Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Tricky Question of Parliamentary Sovereignty

The Institute for Government has recommended that the House of Commons should be subjected to audit by the National Audit Office, effectively bringing it in line with all other public sector bodies.

This is a good idea, but once again raises the tricky question of Parliamentary Sovereignty, a concept at the very heart of our constitution, but actually the cause of many problems with our democracy.

Consider that the House of Commons, and Parliament in general, does not, in the case of other legislatures around the world, derive it's sovereignty - it's authority to create the law - from the people. It is sovereign in itself. It has appropriated this sovereignty from the Monarch over many centuries, starting with the Magna Carta and culminating in the defeat of Charles I in the English Civil War.

Our Parliament, and by extension our entire political system, is built around the concept of independence from the Monarchy, rather than accountability to the electorate.

Now, this concept has served us well in past, in our nation's evolution from an autocracy to a democracy. But it now shows signs of creaking. The MPs' expenses debacle is a classic example - MPs, operating under the principle of Parliamentary privilege, abused taxpayers' money. Some of them even attempted to use Parliamentary privilege as a defence of their actions in court.

This entire concept, a foundation-stone of our constitution, is actually responsible for many of its flaws. Parliament is sovereign, so it's word is law. The Government usually holds a majority in Parliament, therefore the Government's word is law. This concept permeates our nation, from the rites and rituals of the State Opening of Parliament, to the design of the Palace of Westminster itself.

Wouldn't it be a good idea if the people were sovereign, not Parliament?

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