Parliamentary sovereignty is a dead parrot

12 March 2008

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): In a sympathetic review of Keith Ewing's lecture this week, Debbie Moss suggests that the Professor is onto something:

Government has to be checked by a reinvigorated sovereign parliament. Ewing is surely right on this point. It must be preferable that our democratically elected parliament prevents the executive from passing statutes that contravene human rights, rather than hoping that judges will step in after the event when many of the measures will have already worked their effects.

We have been here before and it won't work. I am entirely against our relying entirely on judges to ensure our fundamental rights. As John Jackson has argued, no constitution would open with the words "We the Judges". But there is form here which clarifies what is being proposed. Ewing has been a stalwart opponent of constitutional reform, Charter 88 and any overall approach to making Britain more democratic. For decades he defended parliamentary sovereignty as we were 'supposed' to have it in the dream world where a Labour government could get a majority and legislate socialism. He never accepted the argument, put so succinctly at the time by Neal Ascherson, that one could no more get socialism from the existing British state than one could get milk from a vulture.

Now he is, it seems, ruefully contemplating the ruins of his dream in the wreckage of authoritarian legislation and executive diktat carried through by his party as New Labour modernised the British state rather than democratising it, bringing out the worst of the old regime - even, I would argue, in the arbitrary way it did good things in Scotland, London and with the HRA. It's wonderful that Ewing cries out for a halt, demands proportional representation and a democratic second chamber but not if all this is still focused on the charivari of a sovereign assembly of the Commons unconstrained by a democratic constitution.

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