10

Does Parliament hold absolute power in the UK?

What I mean by absolute power is: presumably they can make illegal or legal whatever they want. Even going so far as to disenfranchise their own electorate.

Is this correct, or are there any checks on the power of Parliament?

  • 1
    Why stop at parliament? Even if we imagine a written constitution that specifies it can only be amended by a supermajority at a plebiscite, we could still ask: "could the People in theory decide to rewrite the constitution so it can never be amended again, thereby disenfranchising their children and children's children forever? Are there any checks on that?" – Henning Makholm Apr 12 at 20:36
  • The modified version of the question (with its only focus on "absolute power") seems to be largely a UK-duplicate of politics.stackexchange.com/questions/40334/… – Fizz Apr 13 at 0:42
16

Parliament has one power. It can pass motions.

These motions can become Acts of Parliament and define new laws. The text of the Act of Parliament is basically unlimited. An Act of Parliament can, in theory, consist of nothing but the word "Rhubarb" written 5000 times. It could contain a statement that "pi = 4", or it could repeal the law of Gravity. These are silly examples, but they show that Parliament can create any act that it chooses. How that relates to "power" is more questionable.

Obviously, an Act that declares "pi = 4" would have no effect on the actual value of pi. Similarly an Act that is unenforceable, will not be enforced.

Could Parliament change the electoral system to vary who gets to vote? Yes they have done this multiple times in the past. The direction of history has meant that the franchise has been extended each time, to include non-property-owning men, and then to include some women. But it is far from the case that "everybody" can vote. Prisoners, under-18s, and The Queen, for example, have no vote in elections. Parliament could make it impossible for women to vote, but such a law would be unenforceable.

The ultimate check on the power of any authority is the risk of violent revolution. This restriction on the power of any government is implicit.

  • 8
    "Parliament could make it impossible for women to vote, but such a law would be unenforceable" - in what sense? If you are not on the electoral register, you can't vote. UK birth certificates record the person's gender. End of problem! Of course if might be difficult to find people willing to work to enforce it, but that's not the same as "unenforceable". – alephzero Apr 13 at 8:20
  • 3
    "The ultimate check on the power of any authority is the risk of violent revolution" - this is the core of the answer. If the Parliament passed a law right now which sentenced all left-handed people to death, it would be unenforceable because so many people would be against it, that it could lead to the collapse of the current government. However, if 80 years from now, the values of society shifted enough so that the majority of people would find it OK to kill all left-handed people, such an Act of Parliament would pass through and there will be plenty of people willing to enforce it. – vsz Apr 13 at 9:33
  • 2
    I think this answer is incomplete without mentioning the Royal Prerogative which gives the Queen the power to refuse the Royal Assent on any bill that Parliament wishes to enact. It is a matter of convention, not Parliamentary sovereignty, that the monarch does not exercise this power. – JBentley Apr 13 at 13:11
  • 3
    The Queen in this role is part of parliament, There are 3 parts of Parliament: Commons, Lords, Monarch, each have a role, albeit in the case of the Monarch a ceremonial one. Remember "convention" = "constitution" in the UK system. – James K Apr 13 at 14:05
  • @JamesK Fair point (on the first point). Convention = constitution is a bit inaccurate. Perhaps you mean that conventions are part of the constitution. It's also important to remember that conventions are not legally binding and can be broken (and indeed, commonly are). – JBentley Apr 13 at 14:31
8

There's a substantial difference between the theoretical and actual limits of authority held by Parliament.

De facto

In the UK tradition Parliament's authority is theoretically absolute. With a sufficient majority in the House of Commons any law can be passed and the authorities (police, judiciary, etc) can be directed to enforce that law. The upper House of Lords can attempt to delay or amend those laws, but the lower house has primacy and can force them through after a certain amount of time.

De Jure

All new laws must be 'assented' to by the Monarch. Since the Parliament are (again theoretically) subject to her failure to assent, the 'in law' position is that Parliament is not absolute since the lower House of Commons can't direct her to sign even with a majority vote. In fact, without her specific consent to form a government and sit in session, Parliament is dissolved.

Realpolitik

In the real world, Parliament is bounded by a great number of limits; the need to secure a majority in both houses for normal legislation, the enforcability of laws that are passed, budgetary limits, EU law (for the time being), International Law, various treaties to which the UK is signatory and pressure from outside bodies with influence (such as foreign governments).

  • A good answer. Couple of corrections: the Queen’s power to dissolve Parliament was removed by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act; that power now lies solely with he Commons. Also, no party has a majority in the Lords, and by convention, the plan is to keep it that way. – Steve Melnikoff Apr 14 at 15:06
  • @SteveMelnikoff - And while that's true in principle, the legal position is that she could simply use her prerogative to issue and pass a law that reverses that decision (or simply to dissolve or prorogue parliament) without the express consent of her government and Parliament. In reality, of course, that would be an unsustainable action, but it wouldn't be illegal and remains within her purview. – Valorum Apr 14 at 15:24
7

Another elephant in the room here is the European Convention on Human Rights, an international convention to which the UK is a party state. This effectively gives a supranational body, the European Court of Human Rights the power to pass judgement that a contracting state has breached provisions in the convention concerning human civil and political rights.

The original treaty does let states leave (denounce the treaty), but only after a 5 year cooling off period. As with all international treaties, it's not entirely clear what would happen if a state just unilaterally stopped playing ball immediately, especially if it were willing to enter a period of North Korean style isolationism, but it is another element in play, beyond the various parties (and the two houses) of Parliament watching each other.

  • 1
    It's worth noting also that the UK has also imported much of the ECHR into domestic law with the Human Rights Act 1998. – JBentley Apr 13 at 13:15
  • It can still overrule the HRA in domestic law provided it does so explicitly, and then domestic courts have no power to consider either it or the Convention. However, given the current state of anglo-european relations I expect the Council of Europe would act somewhat faster to fine Britain than they did when Russia defied the Court. There is also a provision to suspend the convention in part of the applicable territory of a signatory (originally for Algeria, I think), but Britain neglected to invoke that in NI when they were ignoring the ECHR there. – user1567459 Apr 14 at 10:53
6

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act means they have to respond to the electorate, eventually. In fact this provision has existed for a long time in various forms

The Septennial Act 1715 provided that a parliament expired seven years after it had been summoned; this period was reduced to five years by the Parliament Act 1911.

The House of Lords can exercise some restraint in terms constitutionality of laws, although given the lack of a single, written constitution in the UK that's a complicated exercise.

Presumably the Queen can withhold Royal Assent on some completely insane law, but there isn't much in the way recent precedent.

The last bill that was refused assent by the sovereign (on the advice of ministers) was the Scottish Militia Bill during Queen Anne's reign in 1708.

  • 7
    Given parliament could simply repeal the FTPA (presuming royal assent), I don't really think that's much of a check on their power. – CoedRhyfelwr Apr 12 at 15:49
  • 2
    I suppose my question revolves around disenfranchising their own electorate. In effect changing the rules of the game such that the electorate’s vote is diminished in some way, in future general elections. Presumably this is well within the power of the Parliament. – Ben Apr 12 at 15:52
  • 3
    @Ben Elections are indeed fundamentally controlled by legislation, along with bodies such as the Electoral commission, created by legislation. Indeed one of the current arguments against the ID trials being continued in the upcoming UK local elections is that it unfairly disenfranchises some voters. – origimbo Apr 12 at 16:07
  • 2
    @Fizz If the House of Commons passed a law declaring themselves MPs for life, the House of Lords would block it. The Parliament Act which allows the Commons to override Lords vetoes specifically excludes and keeps the Lords veto for any legislation which would postpone the latest possible date for the next general election. – Mike Scott Apr 13 at 5:11
  • 2
    @Fizz Supposedly in 1999 the queen told Blair that one of her red lines for refusing Royal Assent was anything that would effectively make Parliament permanent or making elections into a sham (so he didn't need to worry about his Lords reforms enabling that), unless there was a clear demonstration of overwhelming public support that she believed would be permanent. That means they can't, say, change the electoral act to make the deposit millions of pounds for people who aren't sitting MPs and then bypass the Lords because it hasn't technically abolished elections. – user1567459 Apr 14 at 10:48
2

Just to add to the other answers here, in theory the monarch can veto an Act of Parliament by refusing Royal Assent.

In practice Royal Assent is a formality and the theoretical power of veto is never exercised. The last time Royal Assent was actually withheld was in 1708. However if Parliament voted to do something so clearly undemocratic as arbitrarily cancelling elections or disenfranchising the majority of the population then it remains a possibility.

Also relevant is the fact that the UK monarch is the head of the armed forces. In theory the Queen could order the army to go and arrest the Prime Minister, and it would be a legal order that they would have to obey.

(An urban legend has it that Queen Victoria withheld assent to a law outlawing lesbianism on the grounds that no woman would ever do such a thing. This is not true.)

  • Re arresting the PM: it’s been a while, but the last time a monarch tried that, it did not end well for the monarch... – Steve Melnikoff Apr 14 at 15:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .