Parliamentary Sovereignty: Definition, Origin & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Parliamentary systems take power from a monarch, but for that to work the parliament needs its own authority. In this lesson, we'll see what that looks like and how it was first developed.

The Sovereignty of Parliament

Picture a kingdom. There's a king, perched on a gilded throne, and whatever he speaks becomes law. The king is the ultimate authority. That's the image we often have of a monarchy, but in today's world that's not entirely accurate.

Most existing monarchies today are bound by some sort of constitution that places lawmaking and governing powers not in the hands of kings and queens, but a legislative body called parliament. Parliaments are major parts of many governments in the world today, but what sort of authority do they really have? How do nations make sure that the monarch can't override parliament? For that, parliament needs to have absolute lawmaking power, free of anybody else. It needs parliamentary sovereignty.

The Palace of Westminster, where the UK Parliament resides
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Defining Parliamentary Sovereignty

Before we go further, a disclaimer: parliamentary sovereignty is a principle aplied around the world, but in this lesson we're going to be focusing exclusively on the United Kingdom. Parliamentary sovereignty was first defined here, and the precedents set in the UK define the actions of many parliaments around the world, so this is where our focus will be. Just keep in mind that other parliaments do exist.

That being said, how exactly does parliamentary sovereignty work? The basic idea is that the Parliament of the United Kingdom has unlimited and unrestricted lawmaking powers. The monarch cannot make laws unilaterally, and the courts cannot override the laws. Only Parliament can make, change, and eliminate laws. That makes this system a bit different than the checks and balances of places like the United States, where presidents sign laws into effect and the Supreme Court has authority to declare laws unconstitutional. In the UK, all of that rests in Parliament's hands. To summarize, parliamentary sovereignty can be defined by four tenets:

  1. Parliament has full authority to create laws and statutes.
  2. The courts do not have the power to declare any statute invalid.
  3. No current Parliament is bound by laws or precedents of previous Parliaments.
  4. Parliament can never pass any law which a future Parliament cannot undo.

See how that works? In a sense, Parliament provides the checks and balances on itself by stating that no law can be absolute. A sitting Parliament can change, alter, or eliminate any laws of the United Kingdom, and any future Parliament can do the same.

Parliament has ultimate lawmaking authority
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History of Parliamentary Sovereignty

Parliamentary sovereignty is an interesting concept, so it's not surprising to find an interesting history behind it. England's Parliament traces its history all the way back to the 13th century, when regional lords first demanded some sort of say in how the king conducted England's affairs. Ever since then, the relationship between Parliament and monarch has been one of constant debate.

This debate really started heating up in the 17th century, as English monarchs observed other European kings wielding absolute authority and resented the restrictions placed upon them by an ever-growing Parliament. In 1625, Charles I dissolved Parliament, preventing the body from being able to legitimately assemble until 1640. One of the first actions of the Long Parliament, as it was called, was to pass legislation preventing the monarch from dissolving it. They then set about trying to convince Charles I to accept a constitutional monarchy, in which his power would be legally restricted and given to Parliament.

Tensions boiled over in 1642, and England broke into a civil war between Parliament and the Crown. Charles I was eventually beheaded by Parliament, and the monarchy abolished. For several years, England was a commonwealth (a kind of republic), until that became unstable and Charles II was allowed to return as the new king of England, under the watchful eyes of Parliament.

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