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The Changing Constitution

The Changing Constitution (9th edn)

Sir Jeffrey Jowell and Colm O'Cinneide
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date: 23 February 2024

p. 292. Parliamentary Sovereignty in a Changing Constitutional Landscapelocked

p. 292. Parliamentary Sovereignty in a Changing Constitutional Landscapelocked

  • Mark Elliott


Parliamentary sovereignty is often presented as the central principle of the United Kingdom’s constitution. In this sense, it might be thought to be a constant: a fixed point onto which we can lock, even when the constitution is otherwise in a state of flux. That the constitution presently is—and has for some time been— in a state of flux is hard to dispute. Over the last half-century or so, a number of highly significant developments have occurred, including the UK’s joining— and now leaving—the European Union; the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998; the devolution of legislative and administrative authority to new institutions in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh; and the increasing prominence accorded by the courts to the common law as a repository of fundamental constitutional rights and values. Each of these developments raises important questions about the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. The question might be thought of in terms of the doctrine’s capacity to withstand, or accommodate, developments that may, at least at first glance, appear to be in tension with it. Such an analysis seems to follow naturally if we are wedded to an orthodox, and perhaps simplistic, account of parliamentary sovereignty, according to which the concept is understood in unyielding and absolutist terms: as something that is brittle, and which must either stand or fall in the face of changing circumstances. Viewed from a different angle, however, the developments of recent years and decades might be perceived as an opportunity to think about parliamentary sovereignty in a different, and arguably more useful, way—by considering how the implications of this still-central concept are being shaped by the changing nature of the constitutional landscape within which it sits. That is the task with which this chapter is concerned.

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