The Shibboleth of Sovereignty

28 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2018

See all articles by Martin Loughlin

Martin Loughlin

London School of Economics - Law School

Stephen Tierney

University of Edinburgh - School of Law

Date Written: November 2018


Sovereignty is the central tenet of modern British constitutional thought but its meaning remains misunderstood. Lawyers treat it as a precise legal concept – the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – but commonly fail to acknowledge that that doctrine is erected on a skewed sense of what sovereignty entails. In particular, they do not see that the doctrine rests on a particular political conviction, that the British state depends on a central authority equipped with an unlimited power. These two facets of sovereignty are now so deeply intertwined in legal consciousness that they cannot easily be unravelled and this becomes the main barrier to thinking constructively about Britain's constitutional arrangements. This article substantiates these claims by explaining how the doctrine came into being, demonstrating how it is tied to a deeper political conviction, showing that its political underpinnings have been considerably weakened over the last century, and indicating how its re‐working is the precondition of constitutional renewal.

Keywords: Sovereignty, Parliamentary sovereignty, Dicey. British constitution, Brexit

Suggested Citation

Loughlin, Martin and Tierney, Stephen, The Shibboleth of Sovereignty (November 2018). The Modern Law Review, Vol. 81, Issue 6, pp. 989-1016, 2018, Available at SSRN: or

Martin Loughlin (Contact Author)

London School of Economics - Law School ( email )

Stephen Tierney

University of Edinburgh - School of Law ( email )

Old College
South Bridge
Edinburgh, EH8 9YL
United Kingdom

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