Illustration by Hannah Robinson
The term ‘sovereignty of the people’ is not one that is particularly prominent in current political discourse. Yet, in practice, sovereignty of the people is emerging across the United Kingdom.
Sovereignty is the idea that one branch of society, typically the parliament or the government, commands supreme authority over all other branches of power within society. This means that they have the ability to set legitimate laws and policies. Whilst there may be checks and balances in place to ensure that one branch of power does not become too powerful, the sovereign body does command authority.
Sovereignty of the people is the idea that, increasingly, governments and parliament are held to account by ‘the people’, and that people have increasing influence over the way in which governments and parliament make policy. Sovereignty of the people can be recognised in numerous ways. Since 2001, election turnout has been rising; people are participating electorally more frequently and in higher numbers, so parties must expend more money and efforts during election campaigns in order to try and persuade the most voters to vote for them.
We have also seen an increase in referenda, meaning that governments are directly consulting people on key issues, hence leading to a lessening of governmental and parliamentary sovereignty and a rise in ‘sovereignty of the people’. More informally, we can see the sovereignty of the people emerging from the increased use of ‘vox populi’, which is the interviewing of ‘ordinary people on the streets’ when considering emerging news stories.
Technology, particularly twitter, has enabled the creation of the ‘citizen reporter’ and the ‘citizen commentator’. The advent of these platforms enables ‘ordinary people’ to give their opinion on any matter they so wish. Again, this fosters the growth of the idea of the sovereignty of the people. This concept is also exhibited in the increased use of petitions, and the increase in marches and protests for (or against, depending on the narrative) a whole variety of issues. As I write this, I am on my way to London to join the ‘Let us be heard’ People’s Vote march that is predicted to be the largest march in British history.
It is evident that the public have an increasingly vocal role in current political discourse. Whilst I don’t think that sovereignty of the people has yet fully emerged, I think it is growing and is set to increase. If I had a pound for every time I have heard the phrase ‘Brexit is will of the people’ or ‘17.4 million people voted for Brexit’, I would be able to pay off my growing student debts. As a side note, I would just like to point out that the UK population currently sits at 67.6 million. I know that some voters chose not to vote and that only those over 18 can vote, but I still deplore the idea that the majority of people in the UK voted for Brexit. They did not.
The public are able to change their mind in general elections. I think that with such a fundamental issue as Brexit, the public should also get the opportunity to change their mind.
This week, the Prime Minister announced the latest negotiated Brexit deal, yet all analysis so far that has compared it to his predecessor’s deal, show that the terms of exit that he has negotiated will be worse for the economy, worse for the environment, and overall even worse for people. Any form of Brexit will be a disaster for all generations, but particularly for my generation who will be hit worst by an invariable economic shock and the loss of opportunities that will come as a result.
Three years on from the Brexit vote, we have had three changes of Prime Minister, three changes of Brexit secretary, and countless of MPs have changed their opinion countless times. Today I want to ask; if the Conservative party and Conservative government can change their mind then why can’t we? It is time to put any deal back to the people in a people’s vote, with the option to remain on the ballot.
If you can make it, then join me in London this weekend to demand our final say.
 Parliament. House of Commons (2019). Turnout in elections (CBP 8060(3)) London.