Meaning of 'Parliament'

I feel there's a danger of discussion getting tied up in apparent disagreements on matters where there is in fact broad agreement and I think it's worth trying for some clarity on terminology.

In an exchange with JimF – in – I mentioned the constitutional principle that no Parliament can bind its successors. Jim replied that this 'is one of the most important things that must be overturned' and went on to say 'This constitution, and the way it is enacted, must quite specifically and permanently prevent Parliament from overturning it or any of its provisions'.  His comment was immediately voted up by Alastair Bruton.

Now, I've posted a proposal to restore the integrity of Parliamentary Sovereignty ( ) whereas they clearly want to do away with it so, on the face of it, we are working in exactly opposite directions. But I'm fairly confident that all three of us (in common with most people contributing on this site) consider that ultimate sovereignty rests with the public. To my mind, sovereignty of the people is implicit in the notion of democracy and in the fact that, in principle, the public determines the membership of Parliament.

So where does that apparent disagreement come from? My guess is that we're using the word Parliament in different ways.

I imagine that everybody engaging in this project recognises that the public cannot be sovereign directly – realistically, we can only exercise sovereignty through a body of representatives. That body of representatives will exercise sovereignty on behalf of the public and a core function of a constitution is to define how that body is composed, how it is held accountable by the public and how it should operate.

That body obviously has to have a name. Traditionally, it has been called Parliament and there doesn't seem to me to be any reason to change that. So I propose that an early clause in the constitution, closely linked to the clauses defining how it is held accountable to the public, should state something along the lines of:

  • The body constituted as the ultimate decision-making authority shall be called Parliament.


In that case, the term parliamentary sovereignty actually means 'the sovereignty of the people as expressed through Parliament'.

Obviously, under our current system, there are so many problems with how Parliament is constituted that it doesn't actually properly represent the public and it's understandable that people reject the notion of parliamentary sovereignty if they're thinking only of how Parliament works currently. But everything in our new constitution will have to be understood in the context of all the reforms we include in it, rather than in the context of the system we have now.

I'm hoping that we'll end up with a set of reforms which would give us an ultimate decision-making authority which genuinely reflects the will of the people. If anyone can put forward good reasons why that body shouldn't be called Parliament, I'd be interested to hear them. In the meantime, I'm going to stick with the notion of parliamentary sovereignty as I defined it above.

edited on Mar 2, 2015 by Malcolm Ramsay
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