Parliamentary Supremacy

  • John Alder
Part of the Macmillan Law Masters book series


The doctrine of parliamentary supremacy is often called parliamentary sovereignty. Sovereignty can be defined for present purposes as the possession of unlimited legal power within a community, although the term is sometimes used merely to mean the highest legal authority, for example the head of state. Sovereignty also means the independence of a state in international law. These meanings are not necessarily related. A state can be a sovereign state internationally but without a single internal sovereign. There is no logical reason why there should be any single sovereign within a state with unlimited powers, although the Hobbesian justification for the state, that of keeping order, points to the practical advantage of an ultimate authority within any community. Some theories of law explain a legal system as a hierarchy traceable to a single ultimate principle or ‘grundnorm’ (see Kelsen, 1961). For example, in the case of the USA, ‘the Constitution of 1788 shall be obeyed’ could be considered to be the grundnorm. A revolution therefore produces a change in the grundnorm. Some approaches regard the validity of the grundnorm as based on no more than a social attitude of obedience to a hypothetical first principle. In the case of the UK the absence of a definite constitutional birth-event makes this speculative. The grundnorm might be for example that ‘the will of the 1688 revolutionaries shall be obeyed’ or it might be based on the common law. In some states, ideas such as transmission by a deity or the supposed will of the people purport to distinguish between valid and invalid grundnorms.


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Further Reading

  1. Allan, T. (1997) ‘Parliamentary Sovereignty: Law, Politics and Revolution’, 113 LQR, 443.Google Scholar
  2. Craig, Public law and Democracy, chapter 2.Google Scholar
  3. Wade and Bradley, Constitutional and Administrative Law (1993), chapter 5.Google Scholar
  4. Bradley in Jowell and Oliver (eds), The Changing Constitution.Google Scholar
  5. Munro, Studies in Constitutional Law, chapters 4, 5.Google Scholar
  6. Marshall, Constitutional Theory (1971), chapter 3.Google Scholar
  7. MacCormick, N. (1978) ‘Does the United Kingdom have a Constitution? Reflections on MacCormack v. Lord Advocate29 NILQ, 1.Google Scholar
  8. MacCormick, ‘Beyond the Sovereign State’ (1993), Modern Law Review, 1.Google Scholar
  9. Mullender, ‘Parliamentary Supremacy, the Constitution and the Judiciary’ (1998), 45 NILQ, 138.Google Scholar
  10. Wade, ‘The Basis of Legal Sovereignty’ (1955), Cambridge Law Journal, 172.Google Scholar
  11. Laws Sir J. (1993) ‘Is the High Court the Guardian of Fundamental Constitutional Rights?’, Public Law, 59.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John Alder 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Alder
    • 1
  1. 1.Newcastle Law SchoolUniversity of NewcastleUK

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