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Parliamentary sovereignty
23 Mar, 2018

Referenda are part of our constitution

Some argue that referenda have no place in a constitution with Parliamentary sovereignty. London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg argues that this view is based on a misunderstanding of the concept.

But first, ask yourself: how many referenda there have been at UK and country level since 1973? The answer will be given later.

The meaning of Parliamentary Sovereignty

In a modern democracy the opposite to Parliamentary sovereignty is a power for judges in a constitutional court to strike down laws.  

In the UK, Parliament is sovereign. As a general statement, there is no body in the UK who may strike down a law made in Parliament.   So there is no doubt that in general Parliament trumps the monarch, the Government, devolved and local administrations, and the courts.  

Who chooses Parliament? We do. So that makes us the sovereigns.

If we do not like a law we have to obey it, but we can vote in a new Parliament to change the law.  

Try Thomas Paine. He published “Rights of Man’ in 1791 in response to Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. He was a more radical figure than the traditionalist Burke. In the Rights of Man, Paine wrote (in the context of a more limited franchise): “The right of a Parliament is only a right in trust, a right by delegation, and that but from a very small part of the Nation; and one of its Houses has not even this. But the right of the Nation is an original right, as universal as taxation. The nation is the paymaster of everything, and everything must conform to its general will.”  

So we can make decisions by referendum and by voting to elect a Parliament in a general election. The processes are different. But both are sourced in the popular will.

Our Constitution provides for Referenda

We call ourselves a parliamentary democracy. But the constitution is more complicated than that.

The actual number is eleven for referenda at UK and country level (I'm counting London as a country here...) since 1973 (with more at local government level) and twelve for general elections (and that’s with two elections in 1974, and a premature vote in 2017).

So those who argue that we should not have a referendum on the terms because we have a parliamentary democracy need to come up with a better line.

 

 

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