The Queen’s personal prerogative powers and a federal Britain (dream on)
Last week I wrote a letter to The Times. They didn’t publish it, so I will (if putting it in Ephems can be said to be publishing it). I copied it to a senior Opposition MP, a former senior minister, who replied that my proposals were quite startling and that he was not instantly persuaded (the exclamation mark after this had been added by his own hand). If my proposals are too startling to be persuasive with the new look Cameroonian Tories, a fortiori they are surely far too revolutionary for New Labour. So perhaps The Times was right not to waste its space on them. But I’m sufficiently big-headed to claim that they make a good deal of sense:
Sir, David Cameron’s initiative to review the workings of the royal prerogative (Tories would abolish PM’s power to declare war, February 6) is welcome and deserves all-party participation. But it’s surely a pity that he is excluding from examination the monarch’s few remaining personal powers, not exercised on the advice of ministers, to agree, or refuse, to grant a dissolution of parliament and to decide whom to call on to try to form a government in the event of a hung parliament (by no means inconceivable next time). It is grossly unfair to the monarch to burden him or her with such heavy and politically charged responsibilities and no available guidance on which officials or politicians he or she may properly consult, or even on the circumstances in which the powers should properly be exercised. It is cowardly to exclude these matters from review just for fear of being misrepresented by the tabloids as seeking to ‘strip the Queen of her powers’, when in reality any sensible monarch should be glad to be relieved of them by their transfer to a suitably impartial and transparent panel, guided in exercising them by principles laid down by statute.
Similarly, any worthwhile constitutional review needs to recognise the need for the UK, now messily half-way into an unsatisfactory semi-federal system with actual or embryo legislatures and governments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, to complete that process and evolve into a fully-fledged federation, in which the Westminster government and parliament become the federal government and legislature, with limited and defined powers for the whole of the United Kingdom, all other residual powers either devolved to the regional governments and parliaments or shared between them and the federal centre. No other solution to the West Lothian Question, such as preventing Scottish MPs from voting on certain kinds of Bills, is going to be worth tuppence or last more than a year or two. It’s time for our political leaders of all parties to show some courage by starting a serious national debate on the merits and implications of federalism and how best to adapt it to British circumstances.
If anyone has a better solution to the West Lothian Question, I have yet to hear it. Setting up a complicated rule-book to prevent MPs from various parts of the kingdom from voting on certain kinds of legislation affecting other parts of the kingdom can only end in farce, chaos, and extensive examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences (isn’t it the case, for example, that Labour has no majority of MPs representing English constituencies?). And if the next election produces no overall majority for any single party, with the LibDems likely to have the power to decide whether to put the then Labour Party leader or the then Conservative Party leader into No. 10 as prime minister, the Queen’s responsibility for deciding — without any obligation to seek ministerial advice, or, if she receives it, to act on it — whom to invite first to try to form a governmment will become an issue that we might regret having failed to tackle before it became a hot potato in the real political stewpot. The Queen might regret it even more. (And how interesting, no?, that David Cameron’s radical ideas about a constitutional review should explicitly exclude from discussion the most tricky, controversial and potentially dangerous of all the royal prerogative powers! Will a Gordon Brown government be any braver? Don’t bet the farm on it.)
As for the Federal Republic (oops) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it will no doubt be argued that there’s absolutely no interest in England in devolution to an archipelago of English Regions with their own legislatures and governments. But such an interest might grow quite rapidly if it became clear that the Regions, including Wales and Northern Ireland, would have at least as many powers over such subjects as education, health, crime and taxation as Scotland now enjoys, with the parliament and government at Westminster strictly limited in their own powers other than those for foreign affairs and defence. Politicans of all parties are currently preaching ’empowerment’ of local communities (while in the same breath voting overwhelmingly to deprive local communities of even the power to decide which of the local pubs should be able to allow smoking): let them put their money where their mouths are and strike out for full-blooded federation. Whatever happened to leadership? Ask a voter in Texas, Queensland or Bavaria whether she would favour handing over the powers of her State or Land to Washington DC, Canberra or Berlin, and see what sort of an answer you will get!
Hat-tip: to the splendid Professor Peter Hennessy who urged long ago, in vain, that the monarch’s personal prerogative powers should be rationalised and codified before the need to exercise them becomes a serious agenda item of huge potential embarrassment to whoever occupies the throne at the time, as well as perhaps triggering a major constitutional crisis with wholly unpredictable consequences.
Peter Hennessy >