By Adam B. Weber.
Earlier this week, David Cameron’s Conservative government was surprisingly defeated on a controversial measure to initiate a referendum concerning Britain’s immigration policy toward members of the European Union. Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg blocked this referendum, dealing a significant blow to the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. This rare defeat reopened a popular debate topic in Britain regarding how much influence Parliament actually holds in government.
Britain operates under an uncodified constitution, which grants the legislative branch “parliamentary sovereignty.” That is, Parliament is the supreme lawmaking body in Westminster. No act of Parliament can be overturned by another branch, including the judiciary and the Prime Minister is drawn from Parliament. In practice, however, it has never seemed to play out this way.
The unique concept of a fused legislative and executive branch infringes upon this idea of parliamentary sovereignty. Because the Prime Minister is drawn from the majority party in the House of Commons, the concept of a divided government is absent in British politics. Furthermore, there exist very few, if any, formal mechanisms for the minority party to challenge the legislation of the majority. The unelected House of Lords can only delay the passage of a bill – it cannot block it. Usually, minority parties must rely on divisions within the majority party to resist legislation. This marks a stark contrast from the United States, where the minority can easily filibuster a piece of unwanted legislation.
This is not a new development in British politics. Since the passage of the 1867 Reform Act and the formal establishment of political parties, the executive branch has held most of the power. It is rare to find members of Parliament voting outside of party lines. The prospect of being selected for a highly regarded ministerial position provides the incentive for legislators to vote as the Prime Minister wishes.
These developments have led to the growth of the Parliamentary Decline Thesis (PDT), which ultimately argues that British Parliament was intended to be the supreme law-making body, but that power has recently been usurped by the executive. This theory has many flaws. Its main flaw is that Parliament was never intended to hold complete sovereignty, as history illustrates. The framework for an all-powerful legislature is nowhere to be found in the uncodified British constitution. Despite its flaws, the PDT has become more and more institutionalized, aided by the media, in the British political debate. It has caused a large gap to form between what the public expects out of Parliament and what Parliament can realistically deliver. The public expects Parliament to be a completely sovereign body, when in fact there is no formal mechanism allowing it to fulfill that expectation. This gives the public a cynical view, which overshadows the influence Parliament does have in British government.
While Parliament may not be supreme lawmaking power in Westminster, that is not to say it does not influence government. Recent reforms in the House of Lords have limited the number of hereditary members, which has given new members the legitimacy to challenge acts of government and utilize their ability to delay legislation. Furthermore, the most recent Parliamentary sessions have seen a rise in the number of legislators voting outside party lines. Most importantly, the inability of the Conservatives to gain a majority in Parliament and the subsequent formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has greatly complicated matters. The recent example of the Liberal Democrats blocking Mr. Cameron’s legislation is one of many and could be a sign of things to come. As long as a coalition government exists in British government, Parliament will retain its influence in policymaking.
Once again, Parliament has shown that it is indeed a present force in British politics. Unfortunately, this act will most likely be overlooked by the many who believe it is not enough. It may take decades to break down the structural foundation of this romantic idea of parliamentary sovereignty. Until that happens, Parliament’s subtle, yet influential acts will continue to go largely unrecognized by the greater British population.