The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Science

Authors: Bogdanor
Summary: In less than 700 words, this entry defines sovereignty, discusses the concept's historical and modern roots, and concludes by considering the significance of 'state sovereignty.'
The entry defines sovereignty as, "The condition of being sovereign or of being a sovereign." In classical legal and political theory, a sovereign is the state organ--either individual or collective--that legitimately holds supreme authority. By contrast, a limited monarch is not a classical sovereign. Rather, for example in the United Kingdom, it is the Parliament that is constitutionally sovereign.
This view of sovereignty has its ancient roots in the concept of princeps legibus solutus, but its modern roots come from the works of jeremy Bentham and John Austin. These men define law as the command of the sovereign, which is defined as that person or group habitually obeyed but habitually obeying no other. James Bryce and A.V. Dicey critique this view as conflating legal and political sovereigns.
The entry next considers the implications of non-absolute, legislatively-conferred sovereignty, as well as the lack of a single sovereign within an independent nation-state. For example, in the United States, the constitution does not establish any organ endowed with sovereign power. This has been interpreted by some constitutional scholars as making the people sovereign. In situations where there is no clear sovereign within a state, the state itself is still sovereign within the realm of international relations. However, the experience of the European Community shows us that a conceptual as well as political evolution is underway, and questions about splitting sovereignty between states and the larger community are very much under discussion.