The Sovereignty of Parliament

The bombing of Syria at the weekend has raised the issue of the “Sovereignty of Parliament”. According to Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Clarke and many others, Theresa May should have consulted Parliament before joining the US and France in slapping Bashar al-Assad over the wrist for gassing his own people in Syria’s interminable and brutal civil war.

Some have professed to see a contradiction between the Brexit goal of restoring Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Prime Minister’s willingness to commit the UK military without parliamentary approval.

I have my doubts about the efficacy of a strategy of launching an air strike every time we are confronted with horrific scenes on the television. But that is not the subject of this post. It seems to me the important principle of the Sovereignty of Parliament is being misunderstood.

In the UK constitution, Parliament is the Legislature not the Executive. Parliamentary Sovereignty means that laws made in the UK Parliament may not be overruled by foreign courts, or by foreign parliaments. That is the principle that was breached by our membership of the EU, and that will be restored by Brexit.

It does not mean that the PM must consult Parliament before making every executive decision. There are many good reasons why that would not work, and in the case of military action, the PM is quite correct to say that the need for prompt action, and the need to take into account highly sensitive intelligence sources makes that impractical. (Parliamentary debates are of course open to the public and reported in Hansard).

There is no legal or constitutional requirement for a PM to seek the approval of Parliament before taking military action. There has been a recent convention of seeking such consent. In 2013 Tony Bliar persuaded Parliament to rubber-stamp the invasion of Iraq. In 2013 David Cameron failed to get approval for military action in Syria, and as a result abandoned that course of action.

The history of this convention is not good. Parliament is hostage to whatever version of the intelligence the Government chooses to make available. This is not the proper role of Parliament, and it certainly isn’t Parliamentary Sovereignty.

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