Wednesday 15 April 2009

Sovereignty: Concepts

I will try to look at sovereignty in this post, and it will be part of a series - the contents page is here.

What is sovereignty?

Or what do we mean by sovereignty? If we take sovereignty to mean the ability to decide matters within a territory without the input of other extra-territorial actors, then we immediately face questions about who exercises sovereignty, and what are the limits of sovereignty in practise? And where does sovereignty come from?

Who exercises sovereignty?

This is usually a question that is settled within the territory by a constitution - the most popularly held theory in the west is that sovereignty, or the decision-making power, needs to be spread or divided between several state institutions. The idea behind this is that if sovereignty is concentrated in a single person or institution, there would be no effective check on the possibility of tyranny. Therefore the executive, legislative and judicial functions of the state are usually divided between different institutions, though in practise it's never achieved exactly as is may be conceived in pure theory.

(Questions of effectiveness also impact on how far sovereign power should be divided: if the legislature cannot influence the executive, and the executive cannot introduce/initiate legislation, then how far is effective (and democratically responsive) governance affected?)

In some cases sovereignty may not be as divided or constrained as this: the UK's unwritten constitution is a good example of this, with sovereignty vested solely in parliament. Such constitutions are more political (they give the most power to (hopefully elected) politicians) than the codified constitutions that are more familiar nowadays - codified constitutions usually allow the judicial branch to trump the legislative and executive branches since the courts can decide whether or not they have acted/are acting constitutionally.

Who is sovereign?

Or where does sovereignty come from? The two commonly referred to models are those of popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty. Parliamentary sovereignty is where the parliament is sovereign, perhaps in the style of the UK constitution, though in theory this could derive from the idea that the people are sovereign and the parliament, as the representative of the people, should thus be sovereign constitutionally. In the UK, parliamentary sovereignty derives from an older form of sovereignty: the monarch was previously sovereign (somewhat in the style of absolute monarchs) and over time and through conflict this sovereignty was "stolen" by the parliament. Under UK constitutional theory, and in some other similar constitutional systems, the people are not sovereign.

Popular sovereignty is where the people are considered sovereign: e.g. the Irish constitutional system. In practise, of course, this doesn't usually translate into much more than a more direct say on constitutional issues, but it is perhaps a more modern way of looking at the issue. However, it does raise an interesting theoretical issue: whereas in structures where sovereignty is vested and sourced from the top, the state is defined by itself - its own power - and is self legitimising ("It controls, therefore it is"), states based on popular sovereignty could be said to conditional - power is (in theory) delegated to the organs of the state because they can effectively enforce, through good governance, the will of the people.

When the question turns from the fixed idea of sovereignty as solely a fixed territorial notion to the effective translation of the individual or the community into practical governance (for how else in our modern world can we justify the imposition of political power by the state on the individual?), then the question becomes: does the current state, in its current form, have the ability to deal effectively with the issues affecting the area it governs (or, more importantly, the individuals its governs)?

By fixing sovereignty at the individual level, the resulting thinking could take some very overtly federalist tones: which powers, and at what level, should be pooled by each of us to ensure the best environment for the expression of both individual and collective wills in an effective manner, and in a manner which minimises the conflict between them?

Constitutional questions thus remain forever open, and assertions of traditional fixed forms of states loose their value as arguments in themselves. At the same time, this thinking contains by its very nature the individualism of strands of western political thought: by viewing sovereignty as an individual quality, protection of the individual should remain central to the states resulting from it.

This does have the effect of changing and blurring the original definition: sovereignty becomes less an absolute concept, and one of relativity and power-balancing and effectiveness. It also becomes blurred on the territorial front: the state doesn't become more mobile - it still needs to be fixed to a defined territory - but its sovereignty/power derives less from the land it controls, but from the individuals who happen to live there (it's not because the state controls the area that it can control the individuals to an extent; it's because the individuals in a certain area require a way of effectively administering to the shared needs across a certain area).

Sovereignty becomes less of a value in and of itself, but a question posed of how we balance the values we hold and how we handle the power distribution which affects those values in practise.

In my next post in this series, I'll look at the nation-state, sovereignty, and the EU.


  1. A very strong start to your series! I look forward to more of these!

    I have a quick question: In the Irish system, are the people sovereign, or is sovereignty vested in the constitution (as in the US)?


    P.S. I like the name of your blog! :D

  2. Thanks.

    The Irish Constitution variously describes the nation as having sovereign rights in the style of self-determination (article 1), with the state itself being sovereign (article 5) and the people being sovereign (article 6). In some ways the language about sovereignty can be confusing, and I have to admit I haven't specifically studied the constitution. My reading of the constitution is that sovereignty is recognised as ultimately coming from the people, so I'd say that the people are sovereign.

    I'm glad you like the name of my blog (I thought it would sound newspapery), though there are so many sites about "European Citizens", that it probably means that I'm very unlikely to be visible on Google...

  3. I see! Thanks for your answer!

    There are indeed a lot of sites about European citizens... my own, in fact, is - which is why I was admiring the name of your blog! :D Great minds think alike, and all that!

    I'll keep an eye out for your next post in the series!

  4. Yes, I've started reading your blog recently - it's good to see you carrying on the jam and trucking debate!

  5. Do you think the 'Responsibility to protect' threatens sovereignty?

  6. Well, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force is a mark of the traditional view of sovereignty, though local authorities/federal states can have police forces or even armies independent of the central authority.

    What do you mean by the responsibility to protect, exactly?

  7. "In some cases sovereignty may not be as divided or constrained as this: the UK's unwritten constitution is a good example of this, with sovereignty vested solely in parliament...Under UK constitutional theory, and in some other constitutional systems, the people are not sovereign."This infers that in the UK there is only one constitutional definition of sovereignty, there are in fact two - one in English constitutional law and one in Scots constitutional law. The UK Parliament has NEVER been deemed to be sovereign. In fact the issue of the location of sovereignty, excluding the matter of the monarchy and royal succession, was specifically excluded from the 1707 Treaty of Union which established the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The basis for parliamentary sovereignty in the UK is the fact that the UK Parliament was also the location of the pre 1707 Parliament of England which had been deemed to be sovereign under English constitutional law and because of that it has been ASSUMED that the UK Parliament is sovereign. It is therefore clear that location and legal jurisdiction have been the defining influences in this assumption.

    Here are some extracts relating to the constitution and sovereignty in the UK -

    'Yet the Scots made a grave miscalculation. They thought of the treaty as a written constitution, and, even with all the concessions they had obtained, they would not have accepted that an omni-competent parliament had power to abrogate provisions which they fondly imagined to be 'fundamental and essential'...But the theories of English constitutional lawyers prevailed, and the union has proved to have no more sanctity than any other statute. From time to time attempts have been made to appeal to the terms of union, but always without success. The list of violations of the treaty is already a long one and always growing longer.'

    SOURCE: 'Scotland: The Shaping of a Nation', by Gordon Donaldson, pp 58-59, ISBN 0 7153 6904 0,

    '...The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law...I have difficulty in seeing why it should have been supposed that the new Parliament of Great Britain must inherit all the peculiar characteristics of the English Parliament but none of the Scottish Parliament, as if all that happened in 1707 was that Scottish representatives were admitted to the Parliament of England. That is not what was done...'

    SOURCE: From a 1954 legal finding by Lord Cooper in the Scottish Court of Session - MacCormick v Lord Advocate (1953 SC 396),

    'If the Scottish people expressed a desire for independence the stage would be set for a direct clash between what is the English doctrine of sovereignty and the Scottish doctrine of the sovereignty of the people.'

    SOURCE: 'The Operation of Multi-Layer Democracy', Scottish Affairs Committee Second Report of Session 1997-1998, HC 460-I, 2 December 1998, paragraph 27.
    Michael Follon

  8. That's an excellent point - the constitutional position of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty in Scotland is highly contested, and there could be good grounds that it doesn't apply.

    I'm sorry that I ignored this aspect of constitutional law: it's simply an aspect of UK constitutional law that I don't know that much about, so I can't really comment on it one way or the other. However, rightly or wrongly, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty seems to be be largely applied in practice throughout the UK. At the time of writing I thought that it would needlessly complicate the article, especially since it's an area of law I'm unclear on. My main point was on the comparison between the two models of sovereignty.

    I would be a bit hesitant when it comes to saying that pre-Union Scotland was based on the principle of popular sovereignty, even if parliamentary sovereignty didn't apply. It was at a time of absolutism and when ideas of popular sovereignty hadn't been fully developed, or at least been around for a long time. Of course, I can't say that for certain, and hopefully I will have time to read up on that soon (thanks for the references, by the way).