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Given the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty in the United Kingdom, which holds that:

Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution. It makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law. Generally, the courts cannot overrule its legislation and no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change. Parliamentary sovereignty is the most important part of the UK constitution.

Source: http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/sovereignty/

Would it be possible for the United Kingdom to adopt a codified constitutional settlement given that at some level this would require primary legislation and such primary legislation would be unable to bind future parliaments? I.e. A future parliament would be able to reverse the move to a constitution. How would such a transition/change happen?

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  • How did that passage get written?
    – user9389
    Apr 20, 2017 at 18:50
  • Honestly, I don't know... Apr 20, 2017 at 18:52

3 Answers 3

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By custom.

Paper is just paper. Law is just paper that people agree is important.

Custom is stronger than law.

Canada has a similar parliamentary system. For the longest time, it was not fully sovereign, as it was a dominion of the UK. Over time it became more sovereign, as the custom of defering to the UK fell away. In WW1 it went to war automatically when the UK did; in WW2, it went to war independently.

Eventually, it wrote itself a constitution. It went through extraordinary processes in the writing of said constitution, including consulting the bodies that make up the nation. Then it passed a parliamentary law saying that this was Canada's constitution.

This constitution (and related legal work) set up a bill of rights and established how itself was to be changed.

Now, had another party decided that the constitution should be discarded immediately, ran on that, won the next majority, then passed a law throwing it out, odds are parliamentary sovereignty would have won the day.

It has now been 35 years since Canada adopted its constitution. Long fights have occurred over amending it, but nobody has seriously stated "just pass a law and dismantle it" in a long time. By custom (and its text), parliament can only change it by consulting with the provinces and having a referendum on the subject with certain strict criteria to pass the amendment.

If parliament where to pass a law scrapping it, the Canadian supreme court would probably at this point say "no" (you can never be certain). And then parliament could scrap said supreme court, because rulings are just paper and words. If they got away with it, they'd get away with it.

Given sufficient time and respect, the text of the constitution written could become strong enough that the institutions of the nation -- the courts, the people, the houses -- would react strongly to attempts to declare it null and void. It would remain a piece of paper; it would be the willingness of people to stand up and say "no, you aren't allowed to do that" that would prevent it from being thrown away.

When the point is reached that the parliament throwing away the constitution would be viewed as horrible and get as much obedience as the parliament saying "everyone who is left handed must be killed, not doing so is a crime", then the constitution trumps parliamentary sovereignty.

Well, before that too.

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  • Good Answer +1 Could you add some references re: Canada's transition to a constitutional system? Apr 20, 2017 at 23:14
  • The issue is more complex. In some ways the Canadian Supreme court recently affirmed Parliamentary Supremacy in City of Toronto v. Attorney General of Ontario. See Basic structure and unwritten constitutional principles: analysing the Canadian Supreme Court’s recent ruling in relation to the position in India for an interesting perspective on this issue.
    – sfxedit
    Nov 12, 2023 at 15:09
  • @sfxedit no: that ruling presumed in its bones that the consitution (including escape clauses in it) is binding. It held that unwritten principles, not mentioned and excluded intentionally from the document, cannot be used to overturn legislation (in this case, that municiple democracy rights of canadians was intentionally omitted from the constitution: thus, even petty serious abuse by provinces on said democracy does not justify court intervention).
    – Yakk
    Nov 13, 2023 at 6:10
  • @Yakk The indian courts accepted the idea that without a consideration of the "unwritten" principles, the doctrine of Constitutional Supremacy cannot be maintained. The root argument of this derives from the political argument that all your political rights are inalienable (natural rights), and not just because a government wrote it in a piece of paper. The Canadian Supreme Court on the other hand felt that Parliament knows best.
    – sfxedit
    Nov 13, 2023 at 15:33
  • @sfxedit That is a strange way to frame it: you presumed your conclusion, then described it. In the framework of this question, we are talking about the UK, where the current Parliament is supreme; it can make no law that binds its successors. This is clearly not what the SCOC ruled in that case; in fact, it clearly stated that the text of the constitution would overrule any act of parliament. It simply stated that here, no text of the constitution was violated, and the particular argument by the lower court (relying on non-written rights) was insufficient.
    – Yakk
    Nov 13, 2023 at 23:03
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It's a well established convention in the UK that no Parliament can bind the next. The same would be true about imposing a written constitution, therefore any constitution imposed could just as easily be annulled by government at any time

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    I think you need to consider en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… before simply asserting this. Note that there are at least two easy ways for Parliament to "bind" the next: contracts (including debts) and international treaty.
    – pjc50
    Jun 6, 2017 at 9:49
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From a purely legalistic view, here's how it could be done. Parliament could delegate limited lawmaking powers to another body, call it Parliament 2, and then abolish itself. While a future Parliament 1 could not be bound, it also wouldn't have any members anyway, so no one would be able to repeal the constitution.

To more more specific, Parliament 1 might pass a law with the following provisions:

  • This law is the constitution. It can be amended only by the procedures specified herein
  • There shall be a Parliament 2 that has the power to enact and repeal laws but only as long as they don't violate this constitution. The structure of Parliament 2 and the method of electing its members are specified herein.
  • All seats in Parliament are hereby declared vacant.
  • Any future election or appointment of any person to Parliament is void.

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