Parliamentary Sovereignty: Features & Example

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 learn about parliamentary sovereignty. We will define the term to understand what it is and we will highlight notable examples.

Definition of Parliamentary Sovereignty

Maybe some of you have heard the word ''sovereignty.'' The word is used in many contexts. In the context of religion, theologians use the expression ''God's sovereignty'' to show that God has control over the universe. Throughout history, monarchs and rulers have also been referred to as ''Sovereigns,'' meaning they have authority over their domain. Sometimes in geopolitics, the word is used to describe the authority of an independent nation-state. For example, the American Revolution resulted in the creation of the United States as ''one sovereign, independent country.''

The word ''sovereignty'' basically means control or authority. The word ''parliamentary'' has to do with a democratic legislature. In Great Britain, their legislative assembly is called Parliament. In the United States, it is called Congress.

So, what is parliamentary sovereignty? This term basically refers to a democratic government in which the legislative branch is sovereign over the other branches (typically the executive and judicial branches). In essence, the legislative branch is the supreme lawmaker and has supreme authority. Because Great Britain's government operates under parliamentary sovereignty, the term is often used in connection with British politics, even though other countries use the system as well.

British Parliament in 1911
house of lords

Separation of Powers vs. Parliamentary Sovereignty

If you have ever taken a government or civics class, you may have learned about separation of powers, which is a term used to describe how in the U.S. government, power is divided evenly among the three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial). In this way, no one branch has more power than the others. This idea is closely associated with ''checks and balances,'' which means there are ''checks'' on each branch's power so that any one branch does not become too powerful.

In the United States, power is divided evenly among the three branches so that no single branch has more power than the other two. Seen here is the U.S. Congress in 1915.

Parliamentary sovereignty, by contrast, allows one branch to have more power than the others. And, of course, this is the legislative branch. So whereas in the United States the president has the power to veto legislation he or she doesn't like, under parliamentary sovereignty, the decision of the legislative branch is supreme. Under this system, the legislative branch can even overturn the ruling of the monarch or executive leader.

Political theorists have identified three basic tenets of parliamentary sovereignty:

  • The legislative branch is permitted to make laws regarding anything.
  • No legislative body can pass a law that binds a future legislative body. This means all laws can be reversed.
  • Laws passed by the legislative branch cannot be made invalid by the court/judicial branch. In other words, unlike in the U.S., laws cannot be judged ''unconstitutional.''

Examples of Parliamentary Sovereignty

The best example of parliamentary sovereignty is Great Britain. In many cases, the term itself connotes the British system. British parliamentary sovereignty more or less evolved into being, but it was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that most contributed to the adoption of parliamentary sovereignty.

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