Court rules that Parliament reigns supreme

Fierce debate: Margaret Thatcher faces the opposition benches in June Mendoza’s 1986 painting.

The Supreme Court ruled that the British government must seek Parliament’s approval before starting the process of leaving the EU. But not all governments face the same constraints.

Just after 9.30am yesterday, the national media stood massed outside an impressive white stone building opposite the Houses of Parliament waiting for one of the most important constitutional judgements in recent British history.

Inside, the eleven Supreme Court judges took a solemn bow before the court’s president, Lord Neuberger, read out their judgement that Theresa May’s government must consult Parliament before triggering Article 50, starting the process that will remove the UK from the European Union (EU).

‘To proceed otherwise,’ said Lord Neuberger, ‘would be a breach of settled constitutional principles stretching back many centuries.’

Back outside, as reporters rushed to convey the news, the attorney general, Jeremy Wright, said that the government was ‘disappointed’ by the decision. Surrounded by microphones, Gina Miller, one of the complainants in the case, said that MPs could now ‘bring their invaluable experience and expertise to bear in helping the government select the best course in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations’.

The ruling reaffirmed one of the key principles of the UK’s political system, the sovereignty of Parliament. Only Parliament can make law, and only Parliament can remove those laws. Parliament voted for us to join the EU, and Parliament will have to vote for us to leave.

No country has left the EU before, and the complex task of untangling Britain from European law is testing the UK’s uncodified constitution to its limit. The government argued that last year’s referendum mandated it to trigger Article 50 without consulting parliament, but the judges ruled against it.

Parliamentary sovereignty evolved between the 17th and 18th centuries, with MPs taking more and more power away from the monarchy.

Sometimes, governments still suffer embarrassing defeats. In 2005, Tony Blair’s government was defeated in the House of Commons over the Terrorism Act, which would have allowed police to detain suspects for 90 days without charge.

The Supreme Court’s ruling contrasts sharply with the American presidential system. Donald Trump began his presidency by signing a series of executive orders, including one pulling the USA out of a major trade deal, without needing to consult Congress.

So which system is better?

System reboot

Some people argue that the US system is more decisive. Every four years Americans vote for a president who has more power to direct the government on his own and can veto bills passed by Congress, almost like an elected monarch.

Others prefer Britain’s parliamentary model, which means that all laws must be debated and pass a vote in parliament, preventing the government or prime minister from becoming too powerful.

You Decide

  1. Should the government be allowed to pass laws on its own, or should MPs have to vote on them first?


  1. Think of a law that you would want to pass. In pairs, debate your laws and see if you can improve them.
  2. Will Brexit be good for Britain? Write a side of A4 explaining why you think it will be or will not be.

Some People Say...

“The referendum […] has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.”

Clement Attlee

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean that Brexit is less likely to happen?
In practice, probably not. Although a majority of MPs oppose Brexit, most of them do not want to go against the result of the EU referendum. However, it does set a precedent for Parliament voting on key measures after Article 50 is triggered.
Why did the government bother trying to get around Parliament?
Theresa May wanted to keep as much control over the process of triggering Article 50 as possible. Taking a bill through Parliament could slow this down and make it harder to start the process by the end of March as she promised.

Word Watch

Article 50
The provision of the Treaty of the European Union that sets out what happens when a country wants to leave. The country has to leave within two years of triggering Article 50.
Attorney general
The attorney general is a member of the cabinet who serves as the government’s most senior lawyer.
Uncodified constitution
The UK’s constitution does not consist of one document and is made up of laws passed by Parliament, and court judgements, as well as various unwritten conventions.
Terrorism Act
Blair’s government sought stronger anti-terrorism laws following the 7/7 attacks in London in June 2015.
Major trade deal
The Trans-Pacific Partnership between 12 nations took years to negotiate. Trump described abolishing it as a ‘great thing for the American worker’.
Presidential vetoes can only be overturned by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress.

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