There are now so many sources of authority and law affecting our country that this fundamental question does need to be asked. Much of our law is now defined or influenced by EU law. There are laws Parliament cannot pass and stay within the EU legal framework. Our justice system is limited or controlled by membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. The judges of the ECHR, like the judges of the ECJ, can now dictate some of the answers to Parliament. The EU runs our agriculture and fishing policies, has a major say in our environmental policies, runs our trade and competition policies, and how has some influence over almost every policy area.
Nearer to home the “independent” Bank of England decides interest rates, settles the regulatory framework of the commercial banks, and is often the decisive influence on how much money and credit circulate. A host of other quangos from culture to the environment operate with some independence of government in their chosen areas of activity.
These large transfer of power away from a sovereign Parliament has led some to welcome a new era of diffused or spread power, whilst for many others it has led to frustration that elected MPs and Ministers can no longer do as they think the electorate wish. A government can look impotent if it cannot extradite who it likes, control its own borders, decide what interest rates should be or how banks should be controlled, or settle the price of energy and how it is to be produced.
The fact that quangos, the EU and the ECHR have these powers does not necessarily mean that Parliament has lost its sovereignty. We will only be able to answer that when we know what happens next. If the British people get fed up with the results of so much power given away, Parliament could still take it back on their behalf. Parliament is still technically sovereign, because it can repeal or amend the 1972 European Communities Act, the fount of the EU’s power in the UK. It could by agreement or unilaterally renounce the EU Treaties. It could withdraw us from the European Convention on human rights, or negotiate a new approach to the Convention’s powers.
If many more years pass when people and Parliament do not do these things, we will reach a point where in practice Parliament has lost its sovereignty. Meanwhile, it would be foolish of Ministers and commentators to underestimate the latent power of Parliament. Ministers can take our armed services into battle, but need Parliament’s support to do so. They can propose a wide range of new laws, but need Parliament’s votes to agree them. Parliament and Ministers can make or break Governors of the Bank of England, Directors General of the BBC, Field Marshalls and Admirals. Parliament can create quangos, change them and abolish them. If the so called independent Bank of England ceases to please Ministers with the backing of Parliament will instruct it or Parliament will reform it. Parliament still makes and can break governments.
We had thirteen years of a poodle Parliament. There were far too few votes against the patronage and spin of the established governemnt to make much impact. Today we have a Parliament with no party in the majority, where every voice and vote can count. Whilst many of us want more MPs to be strong on remodelling our relationship with the EU, this Parliament is prepared to say “No” to the executive, and to probe the overmighty in the world of quangos and the established official government.
Parliamentary sovereignty is not yet dead. It has been asleep. The issues for all of us, is do you wish to stir it to a much more energetic purpose?