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  Sovereignty (ultimately derived from Latin super, ‘above’) is a concept which was developed in early modern political and legal theory especially in the writings of the French and English scholars Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau and John Austin. Its meanings and significance are the subject of much rhetorical and symbolic warfare. It is generally agreed that sovereignty is possessed by the supreme source of authority within a political system: it can therefore be vested in a person (a sovereign monarch), a parliament (a sovereign parliament), a people (a sovereign people).

Sovereignty possesses both external and internal dimensions. Externally a sovereign state is formally recognized by others as possessing full authority over a given territory and its population. Naturally the factual sovereignty (or autonomy) of many formally recognized states may be meaningless as in the case of client states. Within a state, internal sovereignty is possessed by that person, organization or body of people who have ultimate authority. Naturally there can be debate as to whether the formal source of de jure sovereignty is in fact the de facto sovereign: for example although the Queen in Parliament is the de jure sovereign in the UK most agree that de facto sovereignty is held by other persons or institutions (for example the cabinet, or the government, or, in the view of some optimists, the people).

Four major debates surround sovereignty. The first is whether it is divisible. Some maintain that it is indivisible, pointing that the concept originated in the claims made on behalf of jurists who favoured absolutist monarchs having a monopoly on legislation. Others argue that the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers in written constitutions divides sovereignty vertically, whereas the autonomous powers of federal and provincial governments within a federal political system fragments sovereignty horizontally. There is a second and similar debate over whether or not sovereignty can be ‘pooled’ or ‘shared’. Traditionalists maintain that sovereignty implies monopolistic possession and therefore cannot be ‘shared’; in this view treaties are exercises of sovereignty and not allocations of shares in sovereignty. Revisionists suggest that in political systems where political organs are constitutionally obliged to share responsibility and authority they must be thought of as sharing sovereignty; in this perspective international treaties are allocations of shares and duties in pooled sovereignty. In turn traditionalists maintain that in federal systems it is the constitution which is the sovereign, to which the reply is then made that such constitutions specify how sovereignty is to be divided and shared, to which the riposte is given that any legal system must be unified and cannot be parcelled out amongst various bodies, and so on ad infinitum. The best resolution of these arguments is that of Preston King (see below) who argues that the hallmark of sovereignty is not indivisibility, but rather the finality of authoritative decision: that is, that there is some formal way of determining the source of authorized action. Third, some argue that law is the command of the sovereign and therefore that the sovereign is not subject to legal challenge, while others maintain that this viewpoint confuses legal and political sovereignty: the legal sovereign is that which authorizes valid law, while the political sovereign is that which has the ability to make valid law. Finally, there is controversy over whether the concept of sovereignty is historically outmoded, redundant or culturally parochial. Some argue that the term is a leftover from the age of monarchs who owned lands and peoples, that its useful meanings can be conveyed as well by other notions, like authority, power and responsibility, and that it is only a complex notion in countries where legislatures possess unlimited right to make laws (as in the UK before it joined the European Community) and where there is no formal constitutional recognition that the people are the ultimate source of legitimate authority. BO\'L

See also confederation; federalism; independence.Further reading F.H. Hinsley, Sovereignty; , P. King, The Ideology of Order: a Comparative Analysis of Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes; , P. King, Federalism and Federation.



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