We need a people’s veto of these archaic powers
It’s been revealed that the queen is often given the chance to veto new laws. It's time to make her and monarchism redundant.
Criticism of the British monarchy usually comes in two forms these days. First, there’s criticism of the particular royals we are currently lumped with, from the tree-hugging Prince of Wales and his junket-happy brother Andrew to the rock’n’roll Prince Harry or the turning of William and Catherine into a celebrity couple, Wills’n’Kate. And second, there’s general moaning about how much they all cost the taxpayer, and how unfair it is that they are super-rich simply by an accident of birth.
Yet as irritating as those things are, there is a simpler, blunter case to be made against the monarchy: the existence of an institution that provides us with our head of state through the hereditary principle is deeply undemocratic. Those who make decisions about our lives should be accountable to us. The head of state is the ultimate ruler of any country (the clue is in the job title), and he or she should therefore be subject to the approval of The People.
Supporters of the monarchy often counter this critique by arguing that the monarch’s remaining powers are merely vestigial. The queen, they say, does not take action without the advice of her ministers – that is, the government of the day, as chosen by parliament and, ultimately, by the electorate. In truth, though, the powers of the monarch – as bundled up in the Royal Prerogative – are far from vestigial. Among other things, the queen has the right:
- to ‘invite’ politicians to form a government to dissolve parliament, and to give assent to bills;
- to pardon offenders or to reduce sentences;
- to make treaties, to declare both war and peace, to prevent foreigners from entering the UK, to refuse the issue of passports;
- as commander in chief, to control the armed forces;
- to appoint ministers, judges and many other holders of public office, and to create peers and to confer honours.
Ultimately, the queen may decide to exercise any of these prerogatives against the wishes of ministers. A little taste of her power was given in the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in Australia in 1975, where the queen’s representative – the governor general, Sir John Kerr – kicked out the prime minister and invited the opposition leader to replace him. While the Australian parliament had certainly reached an impasse between lower and upper houses, should it really have been for an unelected representative of the queen to make the important decision to create a new government? In principle, the queen could do the exact same thing in Britain. It isn’t hard to imagine a situation where here, too, the monarch’s powers are used to circumvent the will of elected MPs – and the reason it isn’t hard to imagine it is because it is happening, right now.
There are new revelations about how the monarch’s prerogative powers are used to block legislation. A document published this week – despite the strenuous efforts of parliamentary lawyers to keep it hidden – reveals that the queen and Prince of Wales have been offered a veto on legislation on many occasions: ‘Queen’s consent needs to be considered in the case of provisions affecting the prerogative, and provisions affecting the hereditary revenues, the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall, and personal property or personal interests of the Crown.’
The list of bills where a veto was offered is long. In 2004, for example, the bill allowing for civil partnerships for same-sex couples was run past Her Majesty on the basis that ‘a declaration about the validity of a civil partnership… would bind the queen’. Because the queen pays council tax on her private lands, her consent was also required for the the Local Government Finance Act 1992, the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007, and the Business Rate Supplements Act 2009.
The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 required the queen’s nod because it allows the Crown Estate to be held liable for corporate manslaughter, and any fine imposed in such a case would affect the Crown’s revenue. For the Higher Education Act 2004, the queen’s consent was required because the bill affects the Crown’s jurisdiction as a visitor of universities and Oxbridge colleges. The list goes on: various bills covering welfare, child maintenance, pensions, agriculture, animal welfare and value-added tax were also offered up to the queen for potential veto.
In these cases, the queen nodded the bills through. But there are instances where the royal veto has been used at the direction of government ministers. In 1999, the Labour MP Tam Dalyell put forward a private member’s bill to ensure parliamentary approval for any decision to go to war against Iraq in order to prevent then PM Tony Blair from simply invoking the royal prerogative. Blair didn’t think this was acceptable, and so he asked the queen to veto the bill rather than allow parliament to vote on it. In short, the royal veto was used by government itself as a way of circumventing parliamentary oversight. That is a serious slap in the face to the idea that we live in a democracy.
Today’s anti-democratic tendencies are not confined to royal vetoes. The House of Lords – the upper chamber – is completely unelected yet has the power to delay and amend legislation. This week, the government accepted a Lords amendment to the Public Order Act to remove offences relating to ‘insulting words or behaviour’. That’s good news for free speech, but it’s bad that the decision was taken by people beyond our democratic control. From quangos that regulate various aspects of life and politics to the pushing of more authority away from the UK to Eurocrats in Brussels, our right to a say in the formulation of the laws and regulations that govern our lives grows weaker by the day.
We need to be relentless in our defence of democracy and our right to hold our rulers accountable. A good place to start would be to call for the abolition of the monarchy, the most archaic block on our democratic rights. Then we can move on to tackling all the other ways our say-so is straitjacketed by unelected bodies and officials.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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