The crisis in current democracy can be traced to a clash of sovereignties.
In the past, royal authority was supreme, and sovereignty resided in the monarch.
However the abuses of the Stuart monarchies in the 17th century, based on their idea of ‘the divine right of kings’, led to Parliamentary democracy being pioneered in Britain, and thus the doctrine of the sovereignty of parliament arose or, more accurately, the sovereign in parliament.
However, in Scotland the Scottish National Party promotes ‘the sovereignty of the people’, which clashes with this.
This difference of opinion has come to prominence recently in the use of Referendums to decide constitutional matters about the UK’s membership of the European Union and about Scotland leaving the UK. Referendums are an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the people, although some claimed that the Brexit Referendum was only advisory because the UK parliament has ultimate sovereignty to decide what to do. This challenge to the utility and result of national referendums is a debate not only about the democratic process but about sovereignty itself.
In the United Kingdom, there is a clash of sovereignty between the monarch, the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, and the European Parliament. The doctrine of subsidiarity endeavours to solve these competing claims – in other words, decision-making authority resides at the appropriate level of action. However, this does not prevent one authority encroaching upon the territory of another authority.
However, few realise that over all these is the sovereignty of God and that God has delegated sovereignty to rulers over civil affairs, but also to parents over children. Currently, the state is challenging the sovereignty of God, interfering with the sovereignty of parents over children, and now parliamentary sovereignty is being challenged by the sovereignty of the people in Referendums and in other forms of ‘direct democracy’.
Historically, challenges to national sovereignty were settled by international warfare, but also by civil war.
The 17th-century English civil war was a battle between royal sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty.
In 17th-century Scotland there was civil conflict whether the king of Britain or the Lord Jesus Christ had sovereignty over the Christian Church, fought by an oppressive, persecuting, abuse of civil authority and power, encouraged by a persecuting Scottish episcopal church, and won by the triumph of Christian ideas of liberty of conscience and sphere sovereignty over military might.
In the 18th century, there was civil strife when the deposed Stuarts tried to regain the British throne, a clash between popular election opposed to the divine right of hereditary kings, settled by the old method of military warfare.
In the 19th century, the British Parliament tried to impose its authority upon the Church of Scotland and led to the 1843 Disruption of the Scottish church, the biggest national event of 19th century Scotland. Thus began the modern concept of the diplomatic settlement of disputes and the introduction of ‘sphere sovereignty’, long understood in Scottish Presbyterianism, but slowly understood and adopted by English Erastianism and popularised in the 20th century by Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper. This Christian refusal to use violence to settle disputes also explains how the Scottish Highland ‘Clearances’ were accomplished by brutal landowners against a subservient Christian population who did not rise up with violence against their ungodly and violent oppressors.
There is nothing new in such conflicts. Ever since the two-year-old child began to pull rank on its new-born sibling, human beings have sought to impose their will on others. Solutions have been varied, and often forgotten by each generation.
Currently we are experiencing an anti-democratic movement that will not accept the result of elections. Not only are the two referendum results in the UK being challenged with calls for their repetition in the hope of reversing the results, but Donald Trump’s unexpected Presidential election victory on 8/11/2016 is not accepted by many.
Referendums and elections
Referendums differ from general elections. Referendums acknowledge the sovereignty of the people on constitutional matters, and by their nature tend to be once in a generation or more, whereas general elections are regular opportunities to choose who will govern the country. These are different issues. Whether the form of government is monarchal, oligarchal or representative parliamentarian is a constitutional matter, but how we are governed is flexible. Direct democracy is growing because of the internet and social media and more people are able to interact with the governing process and the priorities of government than in the past.
These are exciting times, but government must draw upon history and remember its subordinate delegated authority from the sovereign God, and all those in authority must remember that ‘every one of us shall give account of himself to God’ Rom 14:12 and that they are responsible for how they use the authority given by God to them, and its abuse ‘shall receive greater condemnation’ Jam 3:1.
For guidance, let them look to the readiness of the Lord Jesus Christ to humble Himself while on Earth. Christianity has always been counter-cultural because it is aiming at a higher culture where people love one another instead of seeking to dominate one another.
24 Jun 2019: the First Minister of Scotland confirms “the key distinction between the UK and Scottish conceptions of sovereignty” in a speech to the Law Society of Scotland, discussed in the context of Brexit.
10 Sep 2019: the challenge to Royal sovereignty.
17 Sep 2019: Philip Johnston on sovereignty: “Ultimate sovereign authority lies with the people, not Parliament”. He asks: “Which is sovereign, the people or Parliament? Is the Crown – ie the Government – entitled to interpret the wishes of the former and override the latter?” His imagination has not been extensive enough.
Mar 2020: historian David Starkey reviews the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty in The Critic.