IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Between Union and Devolution: The Structure of the British Parliament as a Problem of Process
The Parliament at Westminster has a three-fold status: it is the sovereign legislature on which the British Constitution rests, it is the general legislature for the United Kingdom, and it is the special legislature for England (and Wales). Prior to devolution, Parliament simply legislated for the United Kingdom, and did so with sovereign authority; it was also constituted in a manner suitable to a unified state. Devolution has involved a transfer of jurisdiction to the devolved legislatures, but it has not involved any structural change to Parliament itself. The House of Commons continues to be composed of members chosen to represent local electoral constituencies, and neither the Commons nor the House of Lords is designed to represent the people of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom as discrete political communities.
This creates tensions when Parliament exercises its sovereign, general and special functions. At present, these tensions are managed through political conventions and procedural requirements, not legally enforceable rules. The Sewel Convention requires that the Parliament will not legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the relevant devolved legislature. The House of Commons has resolved that bills which in some respect relate exclusively to England (or England and Wales) must obtain the approval of a majority of English (or English and Welsh) MPs.
All of this renders the British system unique in the world and a cause of much fascination. Other federal and quasi-federal systems distribute sovereign, general and special law-making functions to distinct legislative bodies, and their legislatures are constructed in a way that reflects these distinctions. It might be tempting to propose that the British Parliament should be reformed along similar lines. But that would be to overlook the unique historical character of each constitutional settlement, for even among federal systems there is great variety in the way that law-making powers are distributed and legislative bodies are constructed.
While the American Senate and the German Bundesrat, for example, represent the constituent political units of the federation, they do so in very different ways. Likewise, any future reforms of the British constitution will necessarily develop in a manner unique to the British context, as they always have.
This lecture is free and open to all.
Details about Professor Nicholas Aroney
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