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End Parliamentary Sovereignty

Author Gavin Barker

The Centre for Welfare Reform's Manifesto on Constitutional Reform states:

A new constitution must entrench a permanent transfer of power from London to the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must be free to determine their own destiny with the option to secede from the Union.

Here we outline in more detail what this will mean.

Replace Parliamentary supremacy with constitutional supremacy

Britain has an archaic uncodified constitution composed of piecemeal legislation, unwritten rules and conventions with no legal force, royal prerogatives exercised by ministers without parliamentary approval, and an unelected Lords. As such, the oft repeated claim that parliamentary and popular sovereignty are one and the same thing does not bear scrutiny. This democratic deficit is further compounded by a broken election system that awards disproportionate power to the winning party, and an overpowerful executive that dominates the legislative agenda of parliament – what has been called ‘elective dictatorship’.

Our present unwritten constitution does not act as a check on the abuse of power by the elected legislature for the simple reason that it is Parliament that decides the constitutional rules it will be bound by. As the Electoral Reform Society have pointed out:

“At its core, UK democracy remains in its original form: the power of an absolute monarch transferred to Parliament”.1

The result has been the overcentralisation of power at Westminster and the emasculation of local government. This is the reverse of what written constitutions seek to do: to impose clear limits on the exercise of power, entrench human rights and establish the relationship between central government, local government, and the judiciary.

Piecemeal reform is no longer possible. What is needed is a constitutional revolution. Parliamentary sovereignty must be replaced by popular sovereignty through a constitution designed by and for the people, which forms the highest law in the land, to which even the Westminster Parliament is subject.

Such a constitution must be the product of a citizens assembly whose members are chosen by random stratified sortition in order to arrive at a representative sample of the UK population. Assisted by constitutional experts their role will be to set out the over-arching framework of laws, rights, principles and values that guide and direct the work of government at every level. This includes clearly defined procedures for constitutional amendment, when and how referendums are triggered, how parties are funded and what the limits are.

Allow the nations of the UK to secede from the Union and determine their own future.

Our present ‘unwritten constitution’ affords no protection to the devolution settlement with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for the reasons outlined above. The creation of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, were the result of legislation passed at Westminster and it is the Westminster Parliament that can over-rule such legislation with new legislation that amends or rescinds the present settlement.

This uncertainty over the future of the devolution settlement forms a major part of the present constitutional crisis given that Westminster has not yet ruled out acquiring new powers that arguably belong to Scotland, following our exit from the European Union.

We believe this state of affairs to be intolerable and hugely damaging to democracy. A future codified constitution for the UK must not only protect and entrench the devolution settlement but include the option for the nations of the UK to secede from the union completely and exercise full sovereignty with a separate written constitution of their own.

Replace the unelected House of Lords with an elected upper chamber that represents the nations and regions of the UK

An elected second chamber to serve as the forum where representatives 
from the UK’s nations and localities gather to discuss national and cross-border issues. Second chambers are typically found in large or federal states as they allow for the representation of a diverse society and the most common form of representation is territorial. This ensures the representation of specific territories and their interests at the national level.

Enable regional devolution of power where this is the expressed wish of a particular locality or region

Regional devolution to either cities or regions cannot be imposed from above through back-room deals, or arbitrarily defined by lines on a map drawn up at Westminster. It must be an organic process that emerges from below: local authorities must consult with each other and with the communities they serve as the first step towards an organic evolution of regional tiers of government.

Regions with a strong local identity such as Cornwall and Yorkshire may evolve rapidly to the point where unity of voice and purpose, backed by local referenda, activates enhanced autonomy and new powers laid out in a proper, codified constitution. The Westminster Parliament will then be obliged to facilitate the transition to a new regional assembly.

Other regions and localities may wish to proceed at a slower pace or even reject the proposal for their local authority to bind itself to a regional tier of governance. In either case, the decision comes from below as part of the expressed democratic will of local people and communities. This process will be assisted by a local referendum, and specially convened citizens assembly.

Opting out would in no way diminish strong local government that must form one of the central pillars of a new codified constitution.

You can read the Centre's Manifesto for Constitutional Reform here.

References

  1. Electoral Reform Society (2019) Westminster Beyond Brexit

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

End Parliamentary Sovereignty © Gavin Barker 2019.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.