It is not often that I will jump to the defence of The Sun newspaper, in fact this may be the only occasion! So firstly, the facts in brief. On the 9th March 2016 The Sun ran a front page exclusive which claimed that the Queen supported Britain leaving the European Union (Brexit). There was speculation as to the source of this story, including ex-Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Michael Gove, both of which denied the leak. Claiming that the story was inaccurate, Buckingham Palace lodged a complaint with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). The argument in essentially that the story must be wrong because the Queen is politically neutral and did not, indeed would never, voice such an opinion in public. The Sun has refused to name its source under journalistic confidentiality. So we await the verdict of IPSO chairman Sir Alan Moses with interest.
These salient details are enough to draw a number of conclusions about the iniquity of Monarchy in the 21st century. Lets start with the fact that a free press has not only the right but the responsibility to report stories which are in the public interest. But specifically, there is an inherent unfairness at the heart of judging such a complaint. Firstly any investigation will require the Sun to divulge the source of the story. The paper has every right to defend its source. Roy Greenslade has pointed out the fact that both of the main suspects have vehemently denied the claim together with the fact that the Palace will field a number of other witnesses besides means that the odds are stacked against The Sun. But IPSO will certainly be denied the possibility of calling the one witness who could clarify just what was said at the event, the Queen herself! Consider if it were you or I who complained to IPSO and then refuse to turn up to state our case. We would almost certainly lose – so why should it be any different for the Head of State? At the very worst IPSO should find that the claim was unproven and throw out the compaint. Here is an example of the injustice of a private individual who uses privilege to avoid accountability.
The often heard claim that the Queen is ‘politically neutral’ has always been untenable, relying on a combination of an unreasonably narrow definition of what defines politics, officially sanctioned secrecy and astute PR to spin away any public blunders. For example there was the well publicised ‘accidental’ comment she made before the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. But there are many more less well known instances, such as this one from the early days of the Blair government in1997. We now know the Queen was implacably opposed to a suggestion that voting system be changed from the First Past The Post method a fact revealed by Lady Joyce Gould (Baroness Gould of Potternewton). I choose this instance because the circumstances surrounding this event highlights another area of Palace interference in Westminster politics. I’ll return to this shortly.
These are just two of the examples of political lobbying undertaken by the Queen which are in the public domain. It is likely that the number instances which reach our attention is merely a tiny tip of a very large iceberg. We are prevented from knowing more by such ruses as the fact that, inexplicably for a publicly funded organisation, the Freedom of Information Act does not extend to the Palace. We do know, however, the mechanisms by which political influence can be exerted. For a start, the Queen has weekly confidential meetings with the Prime Minister during which, according to Walter Bagehot (I wrote about Bagehot here) she has the right to warn and encourage. But warn and encourage about what? Other public figures such as MPs now have to complete a register of interests. So why not the Queen? Without a register we are unable to weigh the influence which may be brought to bear. In fact not less than three Government whips are also members of the Royal Household! Worse, one of the whips in the House of Commons is allocated the task of making a regular report to the Queen concerning members of the House. This includes any gossip, tittle-tattle and so forth. Why would this be of interest to someone not taking an active interest in politics? For Government whips in the Lords we can return to the Baroness Gould incident (remember the Queen’s opposition to changing the voting system). Astonishingly, Government whips in the House of Lords, are formally made Lords and Ladies in Waiting to the Monarch. On being appointed to a commission reviewing the voting system Lady Gould had to resign as a Lords whip and was summoned to the Queen to explain why she was taking this action. It is quite outrageous that any member of Parliament should be dragged before an unaccountable monarch to account for their actions.
But the system allows for an even more overt exercise of political intereference through Queens and Prince’s Consent. This is the process by which any proposed legislation which may affect the Queen’s Duchy of Lancaster estate or Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall has to be sent to the Palace for approval. Mainly this may entail altering the proposed Bill but in extreme vases this can mean refusal for a Parliamentary debate! During the last Parliament the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee raised serious concerns about Consent, which has not been acted upon.
That the Queen is politically neutral is a myth perpetrated on us all and unacceptable in the 21st Century. It is time we solved the problem by installing a properly accountable and transparent Head of State.