. Additionally, Parliament can create Statute Law, a law proposed by the government. That can trump Common Law, or precedence that judges formulate. As JS Mill said ‘ Parliament can do anything it wants, except turn a man into a woman’.

  • The realms of Parliament’s capacity for sovereignty are unparalleled, so to distinguish a diminished sovereignty from it we have to look at the other institutions.


The People:

Now let's look at the electorate/people. This includes you and me and everyone else with the right to vote once they turn 18. They choose the MP’s to represent them in Parliament and without us, where would modern democracy be today?


We are truly sovereign. The phrase for this is ‘popular sovereignty’, and because we ultimately decide what goes on in the UK, including the Parliament’s functions, we are essentially the supreme force.


However, it seems as though we are not required in the functioning of a state, rather, there just has to be a formal body to allow for the country to move. Back in the beginning of Parliament, the people representing us were the nobles of the country and they were unpaid officials who determined the operation of us as a society. To an extent, now it has not changed at all!


The nobles back then were a small proportion of the population but they made up the biggest roles in the state and acted as if they understood the pleas of the people below them. Nowadays, it has changed to a degree: with people being elected however, the people in Parliament have merely been redressed by formal procedure. The fact remains that only 34% of women are in Parliament, while they make up 51% of the population. Yet this is a considerable change from 1979 where only 3% of MP’s were female. There are a lot more disparities in relation to population, too much to talk of in this article in fact. This shows the illigitmacy of Parliament, how can they represent us if they do not truly reflect us?


Therefore, the people should have a say, a right even to sovereignty, but does parliament still hold that privilege of being ahead even if the electorate elects them?


Think of a scenario where no one voted, what do you think would happen…


Here’s what would actually happen; Parliament would move to elect itself. That’s right, if there was no election Parliament would pick the people to represent the people that have outright said they do not want to be represented. Just a hypothetical thought.


Next we have the Judiciary/Courts who ensure that justice is served and people are following the rule of law, if not they should be accountable and dealt with. Speaking about the rule of law; it states that no one is above the law and that the law applies equally to everyone. With that in mind: if Parliament acts unlawfully, do the courts have the sovereignty to expunge their justiciability on them? Yes! They are a separate body who only serve the law, so if anyone, the monarch, the people, parliament and the executive act unjustly, they must be dealt with. So in terms of controlling and limiting people in the state, the judiciary aholds significant sovereignty, however this sovereignty is merely supplementary to the people and parliament as the courts can only function if Parliament permits it to do so.


This means that because Parliament allowed for the Lords to be split into the Supreme Court, it can easily revoke this, showing sovereignty is pooled for the Courts and it is a quasi-power, superseded by parliament's authority. On this authority it is perhaps notable to know that Parliament can only act out of the public's opinion. (you're probably bored of me saying this! sorry). As they elect them so their sovereignty in this case is on top.


The Executive:

They are the elected body who represent the government and decide, from parliament's agreement, how to run the country. However, there is a big problem in the UK as there is a fusion of the Legislature and the Executive. This causes a constitutional problem because: if there is a law that needs to be passed, the executive will hold a majority in Parliament/legislature so they can easily pass it, so if others disagree it will not matter due to this executive jurisdiction. So, from this it could be argued therein lies a sovereignty with the Executive.

However Parliament can keep the executive in check. For instance when the govt proposes a bill the opposition (minor party/second party in last election) scrutinises this bill to ensure that it meets the rights and declarations of society. So the degree to which the executive is sovereign is severely checked and controlled. Additionally, the House Of Lords can check the executive with its power to delay bills. However, the power of the House Of Lords has been severely limited with the Salisbury Convention (just another unwritten rule, yep the UK Political climate is rather strange). Which says that the House Of Lords cannot hinder the policies a party has suggested in its manifesto - a book of laws the party wants. Overall though, the executive is incapicitated by the decisions of the electorate and the power that Parliaments exercises over it.


Finally, we have the Monarch. The UK is one of the last remaining constitutional monarchies (the other 15 are states/commonwealths that are overhead by the UK) and the monarch serves to place a rubber stamp on the doings of Parliament. The primary and perhaps only thing that the monarchy does is give ‘Royal Assent’, this means that they certify that a bill of Parliament can be passed, and the fact the last bill to be vetoed was in 1707 shows what a true power it is! That was meant to be a joke.


Then there is the power to prorogue parliament, which essentially means that the Queen can (on advice of the govt./PM) shut down Parliament for a period of time, however the degree to which this is a power is … well I will let you decide.


From this we can assume that the Sovereignty of the Monarch is non-existent, however we have to take into account that the monarch role has been very much present and active in the UK for almost 1200 years and that although it has diminished in its relative power its historicity speaks volumes of its overarching importance to the UK constitution.


So, now that we have looked at all the possible areas of sovereignty let’s finalise the argument, Parliament is very much sovereign in many aspects, it controls the protection of people's rights by laying out laws with the executive and it has enabled the judiciary to act according to the rule of law.


Yet, the judiciary has significant power as they can assume if parliament has acted unlawfully and if it is unjusticiable. The monarch is merely a red stamp for the running of this country and is suggestive to this narrative. The fact remains that the people hold the functioning of their state in their cogent hands. They decide whether Parliament can act by deciding who should represent them and it is unlikely that Parliament can function nowadays without the permission of the public; if they do there would be a revolution and Parliament would be forced to act how the public wishes, so it seems the public sovereignty over Parliament is one of a hostage situation and one where Parliament cannot trip up.


Then there is the Executive, they cannot even exist without the functioning of Parliament, so the executive is subsidiary to popular sovereignty already, again if the executive acts unjustly in the public's eyes, the people can merely act against them and put them down. Next, is the Judiciary: the fact remains that the people within the judiciary are selected from the public (albeit from a small minority of people), so they cannot act if the public does not choose to assimilate a judiciary. The previously mentioned power of the Judiciary will evaporate without the public's input.


Finally, the monarch. A couple centuries ago, the monarch would have trumped the public in power but now it is evident that they shrunk into a stamp for parliament and again, the public chooses these people. How can the monarchy be a monarchy if there is no one to serve?


The public remain the sole proprietors of this country’s constitutional upbringing, whether we wish to deny it - we hold the power to change. We are the ones that allow everything to go on so lets make a change. We are the Public and we trump all the other systems in this country. We are sovereign.


Please give us your thoughts on where you think sovereignty lies!


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