An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution was first published in 1885, but I quote pp 264-265 from 1915 8 edn. p. 250 of this transcribed online PDF. I marked in red p. 428 in this original. I'll abbreviate Constitutional Conventions with CC.

How, it may be said, is the “point” to be fixed at which, in case of a conflict between the two Houses, the Lords must give way, or the Crown ought to use its prerogative in the creation of new Peers? The question is worth raising, because the answer throws great light upon the nature and aim of the articles which make up our conventional code. This reply is, that the point at which the Lords must yield or the Crown intervene is properly determined by anything which conclusively shows that the House of Commons represents on the matter in dispute the deliberate decision of the nation. The truth of this reply will hardly be questioned, but to admit that the deliberate decision of the electorate is decisive, is in fact to concede that the understandings as to the action of the House of Lords and of the Crown are, what we have found them to be, rules meant to ensure the ultimate supremacy of the true political sovereign, or, in other words, of the electoral body.1
      By far the most striking example of the real sense attaching to a whole mass of constitutional conven-tions is found in a particular instance, which appears at first sight to present a marked exception to the general principles of constitutional morality. A Ministry placed in a minority by a vote of the Commons have, in accordance with received doctrines, a right to demand a dissolution of Parliament.

1 Cf. Bagehot, English Constitution (1872 ed.), pp. 25-27.

p 265.

The personal influence of the Crown exists, not because acts of State are done formally in the Crown's name, but because neither the legal sovereign power, namely Parliament, nor the political sovereign, namely the nation, wishes that the reigning monarch should be without personal weight in the government of the country.

I don't understand Dicey's outmoded 1915 English, so I Googled and found p. 78 of Bogdanor's The People and the Party System: The Referendum and Electoral Reform in British Politics. I type out this part in red.

      But in any case the formalistic approach to the British Constitution is inadequate because it does not ask what purpose is served by consti-tutional principles and conventions. The classical writers on the British Constitution did not regard it as a set of rules suspended in a formalistic limbo, and lacking any connection with political reality. Instead they saw an intimate connection between constitutional rules and actual political conditions. For Dicey, the purpose of constitutional principles in a rep-resentative system was to allow the electorate to influence the working of government; and the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament, therefore, ought to reflect that of the sovereignty of the people. Under representative government, 'the difference between the will of the sovereign [i.e. Parlia-ment] and the will of the nation was terminated',8 and the 'ethics' of the Constitution comprised 'rules meant to ensure the ultimate supremacy of the true political sovereign, or, in other words, of the electoral body".9 Indeed, Dicey saw the purpose of constitutional conventions as being 'to secure that Parliament or the Cabinet... shall in the long run give effect to the will of that power which in modern England is the true political sovereign of the state — the majority of the electorate'.10 'Our modern code of constitutional morality secures, though in a roundabout way, what is called abroad the "sovereignty of the people".'11
      If the purpose of conventions is to secure the political sovereignty of the electorate, then the electorate has a right to be consulted on major issues of policy.

  1. What do "political sovereign", "electoral body" mean? UK voters?

  2. Can't "electoral body" mean the entire legislative system by which voters elect representatives and laws are made? I don't know why Dicey would refer to the electoral body as the sovereign as it harkens back to Hobbesian kind of analysis, but Dicey's meaning fits the power dynamic between the legislative and jurisprudential bodies.


2 Answers 2


In the work cited by Dicey, Bagehot used the phrase "electoral body" just once, in a context where he clearly means the House of Commons

But—and here is the capital distinction—the functions of the House of Commons are important and CONTINUOUS. It does not, like the Electoral College in the United States, separate when it has elected its ruler; it watches, legislates, seats and unseats ministries, from day to day. Accordingly it is a REAL electoral body. The Parliament of 1857, which, more than any other Parliament of late years, was a Parliament elected to support a particular premier—which was chosen, as Americans might say, upon the "Palmerston ticket"—before it had been in existence two years, dethroned Lord Palmerston.


Dicey is talking about the population of the UK as a whole as the ultimate source of sovereignty. This is slightly more than just the voters, because it includes the influence that non-voters, such as children, have on voters.

  • This is incorrect, as through most of the time period very many citizens, including all women, were unenfranchised. Commented May 14, 2020 at 4:59

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