The location of sovereignty in the UK

The distinction between legal sovereignty and political sovereignty Legal sovereignty is a concept defined in law. It belongs to the person or body in a state with unlimited legal authority. In the distant past it was exercised by the monarch, but in the present day it belongs to the UK Parliament. There is no higher legal authority than Parliament — it can legislate on any subject, and no Parliament can bind its successors.


Political sovereignty stands above legal sovereignty. In a democracy, the legal sovereign body derives its authority from the people. When the people elect a Parliament, they delegate their political authority to their representatives. Parliament is accountable to the electorate for the way in which it exercises its powers, and the electorate has the right to elect a new Parliament at regular intervals.

The location of sovereignty in the UK

In other words, Parliament is entrusted with formal, legal sovereignty — the authority to make laws — but it can do so only because the people, who possess ultimate political power, allow it to do so.

How far sovereignty has moved between different branches of government

Although Parliament is theoretically sovereign, in practice real authority has long since moved to the executive.Party Discipline and Elective Dictatorship

The creation of the Supreme Court could be seen as a challenge to parliamentary sovereignty, in the sense that it ended the function of the House of Lords as the UK's final court of appeal.

However, the Court itself was established by act of Parliament and it could in theory be abolished by a future act. The Supreme Court's own website describes its role as one of interpreting the law and developing it where necessary. It cannot strike down a law, and it is up to Parliament to decide whether to amend legislation.

Other developments that have caused some commentators to question whether Parliament is still sovereign include the following.

· Devolution Involves a transfer of powers and functions to new bodies, giving them the authority to make law, on certain specified subjects, within their own part of the UK. This does not amount to a federal settlement, which would mean a formal, legal sharing of sovereignty between different levels of government. In theory, the UK Parliament could abolish the devolved assemblies. In reality, as long as these bodies command public support, this is highly unlikely. Political reality overrides constitutional theory in the real world.

· Referendums The increased use of referendums since 1997 is seen as a threat to parliamentary sovereignty. At a theoretical level this is not the case since a referendum is advisory and not legally binding. However, political reality makes it extremely unlikely that Parliament would dare to ignore the outcome of a popular vote. This lesson was underlined after the June 2016 EU referendum, when some constitutional lawyers argued that Parliament was legally entitled to reverse the result of the vote. In practice MPs are most unlikely to risk the public backlash that would follow an attempt to defy the clearly expressed will of the people. This highlights the difference between legal and political sovereignty.

· The Human Rights Act The passing of the Human Rights Act has increased the power of judges by giving them the right to declare existing legislation incompatible with the act. They cannot, however, compel Parliament to change the law. Technically Parliament should implement rulings of the European Court of Human Rights but it has, for example, rejected calls to allow prisoners voting rights. The Conservative Party has proposed to pass a British Bill of Rights, which is likely to make the Supreme Court the final arbiter of human rights, and Parliament would be within its rights to pass such legislation.

· EU membership Supporters of the UK's membership of the EU often argued that sovereignty had not been lost but `pooled'. This means that all member states had voluntarily shared some of their sovereignty for an agreed common purpose. The UK had gained influence that it could not have obtained on its own. Given the pace of globalisation, they argued, it was no longer possible for any state to be truly independent. Meanwhile moderate Eurosceptics believed that sovereignty could be reclaimed by negotiating opt-outs from EU policies to which they objected, or by securing the return of powers to the UK Parliament. The hard-line Eurosceptics who campaigned for Brexit, on the other hand, viewed sovereignty as indivisible. They insisted that the only way to regain it was to withdraw from the EU.



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