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Democracy as the legitimating condition in the UK Constitution

  • Jo Eric Khushal Murkens (a1)


The UK Constitution is either theorised as a political constitution that is premised on the Westminster model of government or as a legal constitution that rests on moral principles, which the common law is said to protect. Both models conceive of democracy in procedural terms, and not in normative terms. However, the democratic legitimacy of laws stems from a complex constellation of conditions that no longer involves popular or parliamentary sovereignty alone. In this paper, I break with the traditional account that bases law-making authority on the condition of procedural democracy. Instead, I argue for a normative conception of democracy that conditions parliamentary authority. I show that failure to do so amounts to a glaring omission in certain cases.


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I am grateful to Eric Heinze, Gavin Phillipson and the two anonymous referees for their comments and corrections. All errors are mine.



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1 Palko v Connecticut 302 U.S. 319 at 327 (1937) per Cardozo J.

2 Dunne, J Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy (London: Atlantic Books, 2005) p 137.

3 Sartori, G The Theory of Democracy Revisited I (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1987) p 6 (emphasis in original).

4 Bradley, AW, Ewing, KD and Knight, CJS Constitutional and Administrative Law (London: Pearson, 16th edn, 2015) p 73.

5 This particular favourite has been around since the days of Stephen, L The Science of Ethics (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1882) p 132 and Dicey, AV Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (London: Macmillan, 10th edn, 1959) p 79. See Elliott, MLegislative supremacy in a multidimensional constitution’ in Elliott, M and Feldman, D (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Public Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) p 74; Young, A Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Human Rights Act (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009) pp 215, 32–33; Gordon, M Parliamentary Sovereignty in the UK Constitution: Process, Politics and Democracy (Oxford: Hart, 2015) p 145; Allan, TRS The Sovereignty of Law: Freedom, Constitution, and Common Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) pp 18, 120, 141–143, 296.

6 See examples in (R)Jackson v Her Majesty's Attorney General [2005] UKHL 56, Lord Steyn at [102]; Baroness Hale at [159]; and D Oliver ‘Parliament and the courts: a pragmatic (or principled) defence of the sovereignty of parliament’ in Horne, A, Drewry, G and Oliver, D (eds) Parliament and the Law (Oxford: Hart, 2013) pp 314315.

7 Jackson v Attorney General, above n 6, at [120].

8 Bradley et al, above n 4, p 73.

9 Secretary of State for Defence v Guardian Newspapers Ltd [1984] Ch 156, CA.

10 R v Ponting [1985] Crim LR 318.

11 Attorney General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No.1) [1987] UKHL 13 [1987] 3 All E.R. 316.

12 R v Shayler [2002] UKHL 11 [2003] 1 AC 247.

13 Art 19 and Liberty ‘Secrets, spies, and whistleblowers: freedom of expression and national security in the United Kingdom’ (London: The Guardian, November 2000).

14 House of Lords Constitution Committee Surveillance: Citizens and the State, HL 18-I (report), citation at [14], and HL 18-II (evidence), 6 February 2009.

15 Heinze, E Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) pp 4546, 88–89, 95.

16 Percy v DPP [2001] EWHC 1125 (Admin).

17 Norwood v DPP [2003] EWHC 1564 (Admin).

18 Hammond v DPP [2004] EWHC 69 (Admin).

19 Weinstein, JExtreme speech, public order, and democracy: lessons from The Masses’ in Hare, I and Weinstein, J (eds) Extreme Speech and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) p 23; Bailin, ACriminalising free speech?’ (2011) 9 Crim L R pp 705711; Geddis, AFree speech martyrs or unreasonable threats to social peace? – “insulting” expression and Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986’ (2003) PL 853874; Mead, D The New Law of Peaceful Protest: Rights and Regulation in the Human Rights Act Era (Oxford: Hart, 2010) pp 224230.

21 House of Commons, Hansard Debates, 14 January 2013, col 642.

22 Abdul v DPP [2011] EWHC 247 (Admin).

23 Ibid, at [19].

24 Ibid, at [29] per Gross LJ (emphasis added).

25 Ibid, at [52].

26 Ibid, at [50].

27 Ibid, at [55].

28 Ibid, at [52] and [60].

30 DPP v Collins [2006] UKHL 40; (2006) 4 All ER 602 at [6].

31 L Edwards ‘Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003: threat or menace?’ LSE Media Policy Project blog, 19 October 2012.

32 DPP statement on Tom Daley case and social media prosecutions, 20 September 2012.

33 New York Times v Sullivan 376 US 254 (1964), 270 per Justice Black.

34 R v Criminal Central Court, ex parte Bright [2000] EWHC 560 (QB), [2001] 2 All ER 244 at [87] per Judge LJ.

35 Ewing, K The Bonfire of the Liberties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) at 138.

36 R v Lemon [1979] QB 10, CA; upheld on appeal [1979] AC 617, HL.

37 See generally Barendt, EFreedom of expression in the United Kingdom under the Human Rights Act 1998’ (2009) 84(3) Indiana LJ 851866 at 851: ‘English law has traditionally taken little or no notice of freedom of speech. A right to free speech (or expression) was not generally recognized by the common law …’

38 Abdul v DPP at [55].

39 Weale, A Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edn, 2007) pp xviiixix.

40 Bobbio, N The Future of Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987) p 60.

41 Johnston, P Feel Free to Say It: Threats to Freedom of Speech in Britain Today (London: Civitas, 2013) p 7.

42 Dickson, B Human Rights and the United Kingdom Supreme Court (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) p 280.

43 Barendt, above n 37, p 866.

44 Weinstein, above n 19, p 37.

45 Gearty, C Liberty and Security (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013) p 4.

46 Griffith, JAGThe political constitution’ (1979) 42 MLR 1; Tomkins, AIn defence of the political constitution’ (2002) 22(1) OJLS 157175; Bellamy, R Political Constitutionalism: A Republican Defence of the Constitutionality of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Webber, G and Gee, GWhat is a political constitution?’ (2010) 30 OJLS 273; Special Issue in (2013) 14 German LJ No. 12.

47 Ewing, KD and Gearty, CA Freedom under Thatcher: Civil Liberties in Modern Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); and The Struggle for Civil Liberties: Political Freedom and the Rule of Law in Britain 1914–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

48 R (Hooper) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2005] UKHL 29, [2005] 1 WLR 1681 at [92] per Lord Scott.

49 Bradley, AThe sovereignty of parliament – form or substance?’ in Jowell, J and Oliver, D (eds) The Changing Constitution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 7th edn, 2011) pp 6768.

50 Marshall, G Constitutional Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) p 41.

51 Ewing, KD, ‘The resilience of the political constitution’ (2013) 14(12) German Law Journal 21112136, at 2118; Gordon, above n 5, pp 42, 46.

52 Manin, B The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) p 236.

53 Gash, NThe social and political background to the three British nineteenth century Reform Acts’ in Birke, AM and Kluxen, K (eds) British and German Parliamentarism (München: KG Saur, 1985).

54 See Horwitz, MJWhy is Anglo-American jurisprudence unhistorical?’ (1997) 17 OJLS 551586, at 561: ‘… if the central question for Blackstone is how to reconcile the rule of law with parliamentary supremacy, the central question for all legal thinkers after the French Revolution is how a theory of parliamentary supremacy will work under a regime of universal suffrage.’

55 Dicey, AV Lectures on the Relation between Law and Public Opinion in England During the Nineteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1905) p 42.

56 Luhmann, N Die Politik der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000) p 97.

57 Hamilton, A, Jay, J and Madison, J The Federalist (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 4th edn, 1974) No. 48; Hailsham, Lord The Dilemma of Democracy: Diagnosis and Prescription (London: Collins, 1978) pp 911, 20–21; Hayek, F Law, Legislation and Liberty (London: Routledge, 1982) p 348.

58 McIlwain, CH The High Court of Parliament and its Supremacy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1910) p 375.

59 Barendt, E An Introduction to Constitutional Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) p 5.

60 Maitland, FW The Constitutional History of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908) p 527.

61 Sedley, SThe sound of silence: constitutional law without a constitution’ (1994) 110 LQR 270291, at 270.

62 Cotterell, R Law's Community: Legal Theory in Sociological Perspective (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) p 243.

63 De Lolme, JL The Constitution of England, or, An Account of the English Government in which it is Compared both with the Republican Form of Government and the other Monarchies in Europe (London: GGJ & J Robinson, 1784), Book II, ch.3.

64 See Turpin, C and Tomkins, A British Government and the Constitution (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 7th edn, 2011) pp 49–58; Tomkins, A Public Law (Oxford: Clarendon Law, 2003) p 6; Munro, CR Studies in Constitutional Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 2005) pp 8990; Wicks, E The Evolution of a Constitution (Oxford: Hart, 2006) pp 76–81; Leyland, P The Constitution of the United Kingdom (Oxford: Hart, 2012) pp 3–4; Goldsworthy, J Parliamentary Sovereignty: Contemporary Debates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) pp 913; Gardbaum, S The New Commonwealth Model of Constitutionalism: Theory and Practice (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2013) p 21; Raz, JLiberalism, scepticism, and democracy’ in Ethics in the Public Domain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) p 117. For exceptions see Barendt, above n 59, pp 21–25; Loveland, I Constitutional Law, Administrative Law, and Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 7th edn, 2015) pp 49; Morison, J, ‘Models of democracy: from representation to participation’ in Jowell, J and Oliver, D (eds) The Changing Constitution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 5th edn, 2004); Craig, PP Public Law and Democracy in the United Kingdom and the United States of America (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

65 Griffith, above n 46, pp 1–21, 3, 16: ‘political decisions should be taken by politicians. In a society like ours this means by people who are removable.’ Jennings, I. The Law and the Constitution (London: University of London Press, 1959) p 173; Bellamy, above n 46, p 90.

66 Bellamy, above n 46, p 5 (emphasis in original).

67 Ewing, above n 51, p 2116.

68 Waldron, J Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) pp 302312; Tomkins, above n 64, p 23.

69 Goldsworthy, J, The Sovereignty of Parliament: History and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p 269.

70 Bellamy, above n 46, p 90.

71 Goldsworthy, above n 64, p 10.

72 Tomkins, A Public Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) ch 5.

73 Gardbaum, S The New Commonwealth Model of Constitutionalism: Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pp 36, 67.

74 See eg Bradley et al, above n 4, p 55; Elliott, M and Thomas, R, Public Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 2014) p 7: ‘… within the democratic tradition, the purpose of a constitution is … to allocate power in a manner that is regarded as morally acceptable’ (original emphasis).

75 Rawlings, RIntroduction: sovereignty in question’ in Rawlings, R, Leyland, P and Young, AL Sovereignty and the Law: Domestic, European, and International Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) p 1.

76 Jennings, I, The Law and the Constitution (London: University of London Press, 1959) p 160; see also Marshall, G Constitutional Conventions: The Rules and Forms of Political Accountability (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984) p 9.

77 Goldsworthy, above n 69, p 69.

78 Elliott, MThe principle of parliamentary sovereignty in legal, constitutional, and political perspective’ in Jowell, J, Oliver, D and O'Cinneide, C The Changing Constitution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 8th edn, 2015) p 65; Hoffmann, LordHuman rights and the House of Lords’ (1999) 62 MLR 159, p 161: ‘… we have entrusted our most fundamental liberties to the will of a sovereign Parliament and, taken all in all, Parliament has not betrayed this trust.’

79 Attorney General v Times Newspapers Ltd [1974] AC 274; but overturned by Sunday Times v United Kingdom, Judgment, App No 6538/74, A/30, [1979] ECHR 1 (the first time the Strasbourg Court found a decision of the highest UK court to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights).

80 Attorney General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No.1) [1987] UKHL 13, [1987] 3 All ER 316; and Attorney General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No.2) [1988] UKHL 6 [1988] 3 All E.R. 545; these decisions were deemed to be in breach of the ECHR by Observer and Guardian v United Kingdom, App No 13585/88, [1991] ECHR 49.

81 R v Ministry of Defence, ex p Smith [1996] QB 517; case found to have violated the ECHR in Smith and Grady v United Kingdom (1999) 29 EHRR 493.

82 A and X v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2004] UKHL 56; [2005] 2 A.C. 68.

83 Ss 1 and 2 Terrorism Act 2006.

84 S 3 Terrorism Act 2000.

85 Investigatory Powers Act 2016, s 87, for instance, authorises the Secretary of State to order the retention of communications data for the purpose of preventing or detecting any crime, not just serious crime. According to the CJEU, however, only the objective of combating of serious crime is capable of justifying data retention: Joined Cases C-203/15 and C-698/15 Secretary of State for the Home Department v Watson at [102].

86 Jackson v Attorney General, above n 6, Lord Steyn at [102]; Baroness Hale at [159].

87 Gearty, C Civil Liberties (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007); Feldman, D Civil Liberties and Human Rights in England and Wales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 2002) p 32; Weale, above n 39, p 6.

88 Fenwick, H Civil Liberties and Human Rights (London: Routledge-Cavendish, 5th edn, 2017) pp 12, 104; Barendt, E Freedom of Speech (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 2005) pp 4041; Bailey, SH, Taylor, N and McColgan, A (eds) Civil Liberties Cases, Materials, & Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 6th edn, 2009) p 2.

89 Foley, M The Politics of the British Constitution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999) p 1; Munro, above n 64, p 338.

90 Sumption, JJudicial and political decision-making: the uncertain boundary – the FA Mann Lecture’ (2011) 16(4) JR 301315 at 314.

91 Jackson v Attorney General, above n 6, at [102].

92 Dixon, OThe common law as an ultimate constitutional foundation’ (1957) 31 Australian LJ 240; Laws, JLaw and democracy’ (1995) PL 72; Allan, TRS Law, Liberty, and Justice: The Legal Foundations of British Constitutionalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); Allan, TRS Constitutional Justice: A Liberal Theory of the Rule of Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Allan, above n 5.

93 Coke, E The First Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England (London: J & WT Clarke, 1628).

94 Harris, JW, ‘The privy council and the common law’ (1990) 106 LQR 574; Allan, TRSIn defence of the common law constitution: unwritten rights as fundamental law’ (2009) 22 CLJ 187.

95 Allan, above n 5, p 2.

96 Ibid, pp 116, 185, 244.

97 See also Steyn, J Democracy Through Law: Selected Speeches and Judgements (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004) pp 2426, 130.

98 Observation by Foley, above n 89, p 4.

99 Allan, above n 5, p 9.

100 Ibid, p 32.

101 Ibid, pp 17, 135; Dixon, above n 92, p 240.

102 Allan, above n 5, pp 20, 31.

103 Ibid, pp 39–40.

104 Ibid, p 33 (emphasis in original).

105 Steyn, above n 97, pp 62–63.

106 Allan, above n 5, p 40 (emphasis in original).

107 Ibid, pp 89, 93.

108 Scott, P, ‘Review of: The Sovereignty of Law: Freedom, Constitution, and Common Law’ (2014) 130 LQR 162165 at 164.

109 Allan, above n 5, pp 17, 120.

110 Ibid, p 19.

111 Ibid, p 33.

112 Ibid, p 89.

113 Allan cites R (Corner House Research) v The Serious Fraud Office [2008] UKHL 60; [2009] AC 756 per Baroness Hale at [53].

114 Allan, above n 5, pp 89, 142.

115 Ibid, p 7. Any account of constitutional law rests on ‘our own opinion, based on a view of constitutional practice that we find defensible …’ (at p 19; original emphasis).

116 See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) 270.

117 Allan, above n 5, p 141.

118 Ibid, p 19.

119 ‘[An] act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States, and who had committed no offence against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.’ Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 450 (1857).

120 Loughlin, M The Idea of Public Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) pp 147148.

121 Loughlin, M Foundations of Public Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) p 272.

122 Remarks of Thurgood Marshall at the Annual Seminar of the San Francisco Patent and Trademark Law Association in Maui, Hawaii, 6 May 1987.

123 Neumann, F The Democratic and the Authoritarian State (New York: Free Press, 1957) p 233.

124 Heinze, above n 15, pp 43–44.

125 Ginsburg, T and Simpser, A (eds) Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Ginsburg, T and Moustafa, T (eds) Rule by Law: The Politics of Courts in Authoritarian Regimes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

126 Urbinati, N Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006) p 6.

127 Ibid, p 43.

128 Ibid, pp 40–42.

129 Ibid, p 43.

130 Kelsen, H, ‘On the essence and value of democracy’ in Jacobson, AJ and Schlink, B (eds) Weimar: A Jurisprudence of Crisis (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000) p 104 (emphasis in original).

131 Neumann, above n 123, pp 186, 192–193.

132 Sartori, G The Theory of Democracy Revisited II (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1987) p 387.

133 Sartori, above n 132, p 388.

134 Ibid, p 389.

135 Dworkin, RConstitutionalism and democracy’ (1995) 3(1) European Journal of Philosophy 211, at 2; Dworkin, R Freedom's Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) pp 1718.

136 Dworkin, ‘Constitutionalism and democracy’, above n 135, pp 4–5; see also Freedom's Law, above n 135, p 17.

137 See Heinze, above n 15, pp 11–12.

138 See eg the Symposium on Republicanism in a special issue of (1989) 41 Florida LR; Sunstein, CBeyond Republican revival’ (1988) 97 Yale LJ 1539.

139 Habermas, J Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996) p 134.

140 Ibid, at 486; see also J Habermas ‘Three normative models of democracy’ in Benhabib, S (ed) Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996) pp 28, 29.

141 Habermas, above n 139, p 169.

142 Ibid, postscript, p 450 (emphasis in original).

143 Ibid, p 135.

144 Rawls, J Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) p 9. See generally Brunkhorst, HRawls and Habermas’ in von Schomberg, R and Baynes, K (eds) Discourse and Democracy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002).

145 Prevent Strategy, Cm 8092, June 2011.

146 P Johnston, ‘Laws against “extremism” risk criminalising us all’ Daily Telegraph, 28 September 2015.

147 Heinze, above n 15, p 41.

148 Ibid, pp 45, 208–209.

149 Ibid, pp 45–55, 81–83 (emphasis in original).

150 Ibid, p 77.

151 Feldman, above n 87, pp 32–33.

152 Heinze, above n 15, pp 87–88.

153 Johnson, N In Search of the Constitution: Reflections on State and Society in Britain (Oxford: Pergamon, 1977) pp 147148.

154 Elliott, above n 78, p 39.

155 Geddis, above n 19, pp 865–866.

156 Heinze, above n 15, p 46.

157 Kelsen, HFoundations of democracy’ (1955) LXVI Ethics 1101, at 4: ‘If in a concrete case the social order … does not contain the guaranties [sic] of freedom, it is not democracy … because democracy has been abandoned.’

I am grateful to Eric Heinze, Gavin Phillipson and the two anonymous referees for their comments and corrections. All errors are mine.

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