The Queen’s role in politics is one of the last remnants of feudalism
Sunday National, September 15th 2019
The Queen has been publicly involved in politics in the past few weeks on an unprecedented scale. There has been Boris Johnson’s suspension of the UK Parliament, the nature of his advice to the Queen, the Court of Session judgement calling his actions ‘unlawful’, followed by Johnson saying when asked if he mislead the monarch: ‘absolutely not’.
The Queen is the public front of an intricate, complex institution called ‘the Crown’. As any watchers of the Netflix series of the same name will understand, this entity sits at the centre of the British establishment and its networks of power and influence, and is staffed by a host of experienced, but nearly always discreet, advisers and courtiers who work for the royal household and Queen.
There are also what are called Crown powers or the Crown prerogative. This is the ancient ways that government has been run in the UK, once practiced by the monarch, but which have come to be used by the executive, and in reality, the Prime Minister, rather than Parliament. Tony Benn described the royal prerogative as ‘the final guarantee that democratic decisions by Parliament and the people could never be allowed to undermine the hierarchical and semi-feudal system we have.’
For all the rhetoric of the Queen’s apolitical role as head of state, a reign that has lasted for 67 years and 14 Prime Ministers – from Churchill to Boris Johnson – her influence has been important at telling points and crises, one of which we may be at now.
Before the Tories belatedly discovered democracy in how they elect their leaders, every Tory leader until Ted Heath in 1965 emerged from a murky system that, if the party was in office, involved the monarch directly in politics.
This was last seen in 1963 when Alec Douglas Home was chosen as Tory leader and Prime Minister to succeed Harold Macmillan, ahead of the favourites Rab Butler and Lord Hailsham. He emerged from what was called the Tory ‘magic circle’ of taking ‘soundings’ from Tory elders and this being passed to the monarch. Such was the controversy as politics and society became less deferential that the Tories decided this would be the last time they selected a leader in such a way.
In more recent times it became known that the Queen disapproved of Thatcher’s pro-South African apartheid views and the damage it was having on the Commonwealth. This was covered by the ‘Sunday Times’ in 1986 with a front page headline – ‘Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher’ – detailing the schism between the two women.
Closer to home the monarch has intervened in constitutional affairs related to Scotland on two occasions. In May 1977, in the midst of her Jubilee year and the first devolution debate, she told a joint session of both Houses of Parliament that ‘I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’
Then there was the indyref. People remember the Balmoral intervention the Sunday before the vote when she told a member of the public that ‘I hope people will think very carefully about the future’. Constitutional historian Peter Hennessy said this was ‘Neutral – but nicely and very neatly done.’
This was not the only indyref intervention by the Crown. On the Sunday prior ‘Palace officials’ clearly speaking with the permission of the Queen told the papers that ‘The Queen is a unionist. There is now a great deal of concern’, concluding ‘Nothing is certain. Her being Queen of Scotland is not a given.’
The Crown powers can be controversial as we have seen in recent years. This was the context of the march to the Tony Blair supported Iraq war in March 2003. Although he held a parliamentary vote which he won, one of the most important Crown powers is the right to declare war and use military force. For example, when the UK entered the First and Second World Wars in August 1914 and September 1939, it did so without recourse to parliamentary vote.
The controversy over the Iraq war led the Commons Public Administration Committee to take the unprecedented action of publishing the list of areas the Crown powers covered. These ranged from appointing ministers to the granting of honours, calling of elections, appointment of civil servants and judges, and making war and peace – from military action to international treaties.
In the aftermath of the Iraq war Gordon Brown, on becoming Prime Minister in 2007, made a promise to limit the royal prerogative under which it is possible to declare war, although he never got round to actual reform. Yet in this climate, David Cameron felt in 2013 that he had to bring military intervention in Syria to the Commons for a vote which he lost.
The Queen still has the potential to influence and impact on politics in a number of ways. First, the Queen retains the power to dismiss a sitting Prime Minister and appoint a new one. Thus, in the view of Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit at University College London: ‘The Queen could dismiss Boris Johnson if he lost a vote of no confidence and refused to resign.’
Second, in certain circumstances in a hung Parliament the choice of Prime Minister might not always be crystal clear. What would happen, for example, if Boris Johnson unexpectedly resigned in this Parliament? Would the Queen call another Tory leader, or Jeremy Corbyn, or consider an alternative – such as a leader of a ‘government of national unity’?
Third, if an election produces another hung Parliament it is not always clear who becomes Prime Minister. After the February 1974 election, Ted Heath remained in Downing Street for six days after the contest despite losing his majority and having less seats than Labour who eventually formed a minority government. Gordon Brown remained as Prime Minister in 2010 for five days after the election, before David Cameron and Nick Clegg formed their coalition.
It isn’t even the leader of the largest party who always end up as the government. In the aftermath of the 1923 election, Ramsay MacDonald entered Downing Street as the first ever Labour Prime Minister. This despite Labour having only 191 seats, 67 seats less than Stanley Baldwin’s Tories on 258.
Fourthly, what happens when the advice given by a Prime Minister to the monarch has been declared ‘unlawful’ by the courts? What are the consequences next week if the Supreme Court upholds the Court of Session judgement? And even if they do not, in an age of judicial review, what happens if future judgements bring the role of monarch to the fore?
The continuation of the Queen or her successor as head of state would matter in an independent Scotland. The SNP used to be in favour of a referendum on the subject of an elected head of state in an independent Scotland, but now says little on the subject. Yet, this isn’t some superficial debate about symbols and pageantry, but goes to the heart of how we see democracy and power.
The Queen and the Crown have changed dramatically, but they still matter. The old, respected role they fulfilled as part of the ‘dignified’ element of the constitution has been eroded and exposed. Instead, it became in recent decades a way of keeping the unreformed British constitution on the road, free from scrutiny and reform.
What has occurred with Brexit is that the hidden wires that have held together the establishment, and the way it rules Britain, have become more exposed. This has the consequence of reminding people that Britain is not the great democracy that it claims to be, but a country with a half-elected legislature in Westminster, and a widespread culture of patronage in its elites.
The Queen herself is not responsible as an individual for the shortcomings in public life, but what she represents has contributed to the wider malaise. As the late Christopher Hitchens wrote: ‘The British monarchy inculcates unthinking credulity and servility. It forms a heavy layer on the general encrustation of our unreformed institutions.’
This is central to what Britain is: its absence of democracy, the conceits of its ruling caste, and the disgrace that the Crown powers are still the way we send our armed forces out to action to fight and die in our name. It would be a small step into the 21st century for this to be thoroughly overhauled and for democratic processes to be brought into what are some of the last and important vestiges of feudalism and lordship.