With the Queen approving Boris Johnson’s move to force through a no-deal Brexit, with zero mandate (the EU referendum did not stipulate a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, and it has been repeatedly rejected by Parliament. Furthermore, he became Prime Minister without a General Election, basically appointed by 90,000 old white men from the Home Counties), it’s a good moment to discuss the monarchy’s role in British politics.
Labour minister Herbert Morrison commented upon Elizabeth’s coronation ‘when the people cheer the Queen and sing her praises, they are also cheering our free democracy’ (Taylor 216). Britain has long suffered the tricky issue of trying to appear democratic without the blasted inconvenience of actually being so. When the Queen dies the list of people excluded from becoming head of state includes: women, black people, Asians, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and anyone who doesn’t possess the Windsor DNA. It is still technically illegal to call for the abolition of the monarchy.*
The monarch’s powers include some strange ones: She holds dominion over all unmarked swans in open waters, all sturgeon, whales and dolphins within 3 miles of the British coast (In 2004 a Welsh fisherman was investigated by police after catching a 10-foot sturgeon), and there are all kinds of odd conventions surrounding this decrepit institution – anyone dining with the Queen must follow her every move, including not eating after she has finished, apparently.
But the strangest powers are those with real impact. We’re often sold on the lie that the monarchy is purely symbolic. The monarch has the power to declare war, to regulate the civil service, issue passports, make treaties, appoint and remove ministers, grant honours, grant mercy, to give assent to bills of law, to commission officers in the military, to direct the armed forces domestically, to deploy forces overseas, to recognise foreign states, and to accredit diplomats.
While the Queen’s powers are largely devolved to ministers, and their interests in any case rarely clash too severely, her latent power materialises in circumstances of ‘grave constitutional crisis’ when she can ‘act contrary to or without Ministerial advice’. What is meant by ‘grave constitutional crisis’ is not fully clear, and the ambiguity surely works in her favour. And even outside of a ‘grave constitutional crisis’, she has the legal right ‘to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn’ her ministers. This is no small thing. She meets the Prime Minister on a regular basis. Meetings with the PM are unsurprisingly opaque. We have no idea what is said in them or what kind of personal influence the monarch can wield upon the Prime Minister (a recent one, David Cameron, was even related to Elizabeth).
She gives the Royal Assent after bills have passed through both Houses of Parliament, and she must also give consent to any law being debated in Parliament which affects the monarchy’s interests. This has been exercised on 39 occasions during Elizabeth’s reign, including vetoing a private member’s bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.
She previously had the power to dissolve Parliament and call a General Election, but this was ended by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act in 2011. However, she still has some influence on the process if there is a hung parliament and she calls on the MP most able to form a government, and then opens parliament with the Queen’s Speech, which lays out the government’s plans, and can be seen as a tacit endorsement if there were a viable alternative.
Since 2010 the monarchy has had total immunity from Freedom of Information requests. This was confirmed after the release of Prince Charles’s Black Spider memos – letters he wrote to Whitehall ministers. The release will not be possible in future, ensuring the cover-up of future influence Royals wield upon British politics.
The Scottish government refused to release letters from Charles in which he apparently lobbied them on behalf of charity, Teach First, who were to bid for contracts worth millions. The Guardian had a decade-long legal battle with the government to release the Black Spider Memos. In the end only a small batch of the letters were made public, but these were enough to show a deeply undemocratic relationship between the monarchy and parliament.
His personal consent is necessary for legislation that affects ‘hereditary revenues, personal property or other interests’ of the Duchy. In recent years the government has gone begging for his and the Queen’s consent on issues such as the London Olympics, shipwrecks, higher education, paternity pay, ID cards, and civil partnerships.
This power of consent (different to the Royal Assent), surely has a knock-on effect allowing Charles and Elizabeth to wield influence on issues outside of their official remit. It could well be used as a quid pro quo i.e. they won’t cause a fuss on these pieces of legislation, as long as they get their way on others.
Charles constantly demands private meetings with cabinet ministers, junior ministers, and also the Prime Minister and has been receiving confidential Cabinet papers for decades. This gives him the opportunity to intercept ministers before they even get to parliament. It also means that when he lobbies through legal channels he’s inordinately informed on matters and gives him an unfair advantage over rival lobbyists.
Charles made persistent demands of Tony Blair and his ministers. Demands included better equipment for imperialist troops destroying Iraq, availability of unproven medicines in healthcare, demand for a badger cull and to lift the ban on fox hunting, which Charles tried to convince Tony Blair was ‘romantic’, ‘genuinely environmentally friendly’ and ‘natural’, and suggested that those seeking to ban it were motivated by class war. **
It’s clear that Royals are untouchable, both literally and legally. There was an outcry in the sycophantic British press when Canada’s Governor General put his hand on her arm ‘to ensure the Queen did not slip’ – not the most heinous motive I’ve ever heard, but the Queen is sacred. This sanctity stretches to the law itself. The Queen is immune from prosecution and all prosecutions are carried out in her name. In theory, the Sovereign ‘is incapable of thinking or doing wrong,’ legal scholar John Kirkhope told Business Insider. Like James Bond, she basically has a licence to kill. It has many sinister implications: Surrey police redacted transcripts of a 2009 interview with Jimmy Savile to protect the Royal Family. The sanctity of British Royals apparently stretches across the Atlantic as well – an American judge ordered allegations against Prince Andrew struck from the court record in the case of paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein (Andrew’s friend for about 20 years).
Finally, the Royals are used by governments for nefariously undemocratic ends. The Thatcher government planned to use Prince William, or rather the media furore around him, to drown out protests by the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) against British nuclear warfare policy in 1983. Like when you want to distract your pet dog, and wave a training treat to get its attention.
Further displaying her love of democracy, the Queen regularly hosts Britain’s puppet sheiks, sultans and emirs of the Arab gulf. The King of Bahrain was an honoured guest at her 90th birthday celebrations, sitting next to her in the royal box at Windsor Horse Show. I imagine they swap stories of democracy and equality. And Charles takes part in sword dances in Saudi Arabia; considering swords are still used to behead people there, it takes on a more sinister hue.
The Queen is supposedly apolitical, but that doesn’t stop her from expressing unadulterated praise for Britain’s hired killers and henchmen in the military that jaunt around the world destroying foreign countries and paving the way for British capitalists to make a pretty penny. For example, in 2017 she unveiled a memorial to such hired killers that helped devastate the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan – saying they were honoured with ‘pride’ and making the ludicrously insulting claim that they brought ‘peace and stability’. She might as well have added that her corgis brought peace and stability to the luxury steaks they’re fed each day. Moreover, Charles has made distinctly partisan comments, such as comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. For one, you’d have thought this would endear the Russian President to him (his parents, grandparents and great-uncle and auntie are all on record having sympathies, to say the least, for the Nazis), and two: this is a highly-charged political intervention, no matter your view on Putin. Charles is also well-known for his anti-science views and has successfully lobbied the government to spend precious funds on unproven, potentially harmful healthcare practices. And finally, William, like his father, writes to government ministers ‘to point them towards people I think they should see’ and feels ‘frustrated by the constraints’ his position places on him.
The idea that monarchy is remotely compatible with democracy is immediately recognisable as false: unelected, unaccountable, legally untouchable, and near-impossible to investigate properly, with both formal and informal powers that are superior to almost every individual in parliament. The fact that many people see Britain as a democracy is testament to the power of the billionaire media and Britain’s propaganda mouthpiece, the BBC. Finally, the idea that Britain’s monarch is merely a figurehead, has been shown to be thoroughly bogus.
-A comment on a private social media account criticising the Royals was enough to get a woman sacked from the British Council. The woman was forced to send an apology to Kensington Palace. She then suffered death threats and struggled to find subsequent work.
-The day of William and Kate’s wedding, a group of people were arrested without having committed any crime. The day before 2 properties were raided. A minor was also arrested for carrying 2 pens in his backpack, in case he used them to vandalise somewhere (the pens were found when the police stopped and searched him). The Met stated that the ‘sole reason for the timing’ of the raids was the royal wedding. When the protesters got to court they found the police denying the arrests were pre-emptive, claiming that the arrests were in fact to protect them from a violent response from royalists. Reminds me of the justifications gangsters give for extortion – it’s for your own protection!
-The monarch’s powers reach all around the globe. If it’s unjustified here, it’s even more unpalatable in foreign lands. A town councillor in Canada, who is also indigenous, was forced out of his elected position because he refused to swear allegiance to this foreign Queen.
The letters were highly revealing about government attitudes to the institution of monarchy. Charles’s demands were met with deference by the Labour leadership (this was not a new thing, deference to Royals is a longstanding tradition for the Labour leadership going back to the 1920s).
– Blair simpered: ‘I always value and look forward to your views – but perhaps particularly on agricultural topics’.
-Labour Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, signed off: ‘I have the honour to be, Sir, Your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant’.
-Andy Burnham was eager to get Charles on board with policy discussions when he became Health Secretary in 2009. ‘I would be delighted to meet with you at Clarence House at your convenience to discuss this and other topics of interest to us both’, adding in his own hand: ‘I have the honour to remain, Sir, your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant’.
-Yvette Cooper as Housing Minister was another that responded servilely to Charles: ‘I am strongly of the view that the prince’s foundation should play a significant role in encouraging and advising on the design elements of eco towns, drawing on its well-established expertise and experience’.
Taylor, Antony British Anti-Monarchism and Debates about Royalty since 1790 (Reaktion Books: London, 1999)
[…] undemocratic. First of all, that’s not true – the monarchy wields huge power and influence, see here for more about that. Second of all, if symbolic is what you’re going for, let’s just have an […]