Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Sovereignty of Parliament

In the UK, the sovereignty of parliament derives from the people. It was historically asserted against the arbitrary use of prerogative powers by the monarch, who was the hereditary head of the executive, and it was steadily strengthened after The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights.

At the end of the eighteenth century Edmund Burke asserted that an MP was not a delegate but owed his electors the benefit of his advice. This doctrine is still asserted today when MPs wish to establish their independence from the electorate.

However Burke was writing long before the democratic extensions of the franchise that began in the nineteenth century. The electors he had in mind were the bourgeoisie, not the working classes who had no votes. It might be reasonably supposed that a full time parliamentarian in those days had a better grasp of current issues than a voter who could only learn of them from the newspapers and was only consulted at corrupt elections.

A general election is a blunt instrument anyway. Voters choose a representative; they do not pronounce on individual issues. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the political innovation of referendums has altered the relationship between voters and representatives. The MP now knows his constituents’ wishes on specific issues, as well as the will of the electorate at large.

Those opposing Brexit in Parliament might therefore be considered somewhat disingenuous. For forty years all major parties supported EU membership. They naturally selected a substantial majority of parliamentarians who also supported membership.

In the 2016 referendum the public rejected membership despite all major parties campaigning in favour.

In the 2017 election all major UK-wide parties campaigned on a platform of implementing the popular will as expressed in the referendum.

What we actually see is an effort to sabotage Brexit in a suddenly rediscovered enthusiasm for the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. However this is no longer asserted against the arbitrary whims of a hereditary monarch but against the declared wishes of a sovereign people.

Is sovereignty of parliament to be the new tyranny of the elite?