In the United Kingdom it seems to me that the only Constitutional principle that matters is the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty.

From that link this part sums up my reasoning quite nicely:

Developments affecting Parliamentary sovereignty Over the years, Parliament has passed laws that limit the application of parliamentary sovereignty. These laws reflect political developments both within and outside the UK. They include:

  • The devolution of power to bodies like the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.
  • The Human Rights Act 1998.
  • The UK's entry to the European Union in 1973.
  • The decision to establish a UK Supreme Court in 2009, which ends the House of Lords function as the UK's final court of appeal.

These developments do not fundamentally undermine the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, since, in theory at least, Parliament could repeal any of the laws implementing these changes.

It seems that this is "carte blanche" for Parliament to override any other constitutional principle of the United Kingdom, at least for their own term, noting here the absence of any term limit which is constitutionally binding on parliament in absolute terms. The fixed term parliaments act could be repealed by any future parliament

Is there something I'm missing in this interpretation, are there other constitutional principles in the United Kingdom which function as absolute checks and balances on the power of parliament and which parliament itself cannot override within the scope of parliamentary sovereignty?

Note, this question is seeking more theoretical answers to the question than "realistic". I.e. It's realistic to note that the Media and Courts function as a control on the unbridled power of parliamentary sovereignty. However in theory these controls are similarly subject to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

I'd like sourced answers - these can be theoretical in nature (i.e. untested but sources would be helpful if available. This is purely a question of interest but also something that troubles me as a UK Citizen.


3 Answers 3


Parliament is supreme.

Note, this question is seeking more theoretical answers to the question than "realistic".

It is unwise to view the world through a theoretical lens, unless the intention is to improve the lens, rather than understand the world. But as you insist, let us look.

It seems that this is "carte blanche" for Parliament to override any other constitutional principle of the United Kingdom, at least for their own term

Your interpretation is, from a strictly legally theoretical basis, essentially correct.

Though, Parliament cannot change the weather.

First, there are some textbook exceptions, which we can get out the way early. For instance, if the UK Parliament repealed the Australia Act and decided to exert sovereignty over Australia again, that probably wouldn't hold water in the Australian courts. Parliament cannot change reality.

Parliamentary supremacy is regularly upheld by the judiciary.

Let us confine our question to those jurisdictions where the Crown-in-Parliament has practical authority. Can it make whatever law it wishes?

Yes, that is the idea of Parliamentary Sovereignty. The most recent affirmation of the long-established principle was given by the President of the Supreme Court in the leading judgment in R. (Miller) v. Brexit Secretary:

  1. This is because Parliamentary sovereignty is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution, as was conclusively established in the statutes referred to in para 41 above. It was famously summarised by Professor Dicey as meaning that Parliament has "the right to make or unmake any law whatsoever; and further, no person or body is recognised by the law as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament".

The judgment, which of course went against the Brexit Secretary, was rooted in the fact that Parliament is supreme. Parliament has, many times in the past, legislated in areas that the Article 50 notification would affect: therefore, the government could not take action which trod on Parliament's authority, even if there has been a referendum of the people with a clear outcome.

The Principle of Legality.

There is a check on Parliament's authority. It cannot make a generic law which gives away its power to someone else, unless it is totally clear about what power that person [or body] will have.

The Principle of Legality is most clearly summarized by Lord Hoffman in ex Parte Simms.

Parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament can, if it chooses, legislate contrary to fundamental principles of human rights. [...] The constraints upon its exercise by Parliament are ultimately political, not legal. But the principle of legality means that Parliament must squarely confront what it is doing and accept the political cost. Fundamental rights cannot be overridden by general or ambiguous words. This is because there is too great a risk that the full implications of their unqualified meaning may have passed unnoticed in the democratic process. In the absence of express language or necessary implication to the contrary, the courts therefore presume that even the most general words were intended to be subject to the basic rights of the individual. In this way the courts of the United Kingdom, though acknowledging the sovereignty of Parliament, apply principles of constitutionality little different from those which exist in countries where the power of the legislature is expressly limited by a constitutional document.

Essentially "the principle of legality" says that if Parliament wishes to take away rights, it has to say so, in clear, explicit, and unambiguous language. Or the courts will ignore it.

It cannot be vague. If it is vague, the courts will assume that the lawmakers intended to safeguard existing rights and liberties and it will interpret the law accordingly.

For instance, in the case of HM Treasury v Ahmed, the Supreme Court had to decide if a law gave the King [now the Queen] power to freeze a terrorism suspect's assets. The wording was:

(1) If, under Article forty-one of the Charter of the United Nations [...] the Security Council of the United Nations call upon His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to apply any measures to give effect to any decision of that Council, His Majesty may by Order in Council make such provision as appears to Him necessary or expedient for enabling those measures to be effectively applied, including (without prejudice to the generality of the preceding words) provision for the apprehension, trial and punishment of persons offending against the Order.

They decided, no it did not. The words to "make such provision as appears to Him necessary or expedient" were not wide enough to allow Him to make provisions for people only suspected of crimes.

Parliament subsequent passed a law explicitly undoing that judgment.

There was no answer to that---Parliament had spoken.

Parliament is not the government.

But Parliament is not the government. It is a body of many hundreds of people. It is split into two houses and several parties. One house considers itself the sensible, senior house with a duty to stop ill-thought-out ideas. The other spends most of its time preventing itself from conducting business. The executive may lead the legislature, but they cannot compel it. And indeed, the legislature may sack the executive, as Theresa May reminded us yesterday.

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    Thanks Calchas, a good answer. I'll wait a few days but I think this addresses the question quite nicely and I do like the touch about viewing the world through a theoretical lens. One suggestion, a note in the final graph about the second, sensible, senior house being able to be overridden by the workshy people in the other place :-) You are also largely correct in your summation that this is more from a desire to understand and improve the lens. Apr 20, 2017 at 16:23
  • Regarding the "noting here the absence of any term limit" (quote from the question): Yes, they can extend Parliament's term. It's not even theoretical: the 1940 elections were cancelled and no new elections were held until the end of WWII. As a result the 1935 Parliament was in place for 10 years - twice its normal term!
    – Sjoerd
    Mar 29, 2020 at 22:31

The monarch can theoretically check the powers of parliament by refusing to give royal assent to the bills that parliament passes. Without royal assent bills do not become law so the monarch could put a stop to parliament if they get too radical. Additionally any bill that discusses changing the monarch's prerogative or interests must receive the monarch's permission before debate can be had on the bill. This is known as Queen's (or king's) Consent.

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    Royal Assent is merely a formality, and since 1854 Royal Assent has not been given by a Monarch of the United Kingdom in person. Source: parliament.uk/about/how/laws/passage-bill/lords/… With that said can you provide any citations to back up the requirement for Royal Assent and likely effects of it's denial? Apr 20, 2017 at 12:34
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    you said you were looking for theoretical answers. I will look for sources Apr 20, 2017 at 12:35
  • Good point, I'll clarify the question, I'm (oddly) looking for theoretical answers with a basis in law or the UK's constitutional arrangement. Apr 20, 2017 at 12:36
  • another power is called queen's consent which says that parliament cannot debate a bill affecting the interests or prerogatives of a monarch without the monarch's consent and that has been invoked during the reign of Elizabeth II such as the 1999 Military action against Iraq bill Apr 20, 2017 at 12:41
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    While the queen may (theoretically) withhold assent, remember that the queen is (in this context) part of parliament. Royal assent is part of parliamentary sovereignty, not a check upon it.
    – James K
    Apr 20, 2017 at 16:33

With regard to the absolute power of parliament, by a majority of 1 they can do what they like, any restraints on their powers can be overcome by just passing a bill to delete that restraint. Therefore a very basic question is what rights do the citizens of the UK have, it appears the answer is non. If any rights exist such can be deleted by the appropriate action of the Government. An example of this of course is the action of parliament in relation to Brexit as determined by UK citizens in the referendum. The country has now become a dictatorship not by an individual but by a group of individuals formed into 2 basic parties. Elections are now based on a vote for one of the 2 parties not an individual. The old statement absolute power corrupt absolutely is very relevant when observing the actions of the 2 parties in trying to retain or gain power in parliament in many cases to the detriment of the main process which is supposed to be that of running the country. Citizens have very little authority in running the Country eroded by the power of Parliament.


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