Royal powers and prerogatives
A friend and relative asked whether the Royal family really still wielded political or societal power? I told him that in my view the short answer was yes. The long answer is that the monarch (whether present Queen or future King) can exercise considerable influence on the prime minister and other ministers, and that the future King Charles seems likely to wish to do so, having strongly held views on all sorts of fashionable topics and some pretty weird gurus feeding him their often misbegotten ideas, most recently causing HRH to advocate a “cure” for cancer involving, among other things, coffee enemas, the whole rÃ©gime pronounced by some orthodox practitioners as probably dangerous and certainly ineffectual. According to the great constitutional authority Walter Bagehot, the monarch has three essential powers and rights in relation to his or her ministers: to be consulted, to advise and to warn. Taken together, and if exercised with vigour, these rights can significantly influence (often by inhibiting) ministers’ behaviour and decisions.
The monarch, and indeed other senior royals in significant matters, usually act only on the ‘advice’ of elected ministers, advice which is in practice mandatory. There are also however some significant personal powers under the royal prerogative, not necessarily exercised on the advice of ministers: for example,
â€¢ whether to accept or reject a prime minister’s request for a dissolution of parliament and fresh elections: and
â€¢ which member of parliament to invite first to try to form a government (which could be highly significant in the event of a hung parliament, a very real possibility at the next general election and a dead cert every time if we ever changed the electoral system and went over to proportional representation, heaven forbid).
There is no consensus among constitutional authorities about the circumstances in which these powers can properly be exercised in disregard of ministerial advice, nor about which political or official figures the monarch should (or properly could) consult before deciding how to act, although there’s a school of thought that argues that the monarch should normally consult his or her own Principal Private Secretary (a courtier appointed by the monarch, not accountable to anyone else), the Secretary to the Cabinet (a senior civil servant owing his or her primary loyalty to the government of the day), and the prime minister’s Principal Private Secretary (ditto). None of these three has any particular responsibility to parliament or the public, although it’s a reasonable expectation that all three, in tendering advice on such vital matters, would seek to act in the national interest rather than in obedience to any narrow party or personal allegiance. But these can be highly subjective issues. Both these personal powers clearly ought to be transferred to some accountable public figure, such as the Speaker of the House of Commons, before some future monarch tries to exercise them in a way that could easily provoke a major constitutional crisis, one indeed that could bring down the monarchy. But no-one is prepared to grasp this nettle for fear of being badly stung (“Now Blair Tries To Grab Queen’s Powers” — Daily Mail; “Power to King Tony” — The Sun).
As I write the radio is playing a clip of the Prince of Wales pontificating about education in a way which is being interpreted as an attack on government education policy, an interpretation being hastily denied by the Prince’s spokesman.
And the royal family has considerable social influence in maintaining its old-fashioned life-style at the apex of Society (with a capital S) with the full panoply of bowing, curtseying, courtiers and others walking backwards in The Presence, the monarch announcing government policy at each opening of parliament as if he or she had formulated these policies him/herself, personally conferring honours and titles, presiding at surrealistically formal banquets, insisting on the wearing of imaginative costumes for different occasions (white tie and tails, black tie, morning dress, top hats for men, hats and gloves for women, you name it), travelling by air and train at enormous public expense to purely private activities (watching football matches in Japan, playing golf in Spain, and so forth). This constantly legitimises the perpetuation of a grandiose life-style for a small social class, a life-style wholly out of keeping with a 21st-century democracy, redolent of wealth, hereditary unearned privilege and gross inequality. The harm all this does to our society (small s) may not be quantifiable, but it is manifestly considerable.
Here endeth the subversive lesson.
London, 1 July 2004