Parliamentary Supremacy UK Achilles Heel

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By Mark McNaught

Reading through the American Declaration of Independence, it is uncanny how many of the constitutional grievances over Westminster control reflect the modern debate over Scottish independence and the future status of Wales and Northern Ireland within the UK.

  • – He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • – He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and, when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • – He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them, and formidable to tyrants only.(…)
  • – He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing, with manly firmness, his invasions on the rights of the people. (…)
  • – He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution and unacknowledged by our laws, giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation: (…)
  • – For imposing taxes on us without our consent; (…)
  • – For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments;
  • – For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever. (…)
  • – In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

While Thomas Jefferson refers to ‘He’ King George to personalise and simplify the opposition, it would have been more accurate to direct these grievances towards the UK Parliament and the improbable doctrine of Parliamentary Supremacy.  Unfortunately, these grievances ring true 237 years later for the dwindling membership of the British empire, and the muddled constitutional arrangements will be the undoing of the UK as presently constituted.

The double-edged sword of the UK unwritten constitution continues to be Parliamentary Supremacy, which holds that sovereignty cannot be divided, and Parliament can be bound neither by previous Parliaments nor by other powers.  This has facilitated the expansion of the empire, by simply not taking into consideration anything other than Westminster’s will.  The drawbacks include the inequality of treatment among devolved governments, the power to arbitrarily revoke devolved powers and even parliaments, entire nations not feeling represented, and laws being passed without consent of the governed.

We see an increased rejection of this doctrine in all UK nations.

While it would be politically untenable to openly declare support for independence, the Welsh Senedd has made it clear that they are no longer willing to accept the constitutional status quo.

During a debate initiated by Conservatives on January 15, the Senedd voted to reject a motion stating “To propose that the National Assembly for Wales: Believes that Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England are stronger together as part of a United Kingdom.”

The resolution which ultimately emerged read:

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

1.Believes that Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England are stronger together as part of a United Kingdom with greater powers devolved to each of the constituent nations.

2. Welcomes what devolution has done to enhance democracy in Scotland and Wales and its contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

In other words, the Welsh government holds that the UK would be more resilient and durable under a federal system.

In the lead-up to the Scottish Independence referendum, the train-wreck debate between Nicola Sturgeon and Alistair Carmichael, in addition to Alistair ‘The Undertaker’ Darling’s interview, clearly demonstrate that promises to devolve more powers to Scotland in the event of a ‘no’ vote are empty and mendacious.  Failure of the UK parties to make precise binding promises for more powers now, or better yet allocate them now, especially welfare policy, has obliterated any possibility of Scotland remaining.

Even the English are starting to feel disadvantaged under present constitutional arrangements.  There is grumbling over the West Lothian question, the Barnett formula, and the perception that Scots have unfair advantages in the UK.  There are even growing calls to establish an English Parliament somewhere other than London.

While presently somewhat muted, this movement will likely gain considerable momentum after a ‘yes’ vote for Scottish independence, when the English witness how a true democracy can take shape north of the border.

In Northern Ireland, a deep question of legitimacy arises when the Head of State is constitutionally bound to uphold the religion of half the population, and oppress the other.  Northern Ireland is nominally maintained to protect members of the UK favoured religion, even though it has been such a source of strife and sectarianism.  Its legitimacy as part of the UK has never been based on the consent of the governed. None of the UK-based political parties have been able to establish an electoral presence there, which reflects its continued sectarian basis.

The failure of US-sponsored Northern Ireland talks led by Richard Haass to help further appease sectarian conflict also reflects a deep malaise in the UK constitutional status quo.  While conflict over flags and parades may well be intractable in our lifetimes, the very fact that the US is leading the talks indicates the dysfunction of the UK state.  It is difficult to see what Northern Ireland will constitutionally resemble in the decades to come, but its place within the UK is increasingly untenable.

While not endorsing Scottish independence, the Welsh have made clear that they want a fairer, more equitable federal arrangement.  Scots now know they will get no new powers after a ‘no’ vote, and the possibility remains that the Scottish Parliament could be abolished by a hostile Westminster government.

The English feel disadvantaged and un-represented in the current system, even though they numerically dominate Westminster.  The Northern Irish are mired in sectarian conflict, and the UK government cannot perform even the most basic of functions: arbitrating disputes.

Reading further from the Declaration of Independence:

Nor have we been wanting in our attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them, from time to time, of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. (…) We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity; and we have conjured them, by the ties of our common kindred, to disavow these usurpations which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too, have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our separation, and hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

With any luck, a ‘yes’ vote next October will put Parliamentary Supremacy to bed forever. The r-UK can then peacefully go about the business of erecting a just codified federal system for the remaining members, which they will be willing to live with over the long term.

An English Parliament should be established, and a fair uniform federal system developed which allocates the macro issues to the Westminster, like monetary policy and defence, leaving the rest of the issues to the national Parliaments, close to the people where they belong.