Sovereignty of People and Parliament Explained

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There is an oft-heard Scottish nationalist myth that "sovereignty" in Scotland belongs to "the people" but in England, sovereignty only belongs "to Parliament".

The fact is that sovereignty in both Scotland and England is, of course, the same!


Sovereignty is authority. The authority to do something.

In politics, there are different kinds of sovereignty.

There is democratic sovereignty, legal sovereignty and national sovereignty. We define them below.


The notion of there being a difference between Scotland and England derives from an opinion expressed by a judge – Lord Cooper – in a court case in 1953. He expressed a point of view – called an obiter dictum. His opinion did not form any part of the judgement.

In this case, the petitioners John MacCormick and Ian Hamilton argued that the Royal Styling of Elizabeth "the Second" was in breach of the first article of the Treaty of Union. The case was heard initially by the Lord Ordinary, Lord Guthrie and he found for the Crown. The petition was dismissed. They appealed and it was heard in the First Division by the Lord President Lord Cooper, and Lords Carmont and Russell. They affirmed the Lord Ordinary's decision.

The sentence which the Nationalists like to quote is the comment (and it was no more than an opinion) by Lord Cooper that:

"The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law." [Scots Law Times (1953) 255-265 at 262, and Session Cases (1953) 396-418 at 411.