Power from the people

Author: Peter A. Bell

Republished here with permission

Language matters! When discussing important topics, it is important to get the terminology right. For politicians, language matters because they may be speaking for their party or for the government or even for the country. Look at the way the common idiomatic expression ‘once in a generation’ came back to bite bums. Language matters because innocent misinterpretations and malicious misrepresentations can have serious consequences. Language matters also because misuse of terms will undermine credibility.

Using the wrong terminology can betray a failure to understand basic concepts. What is arguably worse is that it can perpetuate and extend such misunderstanding. It’s even possible that usage in the wrong way can become so widespread and common that the word changes its meaning so as to match the new usage. The word ’till’ means, among other things, to work the land. In writing, however, many people wrote ’till’ when they meant ”til’, a contraction of ‘until’. Now, ’till’ has taken on the meaning erroneously attributed to it. That both terms also keep their original meanings makes for the possibility of confusion. But this is one of the ways in which language evolves.

That example is trivial. Purposefully so in order to better contrast with more significant instances of language misuse. One which always aggravates me is the use of ‘self-determination’ as a synonym for ‘independence’. They are quite different things. The difference might best be explained by saying that ‘self-determination’ is the process of choosing your nation’s status while ‘independence’ is one of the choices available. ‘Self-determination’ is about choosing the form of government that best suits the people as well as choosing the country’s constitutional status. It is a very important concept and so it is essential that it is properly understood and used. Using it wrongly reveals a failure to understand a concept that is fundamental to the constitutional debate. It’s not going to inspire much confidence if politicians and political commentators use it incorrectly.

Without doubt, the most important term in the discourse around Scotland’s constitutional issue is the word ‘sovereign’. The concept of sovereignty is central to the whole matter. The constitutional question is a question of sovereignty. More particularly, it is a clash between two distinct, incompatible and irreconcilable concepts of sovereignty. The constitutional issue is, at base, a contest between the principles of parliamentary and popular sovereignty.

It follows that a good understanding of what is meant by ‘sovereignty’ is essential to informed and potentially illuminating debate. So, it was rather shocking when STV News appeared to report the First Minister as having referred to “the sovereignty of the Scottish Parliament“. Scottish tradition and convention favour the sovereignty of the people to the extent that one might say with little fear of contradiction that the principle of popular sovereignty has ‘always’ held sway in Scotland; contrasting with England, where parliamentary sovereignty has ‘always’ been the norm. Hence the ongoing constitutional contretemps. To find the First Minister of Scotland apparently maintaining that the Scottish Parliament is sovereign had many a Yes activist choking on their porridge, I’m sure.

As it transpires, Nicola Sturgeon did not use that expression at all. STV’s James Delaney did, however. And he is not alone. A quick search turns up numerous references to “the sovereignty of the Scottish Parliament”, including many from experienced politicians. take this rather confused Tweet form Chris McEleny, for example.

That a leading figure in Scotland’s independence movement can refer to popular and parliamentary sovereignty as if there were no significant difference between the two is rather disturbing. There is surely some need for clarification. After all, language matters!

Dictionaries typically define sovereignty as “the power of a country to control its own government” or “supreme power especially over a body politic“. To my mind, such definitions say more about what sovereignty does than what it is. Wikipedia does better.

Sovereignty is the defining authority within individual consciousness, social construct, or territory.


My own preference is to think of sovereignty as describing that status from which all legitimate authority derives. In the present context, we might say the ultimate source of all rightful political authority. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty holds that the authority to govern is bestowed by the monarch ─ ‘the Crown in Parliament‘. The principle of popular sovereignty maintains that all legitimate political authority stems from the people. The contrast is stark. Which makes it difficult to understand how people can confuse or conflate the two. And how both can lay equal claim to democratic credentials. And yet they do.

That proponents of both parliamentary and popular sovereignty can with equal conviction assert their favoured model as the exemplar of constitutional democracy implies two very different ways of perceiving both the monarchy and the people. Which in turn suggests two very different worldviews. To my way of thinking, the concept of popular sovereignty is the very essence of democracy, while the idea of authority deriving from a hereditary, ‘divinely ordained’ monarch seems faintly ludicrous and fundamentally anti-democratic. Advocates of parliamentary sovereignty would doubtless argue the parliament being elected is all that’s required to satisfy democratic criteria and that the fickleness of the public makes the people a poor judge of what is best for the country. They will talk of checks and balances. I would argue that the need for checks and balances testifies to how flawed the system is.

The clinching argument against parliamentary sovereignty is that parliaments are transitory and being ‘man-made’, they are inherently corruptible. The people abide and while they are certainly susceptible to manipulation, they cannot be corrupted. If democracy is power to the people, sovereignty may be thought of as power from the people. Parliamentary sovereignty describes power in the hands of a small and almost inevitable corrupt elite with democracy being no more than such power as this elite chooses to mete out to the people.

The Scottish Parliament is not sovereign. The people are sovereign. Sovereignty is absolute. It cannot be shared or divided. If the Crown in Parliament is sovereign as in the British model, then the people are not. It cannot be that both the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland are sovereign. It’s one or the other. Scotland’s cause is the restoration of the principle of popular sovereignty as the constitutional foundation on which Scotland’s democracy is built.

Peter A. Bell

Peter A. Bell

Thinker. Listener. Talker. Reader. Writer.