“The use of the Queen in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English Government would fail and pass away.” Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution. 1867
Ever since Walter Bagehot divided the parts of the English Constitution into the “efficient” (Cabinet and House of Commons) and the “dignified” ( Monarchy and House of Lords) it has been more or less accepted by constitutional theorists that the function of the monarchy is largely ceremonial and that, at any rate, the monarch and the “royal family”, are above politics and have no power to influence the affairs of government. Bagehot wrote at a time when the United States was the only republic of note, France having regressed into the counter-revolutionary “Empire” of the parvenu pseudo-monarch, Napoleon III. Bagehot had no time for republics, believing that republican government appealed only to the rational side of human nature whereas monarchy appealed to more powerful irrational sentiments, which he believed inclined human beings naturally towards deference to nobility and royalty. Such deference and obsequiousness, he thought, were very useful glue, making for a steady, stable form of government. He was disdainful of the United States’ presidential system, which at the time he wrote had just emerged from what was then the bloodiest war the world had yet witnessed, fought to unite the nation and end slavery.
However, Bagehot surely had a point in his book The English Constitution in what he said about the utility of monarchy. Writing at the time of the second parliamentary reform act, which extended voting rights to lower middle-class and some working class males, he wrote: “We have whole classes unable to comprehend the idea of a constitution – unable to feel the least attachment to impersonal laws. Most do indeed vaguely know that there are some other institutions besides the Queen, and some rules by which she governs. But a vast number like their minds to dwell more upon her than anything else, and therefore she is inestimable.” The monarch, he is saying, is mighty useful for keeping whole classes, who are “unable to comprehend” anything more impersonal, in a state of blissful ignorance. It must be remembered that this was decades before universal suffrage or universal literacy. Mass-circulation newspapers only emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, and through them the mystique of the monarchy, boosted by Victoria’s “sixty glorious years” on the throne, would be reinforced in the minds of what were supposed to be her grateful subjects.
Although the idea of a constitutional monarchy goes far back into the nineteenth century in Britain, defense of unelected privilege and power does not. There was no pretense that the House of Lords had no political power, and in the years before the outbreak of the First World War, the nobility sitting in the hereditary chamber fought tooth and nail to obstruct the Liberal government’s modest social welfare legislation. The hereditary element still has not been completely eliminated from Britain’s now largely appointed second chamber. It is quite astonishing to recall that reform of the House of Lords, which became a burning issue more than a hundred years ago, remains one today. By the standards of liberal parliamentary democracy, the United Kingdom still does not have a fully democratic system.
In 2012 Queen Elisabeth II enjoyed an annus mirabilis. Her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated with the pomp and pageantry for which the British ruling class is renowned. She presided over the Olympic Games with an inscrutable aloofness that passes for regal dignity. An almost universally deferential media drooled instinctively, their publicists outdoing one another in the obsequiousness of their banalities. This hereditary head of state, who has seen the passing of eleven prime ministers, is well-versed in her role. Her inscrutability can be read as high intelligence, wisdom, political nous, compassion – what you will. Even her peculiarly inflected voice, redolent of an almost extinct aristocratic caste and heard only annually on Christmas Day, is transformed through the mystique of monarchy, to pass for a classless vox populi. Her mask seldom slips.
The sedulously cultivated myth to the effect that Britain’s constitutional monarchy exercises no power over government was blown asunder early this year when a court order forced Downing Street to release secret information exposing for the first time the extent to which senior members of the royal family have the power to veto new laws. The Cabinet Office fought hard to stop the papers being released under a freedom of information application brought by a legal scholar. When ordered by the information commissioner to release them, it launched an unsuccessful appeal against the decision. This shows how desperate the government has been to conceal from public scrutiny how much real power the monarch and members of her family have. Perhaps the most serious example of this power was the Queen’s veto in 1999 of a private member’s bill (the Military Action Against Iraq Bill) brought by the veteran Labour MP, Tam Dalyell. This bill, had it passed, would have transferred the power to order a military attack against Iraq from the monarch to parliament. The Queen, advised by Tony Blair who was then prime minister, vetoed the bill. Crucial to this case is the fact that parliament does not have the power to authorize military action against another country. The fact that in 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Blair’s government did put the issue to a parliamentary vote, does not remove the royal right to veto.
The hitherto secret papers show that the Queen and the Prince of Wales have used these powers to block or consent to about 39 bills. It has always been claimed by constitutional theorists, ministers and civil servants that what is referred to as “royal prerogative” is actually exercised by the prime minister and that royal consent cannot be withheld, even though ministers have the duty to consult the monarch. It is now clear that this is a subterfuge and that senior members of the royal family have real power to influence legislation. It might have been supposed that there were no circumstances in which the monarch could withhold consent. This is not so. According to Parliamentary Counsel, if royal consent is refused “a major plank of the bill must be removed”. Such royal powers, if used, are beyond the reach of parliament and the democratic process. Members of the royal family are very wealthy. The Queen and the Prince of Wales have huge private estates (the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall) valued in many hundreds of millions of pounds. From these estates, which are exempt from corporation tax, they draw huge revenues. Any laws affecting the Duchies or other personal properties of the monarch or other members of the royal family, require the consent of the Queen.
It will be argued that in spite of the secrecy that has until now surrounded the monarch’s power of veto, in practice it is all above board. Consent or veto, it will be said, is only ever exercised on the advice of ministers and never against their advice. As the secret papers show, this is highly questionable. A glance back at twentieth century history will expose some of the more glaring examples of royal interference in the affairs of government. Two examples will suffice. They also show that governments and prime ministers have been only too willing to collude with monarchs when they have sought to bend the democratic process to their wishes.
King George V and the formation of the National Government, 1931.
At the height of the economic crisis of 1930 – 1931, Ramsay MacDonald, prime minister of the minority Labour government was unable to secure cabinet support for drastic austerity measures, due to opposition by members of his own party. In August 1931 he went to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation to the king and to ask for a dissolution of Parliament. This meant that there would have to be a new election. In such circumstances, the monarch is expected to accept the prime minister’s resignation and grant a dissolution. But George V (probably influenced by leading Conservative and Liberal politicians), brought great pressure to bear upon MacDonald, persuading him, supposedly in the interests of national unity, to form a “national” government composed of Conservatives, Liberals and Labour, which, the king insisted, MacDonald must lead. MacDonald was prevailed upon and returned as prime minister of an overwhelmingly Conservative government which remained in power throughout the remainder of the decade, until it was replaced by Churchill’s wartime coalition in 1940. The “National Government” (in reality a Tory government) is best remembered for the 3 million unemployed, the hunger marches and dole queues, and finally for Chamberlain’s disastrous appeasement policy which effectively strengthened Hitler and made the second world war all but inevitable. The Labour Party did not recover from MacDonald’s betrayal until 1945.
King George VI, Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement
The Munich Conference of September 30, 1938, at which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler has been much written about. The details of the conference are well-known. Both the Labour Party and Churchill’s anti-appeasement minority on the Tory back-benches clearly saw this as an unpardonable betrayal of Czech sovereignty. When Chamberlain returned from Munich with his scrap of paper bearing Hitler’s worthless sig
nature to a commitment never to go to war with Great Britain, he should have gone straight to the House of Commons to seek parliamentary endorsement of the Munich agreement. He didn’t. He went instead to Buckingham Palace, where he and his wife were received by King George VI. This was completely unconstitutional. The part played by the monarch in this episode exposes the blatant political bias of George VI and his wife, who in their action showed themselves to be staunch appeasers of Hitler and Mussolini. Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, (a Tory paper which bore alongside its masthead the dedication “For King and Empire”), was also a champion of Chamberlain and appeasement. At the end of September 1938, it printed a large photo, taken at Buckingham Palace, of Chamberlain and his wife, standing between the king and queen, above the caption Home Again. The footnote reads:
“Neville Chamberlain, summoned by the King, went to Buckingham Palace. Mrs. Chamberlain was there, and while thousands of people outside the palace waved and cheered, the King and Queen, with Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain, posed for this photograph.”
(Note: “summoned by the King”)
On the same page is another photo of the Chamberlains at the window of Downing Street waving to the crowds below. The caption reads:
“I believe it is peace in our time…Go home and sleep quietly in your beds.”