Parliamentary Sovereignty in Theory and in Practice

Topics: United Kingdom, Parliament of the United Kingdom, European Union Pages: 6 (1851 words) Published: February 6, 2014
Sovereignty is defined as the supreme power or authority. Therefore, ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ means there is supremacy or authority of parliament in making or unmaking the law as they like. According to A.V. Dicey, the parliament sovereignty is the single most important principle of the UK constitution. With the Parliament’s supremacy, 'no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having the right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament' (Roberts 2006: 87). The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, for example, can be used to explain parliamentary sovereignty in theory, while other examples such as Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, the rebels of Conservative backbenchers, devolution of power, as well as UK’s entry to the European Union and the Human Rights Act of 1998 can be used to explain parliamentary sovereignty in practice. This essay will further discuss and explain the distinction between parliamentary sovereignty in theory and in practice.

'In theory at least, Parliament could repeal any of the laws implementing these changes.' (Parliament. 2011) No one, for example the courts, is to question 'the validity or constitutionality of an act of Parliament' (Encyclopedia. 2009). In theory of the parliamentary sovereignty, the Parliament has the power to change, remove or make any law. This means that the new Parliament can change the rules or laws of the past parliaments. Firstly, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, one of the acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, introduced the fixed-term elections. Under this type of election, general elections in the United Kingdom at least, will be held in every five years. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 shows that previous laws does not bind the laws of the future – laws can be changed from time to time, the Parliament is unable to bind its successors (future parliaments). ‘Parliament could repeal previous legislation and withdraw from the EU..’ (Roberts 2006: 89) Human Rights Act 1998 can also be use as an example to show the removal of laws by a Parliament. Although the Human Rights Act 1998 has been incorporated in the domestic law of the United Kingdom, the act does not necessarily mean that it has undermined parliamentary sovereignty because in theory, at least, the Parliament has the power to ‘vote to repeal’ the Human Rights Act. (Wikipedia 2011) Furthermore, during state emergencies the Human Rights Act will have to be suspended as the state emergencies, such as terrorism or war, have to be dealt and put in first place. Hence, there is parliamentary sovereignty.

On the other hand, it has been argued that parliamentary sovereignty in practice completely differs from parliamentary sovereignty in theory. According to Marshall (1957), what is exercised in reality by the legislative authority is what makes a theoretical sovereignty difficult. It is a requirement that passing a judgment would mean that 'the rules of the system' is needed to take into account 'as a whole'. (Marshall. G. 1957:14) Due to some political developments, the powers of the Parliament have been limited. Firstly, the incident back in 1980 had force an extra-parliamentary where the parliament had to replace the previous poll tax with a council tax instead. (Bentley, Dobson, Grant, Roberts 2006: 88) The imposition of poll tax can be traced back when Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, decided to place a Poll Tax and abolish the old rate systems. This caused unhappiness towards the people of Britain as Thatcher had also raise interest rates as well as cutting off the public spending, which resulted in up to three million people being unemployed as they could not afford to pay the poll tax. This in turn led to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators rebelling and flooding the streets of central London. Due to this very reason, the poll tax was finally abolished after...

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Encyclopedia. Parliamentary Sovereignty [Online]. Available at [accessed 27 October 2011]
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Palmer, A. (2009) Thatcher’s legacy: From the poll tax to privatisation – how the Iron Lady’s policies altered Britain. [Online] Available at: [accessed 16 November 2011]
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