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 The fixed term parliaments act could be repealed by any future parliament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.


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. – HomoTechsual Apr 20 '17 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 '20 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? – HomoTechsual Apr 20 '17 at 12:34
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    you said you were looking for theoretical answers. I will look for sources – Yosef Mordechai Coleman Apr 20 '17 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. – HomoTechsual Apr 20 '17 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 – Yosef Mordechai Coleman Apr 20 '17 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 '17 at 16:33

Your question has literally been answered in UK Constitutional Law textbooks. I can just quote end of chapter summaries. Undoubtedly I can't quote whole chapters here. Bradley, Ewing. Constitutional and Administrative Law (2018 17 ed). p 71.

No legal limitations on Parliament

Many illustrations may be given of the use which Parliament has made of its legislative supremacy in legislating on constitutional matters, retrospectively, in breach of international law, and so on. It does not follow from a recital of this kind that the powers of Parliament are unlimited. As Calvert said:

No one doubts that the powers of the UK Parliament are extremely wide . . . But that is not what is in issue. What is in issue is whether those powers are unlimited and one no more demonstrates this by pointing to a wide range of legislative objects than one demonstrates the contrary by pointing to matters on which Parliament has not, in fact, ever legislated.71

There is much evidence from the law reports that, at least since 1688, judges have been strongly inclined to accept the legislative omnicompetence of Parliament. Yet this has not always been the judicial attitude. In his note on Dr Bonham’s case, Coke CJ said:

In many cases, the common law will control Acts of Parliament, and sometimes adjudge them to be utterly void: for when an Act of Parliament is against common right and reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it, and adjudge such Act to be void.72

While English judges made similar statements only rarely after 1688,73 it is not possible from reported cases alone to demonstrate that they have utterly lost the power to ‘control’ an Act of Parliament – or to show that a judge who is confronted with a statute repugnant to moral or constitutional principle (for example, a law condemning all of a certain race to be executed) must either apply the statute or resign from office.74 Support for this has come

p 60.

from New Zealand, where Lord Cooke of Thorndon urged that within the common law the judges exercise authority which extends to upholding fundamental values that might be at risk from certain forms of legislation.75 Lord Mance has queried in passing whether ‘it were to be possible at all’ for even primary legislation to require internment without the ability to challenge basis of it.76 In 1995, Lord Woolf argued that ‘if Parliament did the unthinkable’ and legislated without regard for the role of the judiciary in upholding the rule of law, the courts might wish to make it clear that ‘ultimately there are even limits on the supremacy of Parliament which it is the courts’ inalienable responsibility to identify and uphold’.77 Laws LJ explained that parliamentary supremacy is conditional on there being an authoritative and independent judicial source of interpretation of the law.78 Lord Steyn has said that the courts might have to revisit the principle of parliamentary supremacy, if Parliament sought ‘to abolish judicial review of flagrant abuse of power by a government or even the role of the ordinary courts in standing between the executive and citizens’; in such circumstances, the courts might have to ‘qualify’ the supremacy of Parliament, ‘a principle established on a different hypothesis of constitutionalism’.79 In a challenge to the exclusion of Scottish prisoners from voting in the 2014 independence referendum, Lord Hodge commented that:

While the common law cannot extend the franchise beyond that provided by parliamentary legislation, I do not exclude the possibility that in the very unlikely event that a parliamentary majority abusively sought to entrench its power by a curtailment of the franchise or similar device, the common law, informed by principles of democracy and the rule of law and international norms, would be able to declare such legislation unlawful.80

      Short of such an extreme situation, it is not at all likely that the courts would of their volition exercise power derived solely from common law to review the validity of Acts of Parliament. Nor is there widespread academic support for their doing so,81 still less on what basis and in which cases.82 Where in countries judicial review of legislation takes place, this is generally derived from a written constitution.83 But it has been said that the rule that the courts enforce without question all Acts of Parliament is the one rule of the common law which Parliament may not change:84 parliamentary supremacy is the fundamental constitutional principle because the common law holds it to be so. A number of the Law Lords made this observation in Jackson (on which, see further below).85 The attractiveness of this analysis for some is that rules of the common law can be changed by the courts: the acceptance of absolute parliamentary supremacy may fall to be revised if it were necessary to ensure

p 61

compliance with other paramount constitutional principles, such as the rule of law. For precisely this reason, the common law source of parliamentary supremacy is by no means universally accepted. The majority’s judgment in Miller appeared to suggest that parliamentary supremacy was established in statute,86 and particularly the legislation which cemented the role of Parliament during and following the Glorious Revolution: the Bill of Rights and the Acts of Settlement.87 A more orthodox approach is summarised by Lord Bingham as follows:

It is true of course that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty cannot without circularity be ascribed to statute, and the historical record in any event reveals no such statute. But it does not follow that that the principle must be a creature of the judge-made common law which the judges can alter: if it were, the rule could be altered by statute, since the prime characteristic of any common law rule is that it yields to a contrary provision of statute. To my mind, it has been convincingly shown that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty has been recognised as fundamental in this country not because the judges invented it but because it has for centuries been accepted as such by judges and others officially concerned in the operation of our constitutional system. The judges did not by themselves establish the principle and they cannot, by themselves, change it.88

The UK Parliament, though, enjoys an unlimited power to legislate on constitutional matters. Is it therefore possible that, on the initiative of Parliament itself, the courts could exercise a power of judicial review derived from constitutional legislation passed by Parliament? This possibility has often been dismissed out of hand by invoking the principle that no Parliament may bind its successors. But, it has been asked, ‘Why cannot Parliament change that rule; since all other rules of the common law are subject to its sovereignty?’89 It is to this difficult and fundamental question that we now turn.

p 79.

This chapter has examined whether there are legal limits on the legislative supremacy of Parliament, in particular whether there are, or could be, any limits capable of being enforced judicially. While British tradition has been strongly against judicial review of primary legislation, the courts must if necessary decide whether a document for which legislative authority is claimed is indeed an Act of Parliament.198 While the basic rule of legislative supremacy is a matter of common law that has political significance, it cannot be demonstrated from existing precedents that under no circumstances could this rule be qualified by judicial decision – still less that the rule could not be changed by Act of Parliament. It is therefore not possible to assert dogmatically that the legislative supremacy of Parliament will continue to be the primary rule of constitutional law in the United Kingdom. According to Lord Hope in R (Jackson) v Attorney-General, ‘Our constitution is dominated by the sovereignty of Parliament. But parliamentary sovereignty is no longer, if it ever was, absolute.’199 Indeed, the impact of European integration has made extensive inroads into Dicey’s doctrine of legislative supremacy. The Human Rights Act stops short of enabling the courts to set aside an Act of Parliament, but it authorises them to review legislation for compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. And the advent of devolution means that Westminster is not the only legislature in the United Kingdom.

Elliott, Thomas. Public Law (4 ed 2020). p 268.

6.6 Summary

We have examined three models of parliamentary authority. Model I holds that Parliament is fully sovereign and that sovereignty is fixed (or ‘continuing’); it is therefore (paradoxically) impossible for Parliament to do anything that would limit its own powers. Model II agrees that Parliament is sovereign, in that it is always possible for it to make, amend, or repeal any law, but says that it is possible for Parliament to lay down binding conditions as to the process that must be followed if (for example) a given Act were to be repealed or amended. Model III says that Parliament is not sovereign: it lacks the power to make laws that violate fundamental constitutional principles.
      The debate that underlies these three competing views ultimately turns on two questions: (i) can Parliament subject itself to any sort of limitations (‘intended limitations’), and (ii) is Parliament subject to limitations that derive otherwise than from earlier Acts of Parliament (‘unintended limitations’)? We have seen that while there are no clear answers to either of these questions, there is at least circumstantial evidence that provides a basis for informed speculation.
      The answer to question (i) is that while there is no unequivocal example of courts accepting that the UK Parliament can impose restrictions upon its successors, the reasoning, together with certain dicta, in the Jackson case provide some support for the view that Parliament can adapt the ground rules governing the enactment of legislation; thus allowing, for example, for legislation to be accorded limited entrenchment by precluding its amendment or repeal in the absence of express language or a super-majority.374
      As far as question (ii) is concerned, we have seen that the courts—and indeed politicians— prefer, if possible, to avoid it. In particular, the courts seek to secure basic constitutional values by interpreting legislation consistently with them rather than by asserting a power to disregard Acts of Parliament that violate such values. And we know that the political process itself is likely to guard against most such legislation,

p 269.

but not necessarily all. However, we have also seen that some judges have asserted that if the unthinkable were to happen, they would be willing to consider refusing to apply such legislation.
      Some of the heat has been removed from this debate by the fact that, as we saw in Chapter 2, the courts can, under the HRA, declare legislation to be incompatible with fundamental rights.375 But that Act, at least in its present form, may not remain on the statute book forever; in any event, the underlying question—whether there are any enforceable limits on Parliament’s lawmaking authority—remains an important one that goes to the heart of the nature of the British constitution.
      We know that there are many things that Parliament is, in reality, extremely unlikely to do. What we do not know is whether, if the political process were to fail to prevent such legislative conduct, the courts would step in and provide legal redress by striking down the relevant Act. Ultimately, therefore, this question is about the extent to which the British tradition of political constitutionalism is supplemented—or has been replaced—by a legal form of constitutionalism that supplies clear lines that may not lawfully be crossed by legislators. And it is, as we have seen, a question that both judges and politicians seem anxious should never be allowed to arise.

Sunkin et al. Public Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (2019, 4th edition), p 53.


  1. The concept of the legislative supremacy of Parliament has a central place in the UK constitution. It asserts that Acts of the UK Parliament are the highest form of law and prevents the judiciary adjudicating on the validity of primary legislation. It is highly regarded by political constitutionalists; legal constitutionalists view it with hostility.
  2. The source of the basic rule of parliamentary supremacy is not clear. Some people claim it is a common law rule created by the judges; others argue that we should see it as a rule with unique status.
  3. There is a debate about whether constitutionally important Acts of Parliament may be ‘entrenched’, making it more difficult than normal for them to be repealed or amended by future Parliaments.
  4. With the size of the statute book it is inevitable that occasionally there will be an inadvertent conflict between rules. Implied repeal states that where a later Act is inconsistent with an earlier Act that remains in force, the courts should recognize the later Act as valid law. In recent years, the courts have held that this rule should not apply where the earlier Act is constitutionally important.
  5. The impact of the European Convention on Human Rights on parliamentary supremacy is explored in Chapter 7.
  6. The impact of membership of the European Union (EU) on parliamentary supremacy, during the time the United Kingdom is a Member State, is examined in Chapters 22 and 23.
  7. What is the prospect for parliamentary supremacy? In one scenario, it will remain the dominant principal [I think this is typo for "principle"] in the British constitution. In an alternative future, it may be constrained by a written constitution or the assertion of common law principles by the UK Supreme Court.
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    This is a low effort, needlessly snarky answer. Adds nothing to existing answers. – HomoTechsual Sep 7 '20 at 6:11

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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