So, we have the result of the Referendum, and a majority of voters have voted to leave the EU. A mantra of Leave campaigners seems to have been the desire to ‘take back control’. There has been much talk of sovereignty, although less clarity on what it actually means. However, at its most basic, there are at least three notions of sovereignty that are relevant in the context of Brexit, and they are often confused. The first is parliamentary sovereignty, which is said to have particular resonance in the UK because, due to the vagaries of the uncodified UK Constitution, the Westminster Parliament has been recognised as a body with unlimited legislative power. Yet the parliamentary sovereignty of a representative democracy may seem to be at odds with popular sovereignty as exercised in a referendum. Popular sovereignty also has other implications, such as in Scotland, where an indigenous Scottish tradition claims that sovereignty resides in the Scottish people, in spite of the alternative claims of Diceyan parliamentary sovereignty. Thirdly, there is external sovereignty: whereby a country may be sovereign and recognised as independent by the international community. But states recognise that international agreements such NATO, or EU treaties, curb sovereignty in practice. However, these constraints are willingly accepted by states because of the benefits that pooling or ceding some sovereignty can bring – indeed it can even enhance sovereignty in another sense of a state’s power or ability to deal with certain issues.
These are three different concepts of sovereignty, but they have become very confused in the context of Brexit and the UK’s relations with the EU. Now we have the results of the Referendum vote, what are the implications of ‘taking back control’ for sovereignty? This blog examines three specific issues arising in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote which reveal the extent of confusion over sovereignty.
- The Referendum
The referendum result is not binding
The Referendum vote is an expression of popular sovereignty. But referenda have not been a highly significant feature of UK Constitutional law in the past and there is still uncertainty as to their place in our Constitution. Labour MP David Lammy has called on Parliament to ‘stop this madness’ and to vote in Parliament against the referendum decision to leave the EU. A large majority of MPs are in favour of remaining within the EU, so Parliament would not pass legislation to leave the EU unless it felt compelled to do so by popular demand expressed through a referendum. Could Parliament actually vote against Brexit? According to classic, Diceyan notions of sovereignty, if Parliament is actually sovereign it can legislate to do anything, including to ignore a non-binding referendum. The EU in-out Referendum is a creature of the European Union Referendum Act 2015. There is no requirement in the Act that the UK Government implement its results, nor does the statute set any time limit for implementing a vote to leave the EU. It is a pre-legislative, or consultative, referendum, enabling the electorate to express its opinion before any legislation is introduced. The 1975 referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EEC was also an example of this type. In contrast, the legislation setting up the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum held in May 2011 (Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011) would have introduced a new system of voting without further legislation, although this did not happen because there was a large majority against change.
So whether a referendum is legally binding depends on the structure of the legislation which enables it. Parliament decides that. The UK does not have a codified constitution with provisions requiring referendum results to be implemented, unlike, for example, Ireland, where the circumstances in which a binding referendum is held are set out in its Article 47 of its Constitution. Indeed, even those UK referenda that appear to dictate consequences, such as the AV referendum, are not completely binding, in the sense that Parliament (due to parliamentary sovereignty) could in any case repeal the legislation creating the obligation.
However, although there may be no legal obligation to abide by the result of the referendum that is not the same as saying there is no political commitment to do so, and MPs may feel a strong obligation to act on the results of the vote, especially if they fear reprisals from their electorate in the form of being voted out of office at a future election. So popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty appear to be at odds. Which, if either, ought to predominate? Continue reading