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A unitary state
A state is described as 'unitary' when the powers of gov't are held by a central authority, or set of
authorities. Local or regional authorities may exist, but any power they possess have been granted to
them by the central authority and could be withdrawn by that authority . This differs from federal state,
such as the USA, where the constitution guarantees certain powers to regional (i,e. state) gov'ts and to
the central gov't.
What is parliamentary sovereignty?
According to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, Parliament is the only body that can male law
for the UK. No authority can overrule or change the laws which Parliament has made. This principle,
therefore gives statute law (Acts of Parliament) precedence over the other sources of constitution.
The principle of parliamentary sovereignty, however, cannot be found in any Act of Parliament. It is a
part of common law which established itself as judicial rule in the late 17th century. Norton (1982 and
1988) points out that, if the principle of parliamentary sovereignty were to be part of statute law. it
could not have the pre-eminence claimed for it. This is because parliamentary sovereignty implies that
Parliament can pass, change or repeal any law it likes and is not bound by the laws made by previous
Parliaments. If the principle of parliamentary sovereignty was found in an Act of Parliament, it would
be possible for Parliament to repeal this Act and do away with the principle.
As it stands, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty means that British courts are obliged to enforce
any law passed by Parliament. This is very different from the USA, for example, where the Supreme
Court can declare a law passed by Congress to be unconstitutional.
Limits on parliamentary sovereignty
Political developments that have taken place since the late 19th century have ensured that there is a
good reason to argue that today, parliamentary sovereignty is limited.
The growth of a mass electorate - When the principle of parliamentary sovereignty was established
less than 5% of the adult male population and no women has the right to vote. Today virtually all
adults aged 18+ have the right to vote. As a result, the HoC is now elected by popular vote.. So
where does sovereignty lie now, with Parliament or with the electorate?
The party system - The growth of the mass electorate in the late 19th century led to the development
of the party system. This, in turn, alternated the balance of power between Parliament and the
executive (in favour of the executive). Since the gov't is now generally formed from the largest
party in the HoC's, it can usually rely on its majority to secure parliamentary approval for its
proposals. Most laws, are therefore, proposed not by Parliament but by gov't, Parliamentary
sovereignty therefore is limited.
Referendums - It can be argued that the use of referendums limits parliamentary sovereignty since
important decisions are made by the electorate and not by Parliament.
Extra-parliamentary pressure - There have been occasions when powerful pressure groups outside
Parliament have been able to frustrate attempts by Parliament to introduce new laws. In the
1970s, for example, trade unions forced parliament to amend the 1971 Industrial Relations Act and
in the late 1980s extra-parliamentary action forced the gov't to replace the poll tax with the council
tax. These examples suggest that, in practice, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is limited.
International agreements and treaties - The UK has, at various times, committed itself to international
agreements and treaties which place upon it certain obligations. For example, in 1949 the UK joined
NATO and, as a result, handed over some control over defence policy and foreign policy.
Theoretically, of course, commitments like this do not infringe parliamentary sovereignty since
Parliament could decide to ignore or cancel its commitments. But, in practice, the political (and
often economic) consequences of so doing make actions unlikely - the more so with the
increasingly relationships. The possible limits on parliamentary sovereignty by external agreements
and treaties is thrown into sharpest focus by the UK's memberships of the EU.
Membership of the EU - Membership of the EU continues to raise important questions about the
limitations on the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. Under the terms of membership, Britain us a
member of the EU in 'perpetuity' (forever). EU law is binding on all member states and therefore,
takes precedence over British domestic law. The UK Parliament can express its disapproval in the
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Treaty of Rome (the founding treaty signed by all members of the EU),
but otherwise EU legislation automatically becomes law within the UK, irrespective of what the
British parliament thinks about it. The 1986 Single European Act and the Maasticht Treaty can be
seen as reducing UK sovereignty since they extended the range of policy areas on which the EU
legislate. On the face of it, this seem to breach the principle of the sovereignty of parliament.…read more