Great Thinkers: Vernon Bogdanor FBA on A.V. Dicey FBA

by Professor Sir Vernon Bogdanor FBA

27 May 2019

It is quite remarkable that someone who lived so long ago is still setting the terms for discussion. I can’t think of any other academic subject of which that is true.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor FBA

What would A.V. Dicey FBA, the leading advocate of the ‘rule of law’ who died in 1922, think about Britain’s current constitutional tangles? In this episode of the Great Thinkers podcast, Vernon Bogdanor FBA, Professor of Government at King's College London, and Conor Gearty FBA, Professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics, try to answer that question, with a look back at the jurist’s life and work.

Once you start reading that guy, you get drawn in even if you disagree with him, and that has made him last.

Professor Conor Gearty FBA

Born in 1835, Albert Venn Dicey was the leading constitutional scholar of his time. He is best known for his 1885 book, An introduction to the study of the law of the constitution, which sets out several principles that our legislature still abides by today. His most notable precept, as well as the most significant in the face of today’s ongoing  Brexit debates, was simply ‘parliament is sovereign’.

Dicey studied at Balliol College, Oxford. He was called to the bar in 1863 before returning to Oxford as first a Fellow of Trinity College and later, the university’s chair of English Law. When the London School of Economics was founded in 1895, Dicey became one of its first Professors of Law.

In this podcast, Vernon Bogdanor Professor of Government at King's College London, and Conor Gearty FBA, Professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics, consider how the concept of parliamentary sovereignty played out both in the major debates of Dicey’s day – such as those around the Irish Home Rule bills of 1886 and 1893 – and how he might've applied it to developments beyond his own lifetime, most notably the 1972 European Communities Act, 2016 EU Referendum and European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

The sovereignty of parliament does explain why we don’t have a written or codified constitution, because any British constitution could be summarised in just eight words: ‘Whatever the Queen and Parliament enacts is law’.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor FBA

Comparing the 19th-century debates around Irish Home Rule to contemporary questions around Scottish devolution, enshrined in The Scotland Act 1998, the two professors remind us of Dicey's belief that devolution for any part of the United Kingdom would inevitably lead to independence. Turning to the current debates around how the concept of parliamentary sovereignty squares with our membership of, and vote to leave, the European Union, they explain how the Human Rights Act represents a "typically British compromise – which has, so far at least, worked".

Vernon Bogdanor FBA is Professor of Government at King's College London. His latest book, Beyond Brexit, was published in February 2019. Conor Gearty FBA is Professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics. 

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