Is Parliament absolutely supreme in the UK?

Ultimately, all any of us can say is that both the British system and the American system have worked to preserve freedom and democracy pretty well up to now. The American system is more “rational”, and the rules are clearer, but it is, comparatively, rigid and brittle. The British system is full of ambiguities that might, potentially, be exploited by the ruthless, but those very ambiguities give it the advantage of flexibility, such that it can bend and adjust quite a bit without breaking (and has repeatedly successfully done so over the years). Frankly, as I read the signs, as things stand at present, the American system is currently in considerable trouble (whereas the British is not, or much less so). It was not designed for strong, disciplined, ideologically driven parties, and now it has one. We have yet to see if it has the flexibility to adjust.

Remember that the 650 MPs are individually elected. Most belong to one or another party for the benefits that offers, but if the ruling party tried to introduce something as abhorrent as slavery, most of them would vote it down. It would immediately be followed by a confidence vote and a general election.

Slavery is an extreme, but it is a matter of judgement where the line would be drawn. The last vote of no confidence was in 1979, when Callaghan lost over (strangely enough) Scottish Independance. At the time, the ruling Labour party had no overall majority. The election which followed was won by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher.

Ministers have many opportunities, apart from the timing, to influence voters. A favourite, now discredited, was to lower taxes on such essentials as fags, petrol and beer in the final budget before the election. They were also known to massage the unemployment statistics as well as general economic ones. The electorate is more sophisticated these days, but can still be swayed by (usually empty) promises of reduced taxation for the workers at the expense of the wealthy.

I would like to say something about this works in Canada. We have a written constitution that is virtually impossible to amend. Parliamentary law can be overruled by the Supreme Court. There is even a toothless Bill of Rights since parliament can pass a bill by adding the formula that goes something like “notwithstanding the Bill of Rights”. The notorious notwithstanding clause.

But the real power is concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office. The reason is that he has the absolute right to withhold party affiliation from any candidate and nominate his own choice instead. So any MP knows that if he doesn’t do exactly what the party leader tells him to do he is out. Oh sure, he could run as an independent, but I cannot recall an independent winning a seat. The leaders of the other parties have the same power, but if the PM has a parliamentary majority, he can do almost anything. The current one has just passed a voter restriction law that the Republican party could only dream about. Not only do voters need ID (this is an old story, but everyone has a health card, so a non-issue), but they have to prove their residency. Getting out the vote is going to be a major headache.

Is this how it works in England? Can the PM discipline MPs in this way?

The only reason the ECHR has any legal relevance in the UK’s domestic law is because Parliament pass a law saying it has relevance. Parliament is free to repeal said law at any time (or carve out whatever exceptions it pleases).

A bill does not become an act until royal assent is granted, and the monarch retains the ability to withhold that assent. Granted no monarch has actually vetoed an act of parliament in over 300 yrs (or even threatened to in almost 200 yrs). It’s not clear what would happened to the Queen if she did it, but the best case scenario for her would probably be to be declared insane (ala George III) and power transferred to Charles. Worst case scenario (especially if society changed enough that Parliament is legalizing chattel slavery) she loses her head.

Kind of (it’s the UK Parliament we are talking about here, not an English one). The PM has the power of patronage, that’s the power to control who gets some measure of responsibility as one of the officers of state. There’s a few levels of that, but it’s all part of the same greasy pole. Every PM also has to contend with some folk who are in the same party that they’d like to get rid off, but hey, the constituency keeps voting for them. It’s just checks and balances.

George Orwell in one essay of his he addresses this:

-“England Your England”

ETA: I’ve heard it claimed that one limitation on the ambitions of Prime Ministers is the sheer inertia of the Ministries: the civil service that keeps the bureaucracy running, the actual machine of government that in the end fills out and files the paperwork; that prides itself on being non-partisan and apolitical. Any truth to this?

BBC produced a four-part series called “The Great Offices of State” that touched on this issue. One of the recurring themes is how difficult it is to change the course of the departments because the appointed heads were temporary, whereas the career civil servants were more of less permanent and would remain on staff regardless of the change of political climate. In fact, one episode mentioned how Tony Blair attempted to set up his own staff as a way to get around the permanent secretary of the cabinet office.

Which is it, Hari? If the Charter is toothless, how can the courts use it to strike down laws passed by Parliament?

or, if that MP has enough popular support or support from fellow MPs, they can leave and set up a new party, as has happened several times in the past two decades. Since 1993, four different parties have formed the Official Opposition, and a party that did not exist a decade ago is now the government. The PC party went from majority status to 2 MPs in the 1993 election, largely as a popular revolt against Prime Minister Mulroney.

No. The other organs have power, real and actual power. That power is not exercised and they defer to the Commons, because the Commons has an actual democratic mandate from the people and is responsible directly to them. However, the Lords can block legislation, and while that can be overridden it has happened. The Lords can and have blocked many illiberal initiatives, in the post 9/11 world they stopped Tony Blairs more inane legislation. And even if they force it through, the Monarch can still withhold assent.

Nitpick: The monarch cannot, constitutionally, properly withhold assent from a Bill passed by both houses to which the Prime Minister advises her to assent. The last time the monarch withheld assent from a Bill was in 1708 - and that was on the advise of ministers. The last time a monarch withheld assent on his own initiative was before the Glorious Revolution.

But here’s where we United Statesians get confused. How can the monarch be constitutionally bound, absent a written constitution? What if she withheld assent in defiance of (statute? custom?)–what authority can override HER?

Not necessarily. Granted, most constitutional amendments just grant Congress the power to pass laws, which Congress could then theoretically choose not to enact. But an amendment is itself a law and could be written so it directly legislates. The 22nd Amendment is an example of this. It didn’t say that Congress had the power to enact presidential term limits - it set a term limit.

The key here is that “constitutionally bound” =/= “legally bound”. Or, at least, it does not necessarily equal that.

As already pointed out in this thread, ultimately what upholds any constitution is not any written document, but rather collective political will. And a constitution doesn’t have to be written down in a single document to enjoy that kind of support.

What would happen if the present British Queen tried to withhold her assent from a Bill passed by Parliament, which her Ministers advised her to assent to? Her Ministers would resign. Why? Because your effectiveness as a Minister of the Crown unconditionally depends on the Crown being willing to accept your advice. If your advice is not accepted, you go.

For that reason, no other members of Parliament would accept appointment as replacement Ministers unless assured that she would accept their advice. And of course if Parliament had passed the Bill, no Minister could enjoy the confidence of Parliament unless he was going to advise the monarch to assent to the Bill.

In short, if the Queen refuses to assent to a Bill passed by Parliament the UK is left without a functioning executive government. The civil service, the police and the courts can hold things together for a while, but the loss of the government provokes a crisis which may be resolved in a number of ways, of which the abdication of the Queen is the most obvious.

And this is generally the control on the personal exercise by the monarch of the royal prerogative. As a matter of law, the Queen does many things apart from assenting to Bills - declaring war, for example, or appointing ministers, signing treaties, exchanging ambassadors with other states, calling elections - the list is very long. But there is in almost every case a strong constitutional expectation that she will exercise these powers as her Ministers (who are accountable to Parliament) advise and if she departs from this expectation she is left without Ministers. The result is a conflict between Crown and Parliament. And we know how those have ended in the past.

As for how come our MPs haven’t gone all tyrannical on us: the boon is precisely our uncodified constitution. It changes all the time. It never stands still enough to be photographed. As one check or balance is legislated out of existence or becomes irrelvant, two more evolve elsewhere in the system.

A good case study on how our system, while being in theory easy to change, is in practice quite conservative, is the recent hubub over Lords reform.

The powers of the two chambers in relation to each other is explicit in the Parliament Acts, which state they are dependent on the House of Lords being an unelected chamber. In practice, the Lords’ daily activities fall far short of the letter of the Parliament Acts (for example the Lords still has equal powers with the Commons over secondary legislation, but in practice it very rarely blocks it, out of respect to the elected Commons).

One of the oft-repeated concerns when the 2012 House of Lords Bill was being considered was that an elected Upper House would no longer be bound by the conventions that restrained the House of Lords. Nick Clegg kept assuring everyone that the present conventions would suffice, but it was entirely unconvincing. He even got a clause in the Bill that said the present conventions would apply, but that’s like saying the sky will always be blue.

The only other alternative, then, was to permit the courts to govern the relationship between the two Houses (i.e. if there was a clash, the courts would determine which House was in the right), which was positively unthinkable - hand over legislative power to a court?!

So in attempting to do away with one element, the government’s Bill threatened to destabilise a hundred years of constitutional settlement. It would have settled eventually, no doubt, but nobody could predict in what form. The uncodified constitution means that many of the checks and balances are informal and convention-bound, but quite real. Ignore one and expect a dozen others that work in your favour to be undone.

As an American, that kind of thinking seems odd. Her Ministers are more like dictators than advisers. Imagine if a U.S. President was held to that standard. Say that Obama had to listen to Eric Holder’s advice. They probably agree on 99% of things, but when that 1 thing comes that they disagree with, Holder’s opinion has to be controlling or else Holder will resign and nobody else will become Attorney General without an assurance that Obama will listen to him 100% of the time. So who is really in control in that situation? Why would we pretend that Obama has any power at all?

The President (or in this case the monarch) is absolutely nothing but a rubber stamp who is not needed at all. It tortures our shared language to pretend that the monarch has any power at all, “gives assent” to bills, or receives “advice” from ministers etc. She does no such thing. To say that the monarch is a sort of check in this situation is incorrect because the monarchy would end if she tried to utilize this check.

I would say that she would have power if at any point the constitution’s democratic nature was threatened. If there was a power-grab to, say, end the responsibility of Ministers to Parliament, or make elections unnecessary, or to confound Parliament’s ability to scrutinise, then she could deny it.

It’s not so much that ability to exercise as the fact that these powers are not inherent in the Executive or the Legislature, but in a third, impartial party, who on a normal day lends the powers as they are doing quite routine things. But if they did something unusual or constitutionally unsound, then her opinions can be made clear.

For example, when Thatcher was facing humiliation in the leadership elections for the Conservative Party in 1990, she apparently declared her intention to bypass the election and instead call a General Election, so that the people could decide their Prime Minister. It was quickly made clear to her that the Queen would be obliged to deny a dissolution in such circumstances, as it would be use of the Prerogative for party political purposes and would be a power-ploy against the cabinet.

I’ve never heard of that. Cite?

It does not. The Queens de jure powers are quite real. She could pick up the phone tomorrow and tell her commissioners not to assent to a bill and it will not become law.
You are mixing legal and political powers. The Queen has little of the latter true. But, she has plenty of the former. She does not exercise them due to the political fall out of using them. Now, what would happen if we had a situation where a monarch felt they had to refuse assent. The Government would resign. The issue would go to the people in a general election. Now, it could end with the monarch and perhaps the whole institution deposed. On the other hand the public could easily decide, “you know what, the Queen was right” and vote them out of power. This would be the political end of the persons of that Government. They all know that. So this gives them an incentive to continue to compromise. Nobody wants such a situation to arise.

Ooh, you have to ask. I swear I read it somewhere, but can’t for the life of me remember. That’ll teach me for saying something I can’t substantiate. I’m happy to retract it until I can verify.

At the very least, if it did happen, or if it could have happened, that is what’s expected would happen!

Although, I think it should be added that even if people felt the Queen was right, they would by and large also be horrified of a monarch getting involved in politics. It would damage the institution either way.