Off with their head of state

New Labour’s craven justification for maintaining the Royal Prerogative shows that today’s political class doesn’t trust the people – or itself.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

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Ah, the British monarchy. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Such has been the story of British politics since the fall of Oliver Cromwell’s quasi-republic in 1658. And over 350 years later, there they are still, surveying public life, as parents keep an eye on their children.

The latest chapter in this inglorious tale of constitutional servility towards hereditary power arrives as part of prime minister Gordon Brown’s ‘Governance of Britain’ programme. It was meant to be a review of Royal Prerogatives – that is, the medieval powers the Crown incredibly still has. For instance, should Regina be hard up, she has the right to sell any swans, whales or wrecks she happens across. More worryingly, the Crown also reserves the right to dissolve parliament, enter treaties, and declare wars.

And what did the review, unveiled last week, find? That important decisions like making wars or dismissing governments ought not to be powers possessed by the Crown, no matter how nominal these powers might actually be? That a right to swans or sturgeon (a type of fish) is an entitlement as anachronistic as the Queen’s barnet? No, the review advised that everything ought to be left as it is: ‘Our constitution has developed organically over many centuries and change should not be proposed for change’s sake… Without ruling out further changes aimed at increasing parliamentary oversight of the prerogative powers exercised by ministers, the government believes that any further reforms in this area should be considered on a case-by-case basis, in the light of changing circumstances.’ (1)

If the sheer pusillanimity of the review was disconcerting, the justifications for maintaining royal prerogatives were plain bewildering. Any anachronistic prerogative, like a right to casual revenue from shipwrecks, is to be maintained, the review recommended, because it would take too long to abolish it. The review then made the following astonishing claim: ‘Legislation to replace some of the powers could itself give rise to new risks: of unnecessary incursions into civil liberties on the one hand, or of dangerously weakening the state’s ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances on the other.’ (2)

Both these supposed risks reveal a lot about the contemporary relationship between the state and the monarchy. Take the second for example: the ability of the state to act quickly and decisively. What this actually means is that instead of having to debate an issue in parliament, with all the democratic time and toil that entails, the Royal Prerogative would allow the government to skip over this bit, few questions asked. Hence it was a Royal Prerogative that allowed former prime minister Tony Blair to go to war with Iraq, and it was a Royal Prerogative that allowed the government entry into the Lisbon Treaty with no public vote or very much democratic debate. Here, Royal Prerogative serves as a mask for state power, a readymade justification for the executive urge.

Yet at the same time as entrenching executive power at the expense of parliamentary debate, not to mention public contestation, the review is also making the bizarre claim that the continued existence of Royal Prerogatives prevent unnecessary incursions into civil liberties. Come again? Divine right to rule, yes. A sense of entitlement, yes. But civil liberties…? Historically, the last thing the Crown has been associated with has been liberty, civil or otherwise. Rather, the sovereign rule of a single family has been seen by many radicals and progressives as the enemy of liberty, a source of arbitrary and often cruelly exercised power. It was precisely in opposition to royal power that the Houses of Parliament asserted the rights of the people, albeit limited to property owners (that is, ‘freemen’). For instance, Edward Coke’s 1628 Petition of Right, which sought to impose limits upon royal power, asserted, amongst other things, that ‘no freeman may be taken or imprisoned or be disseized of his freehold or liberties, or his free customs, or be outlawed or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, but by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land’ (3). Far from being a bulwark against an erosion of civil liberties, royal power, unelected and unaccountable, was seen as its greatest threat.

Yet, in this latest review, we see a strange, disturbing volte face, a reversal of direction in which royal power, even if little more than a mask of the state’s power, is trumpeted as a friend of the people. Once keen to defend the liberty of the commons against the arbitrary exercise of monarchical power, we now see an elected government’s very own review advocating the maintenance of the Royal Prerogative.

The roots of this historical reversal lie in the political class’s profound sense of their own illegitimacy, a phenomenon driven by increasingly vacuous politics and dwindling public engagement, and currently showing in an MP expenses scandal near you. Little wonder that the Crown, compared to the self-seekers’ paradise at Westminster, has become the acceptable face of state power. It appears to stand above the tawdry realm of politics – and politicians – as the embodiment of continuity and disinterestedness, almost like some sort of age-old conscience of the state. To quote Yes, Minister creator, Sir Anthony Jay: ‘The strength of the monarchy does not lie in the power that it has, but in the power it denies to others.’

In practice, however, Crown powers, no longer really being those of an actual monarch’s, furnish the state with an authority it would otherwise lack. For the political class, the notion of royalty, and its attendant prerogatives, serves to mediate between state and civil society, functioning as a check on the iniquities and follies of parliamentary politics, and by association, the iniquities and follies of those who voted for them. Much like contemporary defences of the House of Lords, the implication here is that the House of Commons, the body that is meant to represent the people, cannot be trusted to exercise the power invested in it by the electorate. That the government itself would produce a review advising against reforming the Royal Prerogative is a form of self-mistrust. It says: there needs to be a monarch to mediate, and certain policies and decisions need a royal stamp of approval. The Commons are just too common.

And it is for this very reason that the monarchy, and all its constitutional hangovers, needs to be abolished. This isn’t because Queen Elizabeth II or one of the latest in a long line of inbreds actually threatens to exercise any power themselves. Lizzie, Charlie, Willy et al are mere entertainment, a medieval freakshow for tourists. The real reason the monarchy needs to be consigned to the distant past is that its continued existence institutionalises a distrust of people and our capacity to participate in rational and serious political debate. The monarchy hovers over politics, like a friendly tyrant from times past, preventing its subjects, many of whom are dismissed as too stupid, from coming to any harm at their own hands. And for politicians it serves as a mask of power for those unable to exercise it openly, for those who are unwilling to expose their decisions, such as ratifying the Lisbon Treaty, to argument and debate.

The continued existence of the monarchy reinforces the political immaturity which it in turn uses to justify itself. In 1867, this was precisely the reason Walter Bagehot gave in The English Constitution: ‘A republic has only difficult ideas in government; a Constitutional monarchy has an easy idea too; it has a comprehensible idea for the vacant many, as well as complex laws and notions for the inquiring few.’ (4) Of course, if you believe that politics is best left to those with a divine right to rule by proxy, if you believe that the commons need protecting from themselves, that the mass of the masses are just to ‘rude’, in Bagehot’s parlance, then the Royal Prerogative probably looks like a good idea. But if it’s a grown-up politics that you aspire to, a political life in which a people determines its own existence, then we should rid ourselves of this monarchical residue.

‘[The Monarchy’s] mystery is its life. We must not let daylight in upon magic’, wrote Bagehot. The life of politics, however, is enlightened, not magical. The royal aura of politics needs to be stripped away, the shabby veil of legitimacy with which too many state decisions are draped needs to be lifted, and policies debated in the clear light of day.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Vicky Richardson explained why she heckled the Prince of Wales. Brendan O’Neill was sick of royale with sleaze stories and thought the inquest into Diana’s death showed the triumph of backward court politics over republicanism. He saw the abolition of the monarchy in Nepal as a great day for democracy. Neil Davenport warned of the return of the aristocrats. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Royal powers review warns against further reform, Guardian, 15 October 2009

(2) Royal powers review warns against further reform, Guardian, 15 October 2009

(3) See the Petition of Right (1628) at The History Guide.

(4) p41, The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot, Oxford University Press, 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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