Friday 27 November 2009

Who should rule, parliament or people?

What's wrong with the British constitution?

This question is the title of a new book by my colleague, Iain McLean, which I think is a must read for those interested in political reform. He writes very amusingly and powerfully about it at OurKingdom.

Historically, lawyers have argued that the core constitutional principle at work is that of parliamentary sovereignty. Iain argues that this doctrine is ethically flawed. In line with the tradition of democratic republicanism, Iain argues that it is the people - 'we, the people' - who are properly sovereign, not parliament.

The lawyers say there is no conflict because parliament is elected by the people. But Iain points out that this is obviously untrue. Parliament has three houses: Commons, Lords and monarch (a 'House' of one). Only one of these is elected.

Iain also points out that large sections of the British political elite have been perfectly willing to relax or revise the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty when parliament has looked as if it will use its sovereign powers in ways they don't like. A.V. Dicey, exponent of parliamentary sovereignty par excellence, made some sudden and unexpected (but convenient) revisions to the doctrine when a Lib-Lab-Nationalist Commons, having tamed the powers of the Lords, looked set to deliver Home Rule for Ireland.

Iain's proposal is to recast the British state formally and rationally on the principle of popular sovereignty. This would mean an elected second chamber and, of course, an elected head of state. His suggestion for a new Senate to replace the Lords, elected on a PR basis, and for long single terms, has already had some influence on the government's latest proposals for areformed second chamber.

For those of us who believe in popular sovereignty, however, it is important that the process of reform itself express this principle. A constitution for and of the people ought to be made by the people.

This thought has underpinned widespread calls this year for some sort of citizens' convention to consider proposals for reform of the political system. One admirable effort along these lines is that of Power 2010.

The first step has been to invite the public at large to send in their own ideas for reform. Anything. Whatever you like. If you have an idea, and you haven't sent it in yet, then send it in quickly because there are just a few days left before the deadline. My idea was utterly unoriginal but one I felt needed to be emphasised: PR (for Lords/Senate and Commons).

The next step of the process will be to convene a citizens' panel which will discuss the proposals and identify five to be put to a wider public vote.

It will be interesting to see how far the resulting proposals look like the recommendations developed by Iain McLean in his new book.

Either way, this book and the Power 2010 campaign are two welcome signs of a growing interest in shifting the basis of how we are ruled from the antiquated notion of parliamentary sovereignty to the republican ideal of popular sovereignty.


Dingdongalistic said...

There is no point having PR for both the Commons and Lords -- every voting system has some flaw or other, so it's better to have different means of election to both chambers if both are elected, with the purpose of each correcting the other's flaws.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the tip about the book.

The point about Dicey is a very good one. It reminded me that there is a splendid evisceration of Dicey's hyperpartisan standing on his head over sovereignty in Ferdinand Mount's excellent The British Constitution Now, published in the early 1990s. Anyone who reads that would be astonished that Dicey can still be intoned in hushed tones as one of the venerable constitutional authorities.