Following her (unelected) installation as leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May duly travelled to Buckingham Palace to be appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pictures abounded of May curtseying to the monarch which naturally gave satirists and cartoonists like Peter Brooks (whose Times cartoon appears above) a field day. But things are not all they seem. In many ways a curtsey or genuflection can be classed with other acts of submission including swearing an oath which I have posted about hereand here. Bending the knee is about making yourself smaller than the other person, implicitly recognising their superior status. But Brooks was not alone in pointing to the shrunken nature of British democracy which allows a new Prime Minister without a popular mandate to be appointed by a Head of State without a mandate on any kind! An insightful comment was made by Kelly Grovier in an article on the BBC website:
Though the photo may be accented with smiles and the glamour of designer fashions, a stony silence entombs this week’s image. It divulges nothing of what was actually discussed between the queen and the new PM.
This speaks to the wider issue about the secrecy which surrounds the upper echelons of government with Freedom of Information bans, secret weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and Queen and the necessity of obtaining permission from the Palace in certain circumstances to even hold a debate in the House of Commons! The message it sent to the British public was one thing, but to the rest of the world who may well view Brexit as a backward looking and isolationist act, such a picture serves to confirm an image of Britain as an out of date archaic irrelevance. Some posters on social media were quick to pick up on the symbolism and contrasted the stiff obeisance of the photograph with a picture of US President Obama fist bumping a floor cleaner as he walked past. This reflects a totally different relationship of the Head of State to the citizenry. There is no way anyone in Britain can truly identify with the Royals as the life experiences are totally alien. While not wishing a US style system for Britain, the fact that a Head of State drawn from the population and who shares at least some of the experiences of the people must be an essential requirement of the job.
A Deliberate Attempt to Deceive
But there are two ways in which the photograph is actually misleading. At the end of her piece, Grovier makes a second telling statement: In stooping low, [Theresa May] reaches high. I have posted before on the fact that the powers of the Queen are largely wielded by the Prime minister in collaboration with her cabinet, termed a ‘disguised republic’ by Walter Bagehot. So the curtseying picture is not representative and serves to perpetuate the myth of a Queen being above politics and ‘keeping them in control’. In reality the curtsey is almost a thank you by Theresa May for the transfer of power!
A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the unwholesome contract between the royals and senior politicians which lies at the heart of our unwritten constitution. Briefly, the monarch retains certain powers which in practice are exercised by Government, sometimes directly and sometimes via the Privy Council. In exchange for these so-called prerogative powers the monarchy gets to retain its remaining wealth and privileges. The royal prerogative thus allows the Government to exercise arbitrary control of dubious legality without the authority of Parliament. In a2007 report, Gordon Brown’s government attempted an audit of these outrageous anti-democratic powers and concluded that their extent was effectively unknown. One, however, was known for certain: the ability to dissolve Parliament and appoint a new Prime Minister which gave the incumbent a great advantage. It allowed him or her to take full advantage of serendipitous events (a small war, for example) to catch the opposition off-guard and call a snap election.
The 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act changed all this and removed the power for the first time. It was sometimes claimed by opponents of the Coalition Government that the 2011 Act was a dark deed intended to shore up an unpopular administration for 5 years. Against this two points must be noted. Firstly, fixed term Parliaments were also a 2010 Labour Party manifesto commitment (along with starting work on a written constitution). Secondly, with the dual powers of dissolution given to Parliament nothing has happened thus far which would not have happened under the old system. It is, however, interesting to speculate whether a Fixed Term Parliament played a part in the Government deferring to the Commons over bombing Syria in 2013 (the first vote, which it lost) knowing that it could not take advantage of a temporary patriotic surge in popularity! The present concern is with the opposite problem. With the recent transfer of power from David Cameron to Theresa May and the appointment of a wholly new Government without submitting a manifesto and subsequent test at a General Election there are objections raised about the democratic legitimacy of the present arrangement. But this transfer would have also happened under the old prerogative arrangement!
Unfortunately there are other anomalies which the 2011 Act did not address. Some of these are highlighted in this excellent 2010 report from the Constitution Unit at University College, London. Importantly, although the focus has been on the term of Parliaments, other election and transition arrangements need to be formalised. The writ for calling an election is currently issued by government ministers rather than an independent body such as the Electoral Commission. Similarly the monarch under advice appoints the incoming Prime Minister who decides the date of the first sitting of Parliament. This must be regularised by making the first sitting a fixed time after the election during which an ‘Investiture Debate’ decides who forms the Government and implicitly appoints the Prime Minister. As the UCL document affirms, these changes would actually insulate the monarchy by further distancing it from possible electoral controversy. But in this case the concern is with misuse of arbitrary prerogative powers not by the monarch but by a Government or Prime Minister.
With numerous difficulties confronting our democratic system including poor representation, lobbying, corporate control of media outlets, etc, fixed term Parliaments might not have been top of the list of remedies. But Fixed Term Parliaments have been demanded by reformers since the 17th Century and my main criticism is that it did not go far enough! Clearly I continue to demand the removal of the monarchy in this country. In the meantime any steps taken to regularise and remove arbitrary powers are welcome. This would include the posited War Powers Act following two votes in the Commons on bombing Syria!
Royalists were unable to contain themselves during the summer of 2013. Apart from the birth of George Windsor there was alsothis report in the Daily Mail. According to the article the Queen was ‘discreetly’ campaigning to make the Head of the Commonwealth a hereditary position. Apparently this included getting David Cameron to speak to the other Commonwealth leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2013 (CHOGM13). Now, it must be said that the Daily Mail has been known to get things wrong! There was certainly nothing in the final communique, but maybe that was because it was very discreet. But lets make the entirely reasonable assumption the story is correct. Such an assumption is supported by the royals own website which deliberately confuses matters by having a Role of the Monarchy on its Commonwealth page. The Queen may currently be Head of the Commonwealth as a person but that is not true of monarchy as an institution. The idea that anyone could be promoting the extension of hereditary privilege in the 21st Century is simply disgusting. Furthermore, the fact that a change in the constitution of an international organisation would be attempted ‘discreetly’ shows the complete lack of respect that the Windsor family has for Commonwealth citizens.
The Mail was indeed correct in stating that the words ‘does not pass automatically to her heir’ had been removed from the Governance section of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The site, however, still emphasises the fact that the Head is chosen collectively by the member states. What gives the story credence is that the Queen had already attempted to make the Head of the Commonwealth a hereditary position. When the Letters Patent were issued in 1958 to make Charles the Prince of Wales it was intended that he, along with his heirs and successors, shall be future Heads of the Commonwealth!
Last week I posted about the Royal Oath of Allegiance and why it needs replacing. The post proved popular and I thought another look at some other issues surrounding royal oaths was useful. Firstly, it is worth reminding ourselves of what an oath entails, especially for young people who are encountering such things for the first time. Essentially an oath requires the individual to possess the ability to make and keep a promise and to understand what it means in terms of personal integrity to break that promise. Psychologists actually regard it as one of the highest moral achievements in a young adult. It means that the individual understands that the promise made in an oath is offered seriously, to be taken at face value and to clearly understand the distinction from other sorts of promises which may be only a polite gesture (we’ll keep in touch when the holiday is over!!), not necessarily to be taken earnestly.
The Alternatives to a Royal Oath
In my previous post I highlighted the issue of MPs being forced to take the oath of allegiance. It has often been noted that in the Parliamentary oath there is no swearing to the democratic principle or upholding the traditions of the institution. But down the years there have been suggestions for a more suitable replacement. I particularly like this one by Tony Benn in 1988:
I, Firstname Lastname, Do swear by Almighty God (or Solemnly declare and affirm) That I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the peoples of the United Kingdom, according to their respective laws and customs; preserving inviolably their civil liberties and democratic rights of self government, through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, and will faithfully and truly declare my mind and opinion on all matters that come before me without fear or favour.
What About The Queen?
So what about the monarch, what do they swear? The actual oath is in the form of answers to a questions put by the Archbishop of Canterbury, itself a problematic issue for people of other faiths and denominations or no faith. Here is the interaction from the 1952 Coronation of Elizabeth Windsor:
Archbishop: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?
Queen: I solemnly promise so to do.
Archbishop: Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?
Queen: I will.
Archbishop: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
I wanted to pause a moment and reflect, before the history books start to be written, before the entry which ends with ‘succeeded by Teresa May’ is written as if this happened as naturally as night follows day, to assess David Cameron’s contribution, his legacy. It’s all been said before, nothing new here, but I wanted to collect some of it together, before we all move on and forgot some of it. How bad it was.
He walks away with a little hum, and a ‘right, yes’, saying he’s going to leave ‘the s***’ he’s just navigated us all into to others to sort. It’s a day at the office for him, another day. Sometimes it’s been like a game for him and his chums (they are all ‘chums’ in the Tory party, apparently, when they are not stabbing each other in the back in the scramble for power). Nick Robinson compared it to Game of Thrones, and he should know because he was a close friend of all the Bullingdon boys. Nick could have been there sharing all that power with them if he wasn’t busy producing a stream of right-wing propaganda for the national news organisation which helps keeps them in power. He helps to share the power in his own way, by stifling other views.
It has been a series of days in the office. But it’s really been all about power. Sadly that job, that office Cameron has held has had the capacity to effect people’s lives. With the potential to harm them. And that Cameron seemed to enjoy. Or was it just collateral damage? What kind of man pursues austerity so that people who work long hours caring for the sick, disabled and disadvantaged can barely afford to feed themselves? And does this whilst diverting money to the rich in the form of tax breaks and bonuses for bankers? What kind of man has a disabled child and loses that child, (a tragedy that would ruin many people’s lives for ever), but then goes on to demonise the sick and disabled? Who refuses to help children escaping war who then drown in the sea, who sells off the profitable bits of the NHS and lets the rest rot away for lack of investment, and sanctions a system which classifies people with terminal illnesses as ‘fit to work’ so that the money they rely on for food can be reduced? What kind of person can do that, having had that tragedy happen to their family, even for power? Is there no conscience there? Just does it and then dismisses it all with a Pooh hum.
But there is more, lots more. Letting racism, intolerance and hatred breed, and pretending it’s nothing to do with you. But then acknowledging it, because it is part of people’s ‘legitimate concerns’ and moving your stance ever further towards more intolerance, more hatred, more dislike of anyone who exhibits any difference to your tribe. Drip-feeding this hatred through the media, watching a party form to exploit this directly and split the vote against you so that you can hold ever more tightly onto power. This after you have destroyed a liberal (‘Lib-Dem’) party with a great tradition of opposing such reactionary forces, destroying it by bribery and two-facedness, offering a bit of that treacherous power to a man gullible enough to take the offer, and then destroying him and that liberal tradition and that party without mercy. Clearing the field so that you can have a stronger hold on that power.
Then when you’re close to the end, when you think you might be getting bored of these days in the office, when the game is getting a bit tiresome, thinking you might have a final fling. Seeing if you can finish off a rivalry you started at university, when you were both in a club where drinking and destroying things whilst drunk was the prime directive. The stakes are a bit higher now, but you’ve got that party of hatred willing to help you split opinion and pour more hatred on to fan the flames against Europe. That’ll make this game more interesting. And yes, the old mate takes the bait, because you all love the prospect of power nearly as much as the realisation of it. And the press will help with more lies and hatred, and you know the left-wingers will struggle with their principles to know where to place themselves, and their discomfort adds to your pleasure. And gives your party a stronger hold on power.
It all goes pear-shaped in the end, but what the hell. Old rival doesn’t know how to deal with getting what he pretended to want, but no matter because you have a party full of people who’ve learned at your feet how to be even more greedy for power than you are. So you can go off with your ‘Ho-hum’ in less than three weeks. And it was a breeze really. There was the odd tedious day at the office. But overall, you and Gideon seemed to be having a good time. PMQs was, I think, for you one of the best bits – all that rowdy sexism, bullying, personal abuse – just like being back in the Oxford Union. The photos of you ‘having a laugh’ there say it all really. And the lucrative and very easy after-dinner speaker circuit awaits. More privileged drinking clubs. So you’ll never have to worry about money. Thousands of other families will, including those with disabled children, directly because of what you did. But not you, so that’s OK.
I’ll stop there. As he does. Retire gracefully. No longer pumped up for the fight. It’ll probably get worse for us all before it gets better. But I for one am glad the game is largely over for him. I hope he has days of regret, of conscience, in the time left to him. I hope occasionally he thinks of those other families, and wonders whether it was all worth it. When he is old and his health fails, and he starts to become like those he despised and tried to get us all to hate. I hope he wonders if it was worth it. For the power, the very brief and fleeting power, it doesn’t last. But the damage does.
The scandal involving Prince Andrew trying to broker a ‘deal’ with an unsavoury Kazakh oligarch highlights just why we should be worried about the way the monarchy interacts with our Government. The myth that the royals are somehow ‘above politics’ is the illusion most zealously maintained by Buckingham Palace and only rarely do the real facts emerge and then frequently in a distorted form such as when the queen accidentally advised the Scots to exercise care when voting in the Independence Referendum. But we must remember the constitutional settlement where the monarchy gets to retain a privileged and wealthy existence (I have argued that they are actually addicted to it) in return for politicians using the archaic power of monarchy and to do their bidding when requested. The archaic power is operated through the Royal Prerogative and allows the Government to exercise autocratic control where the legal protections to citizens are at best unclear. This is a whole issue in itself, but let’s return to the Prince Andrew scandal.
The most shocking thing about the Brexit vote has not been the result but the collective failure of the political class to give any sort of coherent leadership. Instead, we have witnessed, by turns, politicians frozen like rabbits in headlamps. Look at the facts, chief dissembler Boris Johnson, supposedly intelligent appeared the morning after the vote, said nothing and scuttled away. David Cameron blubbed to the media and similarly retired hurt, but bear in mind he still has responsibility as Prime Minister! Chancellor George Osborne simply did not appear at all until Monday morning when he popped up with neither clue nor plan but long on soothing platitudes. The rest of them including Michael Gove just responded by a starting to think about their careers and a leadership election. Some commentators have called it Machiavellian, but having spent a little while looking at the work of ‘Old Nic’ I reckon he would most probably have been appalled at the incompetence! All the Parliamentarians, including the Labour party self declare as democrats but are prepared to risk leaving a dangerous power vacuum. There were even calls, not serious ones admittedly, for the Queen or Army Generals to take temporary charge! A few weeks later and their democratic credentials look even thinner with the Conservative Party preparing to elect a new leader and thus Prime Minister from an electorate of only 150,000 without the guarantee of a General Election and the possibility of rowing back from the Brexit vote (Article 50 will not now likely be triggered until at least 2017).
A Failure of Planning and Understanding
A almost incredible facet of the referendum result was the total lack of planning for a leave vote. Racist incidents soared, the currency and stock markets collapsed and international collaboration immediately started to freeze or be terminated. But no one took control and we are far from out of danger, in fact the danger will actually intensify. This was the inevitable outcome of the debate which was criticised in earlier posts here and here. I do not buy the argument that we will experience some volatility before things settle down. As things transpired only the SNP in the shape of Nicola Sturgeon were anywhere near prepared for the result. No wonder the SNP virtually monopolise Scotland, a state of affairs which does them credit but bodes ill for contestable politics in the UK. Here is why I think this is the case.
The words with apparently straightforward meanings are often the ones which cause the greatest confusion. As I mentioned in a previous post (such as this one on the Press), the thinker Isaiah Berlin identified over 200 users of the word freedom making it almost useless for practical purposes! Another word is equal, fine when used in an arithmetic sense but when applied in a social justice domain things become opaque very quickly. Republic group’s #bornEqual campaign resonated with a lot of people, but also inevitably caused some confusion. ‘But we are not all born equal’ some members of the public assured me. So some clarification is in order.
The phrase Born Equal could either mean a declaration of the biological condition of our birth or, alternatively, an aspiration of the kind of society we wish to bring about (we should all be born equal). For most of us being born equal can be a statement of physiological fact, possessing a brain, two arms, two legs and so on. Some objections to born equal, however, arise from differences in the extent we come into the world with innate abilities in such matters as visuo-spatial or intellectual abilities. Debate still continues as to the extent to which ability is the result of nature or nurture but what is certain is that a person born with significant talent but with no opportunity to develop or use that talent will not realise its potential. This leads to the second sense in which people claim we are not born equal since we are all born into different circumstances. Our parents have, for example, different skills as parents and hugely vary in terms of wealth and social standing. But a progressive social system must be able to help those without the environmental advantages to flourish.
As a Republican trying to persuade my fellow Britons of the need to remove the monarchy I sometimes encounter a kind of fatalism which says that even if we get rid of the queen we will still be controlled by rich and powerful elites essentially beyond our control. This is partly a problem of powerlessness, a kind of despairing acceptance of fate which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’. Now while I fully agree that the removal of monarchy must only be the beginning to the reform of our system, I nevertheless believe that it makes an excellent starting point. This is for a number of reasons, some constitutional and some psychological. I want to look at just two in this post.
Firstly, the existence of a monarchy entrenches the position of a powerful political elite via the Privy Council. In fact, the system actually views the British Cabinet (supposedly our Government) as a sub-committee of the Council (I’ve written more about these arechaic powers in this post) and we can see the importance of this to the financial elite in one example. The Crown Dependencies are managed under the auspices of the Privy Council and thus the tax havens of the British Virgin Island and the Caymen Islands to name but two are allowed to thrive. More widely the relationship between politicians and royals facilitates a taxpayer funded Prince Andrew (then supposedly a Trade Envoy) the opportunity to try and broker the selling of state assets to foreign oligarchs, thus cementing his position amongst a wider, global elite.