Parliamentary Sovereignty: Analysis, Advantages & Limitations

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will discuss and analyze parliamentary sovereignty. We will apply critical thinking skills to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this political system.

Parliamentary Sovereignty: The Supremacy of the Legislative Branch

If you have ever taken a civics class, you probably learned about a concept called separation of powers. Typically used in connection to the American political system, this term expresses how the U.S. government is divided into three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) with power divided equally among these three branches so no one branch becomes too powerful. Through a system of checks and balances, this system of republicanism has worked well for the United States.

However, not all democratic countries have a separation of powers. By contrast, some have a system of parliamentary sovereignty, in which the legislative branch has supreme power and can basically overrule the other branches. Under parliamentary sovereignty, the judicial branch cannot declare a law unconstitutional and the leader of the executive (such as a monarch, president, or prime minister) cannot veto or overrule legislation. When you think about parliamentary sovereignty, just remember the legislative branch has the last word.

Great Britain is probably the most well-known country to use parliamentary sovereignty. However, Finland, New Zealand, New Guinea, and other countries also use the system. Now that we understand what parliamentary sovereignty is, let's dig a bit deeper and analyze its effectiveness by looking at its advantages and disadvantages.

The British Parliament is depicted in this image. The British Parliament operates under a system of parliamentary sovereignty.

Advantages of Parliamentary Sovereignty

We'll start out on a positive note and begin by examining the advantages of parliamentary sovereignty. In one sense, one can make the argument that parliamentary sovereignty is more democratic than a system of separation of powers. The legislative branch is typically elected directly by the people and is thereby meant to represent the will of the people. By giving legislators supreme power over a ruler or the judicial branch (members of which are usually appointed by a senior executive), the people have tremendous power. If legislators act in a way that is not in accord with the will of the people, guess what happens? They are voted out of office and replaced by new legislators. The democratic nature of parliamentary sovereignty is one of its most pronounced advantages.

It can be argued that another advantage of parliamentary sovereignty is that it eliminates deadlock. Under the system of separation of powers, with its many checks and balances, sometimes the branches can become locked in bitter conflict. However, with parliamentary sovereignty, the solution is straightforward: the legislative branch has the final say!

It can also be argued that parliamentary sovereignty limits the power of the executive branch, or of the monarch. But then again, it can be argued that a system of separated powers/checks and balances does this as well. Supporters of parliamentary sovereignty, however, may suggest their system is more efficient.

Disadvantages and Limitations of Parliamentary Sovereignty

Now let's look at some of the disadvantages and limitations of parliamentary sovereignty. Critics typically point out that the system gives one branch too much power over the others. They argue that there should be limits of the power of the legislative branch so that it is not able to legislate whatever it wants. Critics of parliamentary sovereignty are typically inclined to view favorably the U.S. system of checks and balances. It can be argued, therefore, that a limitation of parliamentary sovereignty is that it does not disperse power equally among the three branches.

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