Purring – Mr Cameron, the Queen and the British Constitution

bob-morris

Bob Morris reflects on what the Prime Minister’s recent transgression might tell us about the constitutional status of the UK sovereign.

Speaking recently to a former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg – the nearest to Yankee royalty – David Cameron spilled the beans on his own sovereign’s reaction to the Scottish referendum decision to stay in the United Kingdom: ‘She purred down the line’. Does this incident tell us anything about the current state of the British constitution or is it best written off as a trivial prime ministerial gaffe?

For the gaffe view is that the conversation was intended to be entirely private and was picked up by a journalist’s microphone by accident. One might get hoity-toity about whether a relationship of personal confidentiality was transgressed by some immature behaviour. On the other hand, as a Times columnist (Carol Midgley, 27 September) put it ‘indiscretions show politicians at their most human’. David Cameron apologised publicly and vowed to do so personally at his next regular audience with the Queen. Nothing otherwise will eventuate.

Precisely – the incident on the other view illustrates an important, largely unrecognised fact: the UK sovereign has no significant constitutional powers left. The most important – discretion to choose the Prime Minister and the power to grant (and, by implication, withhold) dissolutions of Parliament – have been lost. The first was lost when all political parties adopted internal rules to appoint their own leaders, and post-electoral manoeuvring was rather later made subject to procedures now publicly set out in the Cabinet Manual, which excluded/shielded the sovereign from participation short of recognising the outcome. The second, the power to grant or withhold dissolution, went following 2011 legislation for fixed term Parliaments.

The latter’s significance for the Palace falls to be judged against the view of a former Queen’s private secretary observing that the dissolution power was one that kept politicians respectful:

The power to grant or deny a dissolution in certain circumstances … adds enormously to the wariness with which British Prime Ministers approach the sovereign. (Sir W. Heseltine, ‘The Fabian Commission on the future of the monarchy’, Constitutional Law and Policy Review, February 2004, 84-92 at pp. 86-7).

No doubt David Cameron’s relationship with the current sovereign remains personally respectful, but does the incident show that constitutional respect has now gone? And, if so, what does this bode for the monarchy in the longer term? And what also for prime ministers no longer obliged to show deference?

In other words, far from his remarks being simply a careless gaffe, was David Cameron in fact making an unconscious statement about current constitutional realities? Discuss.

 Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant.At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, particularly FOI. Latterly he has tended to lead on ecclesiastical and royal issues, for example on the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, at the same time contributing to the recent study on Commons Public Bill Committees led by Meg Russell.

Reigns in Spain and the ‘A’ word (again) in the UK

Robert Morris explains why the abdication of the Spanish King is unlikely to lead to a similar move by Queen Elizabeth II.

The recent announcement of the abdication of King Juan Carlos of Spain in favour of his heir, Felipe, has renewed discussion about abdication in the UK. Indeed, the abdicating King – anxious no doubt to make the best of a not very happy job – is reported as saying: ‘I don’t want my son to grow old waiting like Prince Charles’. Despite substantial demonstrations in favour of a republic, the abdication seems to be proceeding.

Will it happen here? Will Elizabeth II make way for her heir, Prince Charles? The present consensus is that it will not. This is hardly news. But there are two new twists offered on the usual account that it will not happen because the Queen believes she has to serve for the whole of her life.

Religion makes abdication impossible

The first twist is the suggestion by the Daily Telegraph that abdication is actually impossible because, unlike the Spaniards, the Queen has been consecrated in the religious ceremony of the coronation and the British monarchy is therefore ‘a sacerdotal system’. This was not the case with her uncle, Edward VIII, because he left the throne before becoming an anointed ruler as the result of a coronation ceremony. He was, however, undoubtedly King – a fact of law in no way dependent on coronation. This fact may be taken to emphasise that in UK law the sovereign occupies first and foremost a secular public office.

Continue reading

Is Britain a Christian country and, whatever the case, what then?

Unusually, British politicians have been talking about religion this Easter.

(i) Events, dear Boy

First, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, whose Department leads on faith relations, and then the Prime Minister, David Cameron, both averred that Britain was still a Christian country – Mr Pickles, with customary brutality, reminding us that there is an established Church and advising people to ‘get over’ that fact. A large number of worthies then wrote jointly to the Daily Telegraph (editorially sympathetic to establishment) to challenge ministers’ views, labelling them as both false and divisive in a pluralised society of multiple belief and unbelief. This was countered by a joint letter disagreeing

This lukewarm pot was then stirred by the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Nick Clegg. Out of the blue in a radio programme, he floated the thought that the day was coming when church establishment should be stood down for everyone’s benefit, including that of the Church of England. The Prime Minister and others immediately rejected this view – long Liberal Democrat policy deriving from that party’s ancient Christian Nonconformist roots.

Understandably, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, head of the church established in England (and long ago disestablished in Ireland and Wales) felt moved also to comment – no tablets of stone, just a blog. Acknowledging that church attendance had greatly declined, he maintained that nonetheless much of the nation’s life had been ‘shaped and founded on Christianity’, and that ‘in the general sense of being founded on Christian faith, this is a Christian country’. Characterising objectors as atheists, he pointed to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh support for the Prime Minister’s remarks. This claim, which has been called ‘Anglican multifaithism’ [N. Bonney (2013) Monarchy, religion and the state], is a trope employed by Anglicans to assume a new role and purport to speak for the interests of all religions. On offer is an implied conduit into government valued apparently by a number of non-Christian faiths but not willingly by minority Christian denominations.

Continue reading

The UK Monarchy: Moving to a regency that dare not speak its name?

Bob Morris

The recent consolidation of the Queen’s and the Prince of Wales press offices under the Prince’s former press secretary and a YouGov poll(i) apparently showing warmer feelings towards the Prince’s deputising increasingly for his mother draw attention again to the gradual anticipatory transfer of functions between the Queen and her heir. How constitutionally is all this to be understood?

Abdication – the ‘A’ word

We are firmly told there isn’t going to be one. The Queen swore to serve all her days and she continues to mean it. Some other – lesser? – monarchies use abdication to pass on the throne to mature heirs with yet many years still in front of them(ii) and before the abdicator is senescent. That way the crown may still be held for decades and the appearance of continuity – thought to be one of monarchy’s advantages – preserved.

In such cases, abdication has been a response to generational arithmetic which, if its course is not revisited, could with modern longevity result in a succession of gerontocrats.(iii) Thus without an ‘A’ event and, just taking an example almost at random, it is possible to imagine a monarch plausibly likely to survive until a few years past their centenary to be succeeded by an octogenarian ruling for a decade or so to be succeeded in turn by a mere sexagenarian pushing 70 themselves succeeded by a similar aged heir.

Vernon Bogdanor is not moved by the arithmetic argument: ‘…the notion of abdications strikes at the heart of the British monarchy. For it implies that monarchy is a vocation that one can choose or abandon at will.//As soon as the monarchy becomes a matter of choice, its usefulness is greatly lessened’.(iv) But the first point naturally raises the question whether monarchy is not in the end a public office like any other public office. If so, then the view of the office holder would normally be subordinate to the interests of good government – and not entirely without regard either to the demands upon the incumbent in their old age. The second point – utility – raises just what, constitutionally, monarchy nowadays does – a point dealt with further below.

Regency

The law is clear: there can be a regency only when it can be authoritatively certified that one is necessary because of the mental or bodily infirmity of the sovereign (or for some other definite cause). The Regent has to be able to satisfy all the normal requirements for succession (Including not being a Roman Catholic but being in communion with the Church of England) and swear the relevant oaths. Prohibited from assenting to Bills changing the succession or reneging on the constitutional guarantee to the Church of Scotland, the Regent otherwise assumes all the sovereign’s functions.

Happily, the statutory criteria for a regency cannot at present be satisfied. There may come such a day but, without mental infirmity for example, bodily infirmity would have to be quite extreme to render the sovereign ‘incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions’ – the key statutory test. At what point, for example, would the sovereign become incapable of signifying assent – what sufficient minimal physical gesture, and as assessed by whom – to statutes, orders in council, church and other appointments recommended by ministers?

Short of becoming regent, an heir has no ‘hard’ constitutional position except to represent the sovereign for purposes that do not require the exercise of powers only the sovereign can exercise.(v) In a modern ‘welfare’ monarchy, this leaves quite a lot of room in the case of general ‘public duties’. For example, there is no reason why the heir could not read the sovereign’s speech at fresh Parliamentary sessions. Similarly, the heir could represent the sovereign at a range of public events varying from the annual review of the household regiments to attending the annual assembly of the Church of Scotland or leading on inward and outward state visits. The heir has already substituted for the sovereign at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Present position

What seems to be happening is a movement to co-reigning where the sovereign is closely and explicitly shadowed by the heir but as the junior partner. The talk of an imminent ‘soft’ regency that is sometimes heard seems misplaced because no transfer of constitutional power is involved. There are ancient precedents for co-reigning monarchs but in very different circumstances: the aim seems mostly to have been to signify a preferred succession in turbulent times rather to arrange any real, immediate transfer of authority. Nonetheless, what is on hand does seem to be more a species of co-working than any other recognisable model.

Does any of this matter?

Were the sovereign still also the chief executive, then wooliness would be best avoided. Situations where there could be doubt whether an ageing sovereign could be relied upon to rein in a reckless heir’s dabbling in military matters or plundering the treasury cannot now arise. This is because the monarch is no longer the chief executive of the state: the modern head of state function in the UK is nowadays best understood as the hereditary president of a de facto republic.

The former key constitutional functions of granting Parliamentary dissolutions and selecting prime ministers no longer exist: the first was removed by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (which substituted a statutory procedure) and the second by agreed procedures for government formation set out in a Cabinet Office Manual. The royal assent to Bills has long been a routine formality and, it has recently been argued, is ripe for statutory regulation.(vi) Otherwise no constitutional or executive function is exercised except on the advice of responsible ministers. Nonetheless, as Vernon Bogdanor points out, there are certainly important monarchical functions left, chief among them being the relationship with the prime minister, head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth ‘realms’ and headship of the Commonwealth itself. In addition, the crown is one of the few institutions operating throughout the UK. Though the longer term range of the role must be in doubt, the sovereign remains also involved in forms of UK-wide civil religion.(vii) The ‘welfare’ monarchy may beneficially continue to draw attention to causes that otherwise might struggle to obtain recognition. Helping an ageing sovereign more closely has advantages for both the sovereign and the heir, and co-working prepare the way more acceptably for accession – even to the point perhaps of smoothing passage to headship of the Commonwealth for accession to which there are, as yet, no agreed rules.

It seems, therefore, that the nation can expect a period of experimentation with co-working where, perhaps opportunistically, roles are transferred in relation primarily to public duties. One outcome should be a better prepared heir. Another – when that heir succeeds – might be a fresh look at the merits of resort in the long run to abdication as a part of succession planning.

Footnotes
(i) ‘Feet up, Ma’am, Let Charles do the work, Sunday Times 26 January 2014.
(ii) Thirty-two years each in the case of Queens Juliana and Beatrix of the Netherlands.
(iii) See Robert Hazell’s post – ‘Shouldn’t we allow our monarchs to abdicate, like the Dutch’ – 19 February 2013.
(iv) Daily Telegraph 20 January 2014.
(v) Brazier R. (1995) ‘The constitutional position of the Prince of Wales’, Public Law, 401-416, discusses the then minimal substance, a discussion taken further in Evans v Information Commissioner [2012] UKUT 313 (AAC). See also Perry A. (2013) ‘Constitutional Conventions and the Prince of Wales’, Modern Law Review, 1119-1128.
(vi) Brazier R. (2013) ‘Royal Assent to legislation’, Law Quarterly Review, 184-204.
(vii) For a recent discussion, see Bonney N. (2013) Monarchy, Religion and the State: Civil religion in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth (Manchester, Manchester UP).

The Royal baby, the Rules of Succession, and the Realms

15th July 2013

In anticipation of the birth of the Royal baby, Parliament passed the Succession to the Crown Act in April 2013.  It provides that in future the eldest child will be next in line of succession, whether it is a girl or a boy.  The law will not come into force in time for the Royal birth, but the new baby when born will be next in line.  This Blog post explains the background, and the difficulties involved in changing the rules of succession.

Why have the rules of succession been changed?

Over the last 20 years a series of Private Member’s bills have been introduced into both Houses of Parliament to provide for gender equality in the rules of succession to the Crown.  The Labour government did not resist the principle of the change; but it explained that such a change could be initiated only by the government, because of the need to engage with the 15 other countries of which the Queen is head of state (the Realms).  The government supported the change because of the equalities legislation it had itself introduced.  Another motivating factor was that the other European monarchies were all amending their laws to introduce equal primogeniture.  Sweden was the first to change, in 1980, followed by the Netherlands in 1983, Norway in 1990, Belgium in 1991, Denmark in 2009, and Luxembourg in 2011.  Spain has said it will switch to equal primogeniture, but the Spanish constitution has not yet been amended.

Although supportive of the change, the Labour government ultimately failed to act because it was daunted by the size of the task involved in engaging with the Realms; by further complications, such as whether to address the discrimination against Catholics which is also built into the rules of succession; and because there was no immediate reason to do so.

Why now?

The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011 provided a spur to action.  What had been a hypothetical problem became a real possibility.  Having written to them beforehand, in October 2011 David Cameron used the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, to engage with those Commonwealth countries that are also Realms and seek their agreement to change their own laws.  The UK government has said that it will not bring the new law into force until all the Realms have made the change.  When the change is made, it will be backdated to 28 October 2011, the date of the agreement announced in Perth.

Why has changing the law taken so long?  The Realms

Changing the rules of succession for the UK is complicated because the British monarch is head of state of 15 other countries, known as the Realms.  These include large countries such as Australia, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand; and small countries such as St Vincent, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands.  (The full list is Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and The Bahamas).

The UK government and Buckingham Palace want any change in the rules of succession to be introduced throughout the Realms (if there were different rules, that could lead in time to different members of the Royal family succeeding in different countries).  Under the Perth agreement all the Realms agreed to make the necessary changes to their own laws.  The nature of the change required varies roughly in proportion to the size of the country: the smallest countries may simply pass a Cabinet resolution, others will legislate in parliament, while the largest countries may need to amend their constitutions.

Australia and Canada face particular difficulties because they are federations, where the consent of the states (in Australia) or the provinces (in Canada) is required for any constitutional amendment.  In Australia a compromise has been agreed that the State Parliaments will request the federal Parliament to change the law.  In Canada a minimalist law passed by the federal Parliament has since been challenged on the ground that changing the office of the Crown properly requires amendment of the Canadian constitution.

Will the Royal baby be next in line?

As the eldest child, the Royal baby will be next in line of succession after Prince William, whether it is a girl or a boy.  It does not matter that the new law has not been brought into force providing for equal primogeniture: so long as there is only one child, it is next in line.  The new law would only be needed if the eldest child is a girl, and a second child is subsequently born which is a boy.  The UK government hopes and expects that all the Realms will have come into line in the next 6-12 months, so the new law should have come into force by the time of the birth of any second child.

What other changes were made to the rules of succession?

Two other changes were made.  The Royal Marriages Act 1772 was repealed, and in future only the first six persons in line to the throne will require the Sovereign’s approval to marry.  Second, marrying a Roman Catholic will no longer disqualify a person from being in the line of succession.  But the prohibitions on the Monarch being a Roman Catholic remain: the Sovereign continues to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and must be in communion with the Church of England.

What does this change tell us about the British constitution?

Being unwritten, the British constitution is very easy to amend. Big changes, such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, reforming the House of Lords, or the Human Rights Act can be introduced by simple Act of Parliament.  What this episode shows is that changes to the succession to the Crown are much more difficult, because the change needs to involve not just the UK but the 15 other Realms.

It will have taken two to three years to effect this small change.  The difficulties in the Realms are multiple and varied.  Some saw this as a project of the UK government, and little to do with them.  Some struggled to realise what was required.  Some did not wish to provoke a wider debate about the monarchy.  At the other end of the scale, the two largest countries, Australia and Canada, have constitutions which are notoriously difficult to change.  So if any future change requires a constitutional amendment in either of those countries, the difficulties are further compounded.

It is too early to tell whether this small change has further consequences for the Realms themselves.  They are a widely scattered group of countries, most of whom have little in common.  It is possible that this exercise will have brought them a little closer together; it is also possible that it prompts some to question the link with the monarchy of a country so far away.

SUCCESSION TO THE CROWN BILL – LORDS SECOND READING 14 FEBRUARY 2013

26th February 2013

This was largely a repeat of the Commons discussions but without the smidgeon of republicanism that was voiced there from Labour back benches. As might be expected, there was in the Lords more concern about the possible implications for peerage descent than changing to gender neutral primogeniture for royal succession. At the outset, the minister, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, uttered dire – for the Lords – warnings that the House should not seek to meddle in any way with a package so painstakingly assembled with the agreement of the fifteen Commonwealth realms also having the UK monarch as head of state.

A shared concern between the two Houses focused on whether permitting heirs to marry Catholics risked collision with church establishment in England. Would the children of such ‘mixed’ marriages have to be brought up as Catholics? The government was unable, as before, to offer cast iron assurances in the case of an issue over which it had no control except to reiterate that no children brought up as Catholics could succeed. In practice, it seems that the Catholic church itself is not in a position to enforce its wishes and the language of its relevant canon is less than definitive on the point.

In a way, the concern over the upbringing of the children of ‘mixed’ marriages is a proxy for perplexity about whether the centuries-old ban on Catholic sovereigns should remain. If the only impediment is an alleged incompatibility with the sovereign’s position as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, then modern sympathies with religious equality (which we do not yet have) – as opposed to religious freedom (which we do have) – are set at odds with the interests of one particular denomination. Does this entail disestablishment or are there ways around the difficulty? The opposition spokesman, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, outlined some possible approaches, one of which could relieve the sovereign of compulsory membership of the Church of England but leave that Church able to remain as a national church in England. As a Catholic, Lord Deben (better known as John Selwyn Gummer), deplored continued Catholic exclusion and may be expected to table amendments for the bill’s later stages from 28 February much on the lines perhaps of those urged by a fellow Catholic, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in the Commons.

The government will no doubt resist resort to the bill for any larger purposes. It will point out that such changes would entail consulting the other fifteen realms all over again and that, in any case, it has no intention of altering the status of the Church of England. The government will get its way more likely than not. On the other hand, removing only one of the Catholic disqualifications continues to draw attention to the ones that remain not only for Catholics but also for everyone else not ‘in communion with’ the Church of England. In much the same way, hereditary peers’ concern about changing peerage gender rules draws attention to the anomaly that titles may still be inherited and some of their bearers become members of the legislature in that capacity.

As tentatively suggested by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in December 2011*, has the moment come for Parliament to take time in one of its committees to think further about the form of church establishment in England? The government’s insistence that no change may be contemplated unless on the initiative of the Church is, on one interpretation, a rather cruel way of putting the onus on that body alone when wider public interests are at stake. Perhaps the minister will not be able to prevent the remaining Lords proceedings from 28 February offering clues on current Parliamentary thinking – that is, if their Lordships and Ladyships care to look at all beyond the immediate and limited religious provisions of the bill.

* ‘Rules of Royal Succession’, 11th Report, Session 2010-12, paragraph 14.

Written by Bob Morris, formerly Home Office Under Secretary responsible for Constitutional Affairs. Leader of the Unit’s work on Church and State and also expert on FoI.

Shouldn’t we allow our Monarchs to abdicate, like the Dutch?

19th February 2013

When Hilary Mantel was giving her lecture in which she mentioned the sacrifices demanded of the Duchess of Cambridge, I was giving a talk in the Middle Temple in which I discussed the sacrifices expected of the Queen, and the heir apparent.  At the same time as we take a step forward by reforming the rules of succession, we are in danger of drifting into a step backward.  The step forward is the abolition of male primogeniture, so that in future the eldest child will succeed, whether a girl or a boy; and abolition of the rule that any heir who marries a Catholic must step out of the line of succession.  This is being legislated by the Succession to the Crown Bill, currently going through Parliament this month: at great speed, with no Green Paper or White Paper, and almost no public debate.

Where I hope we might start to have a public debate is the gradual step backward into a monarchy which risks becoming a gerontocracy.  This is not said out of any criticism of those involved; quite the reverse.  Their sacrifice is extraordinary; and is the consequence of the inevitable effects of people living longer.  The Queen has been on the throne for 60 years, and will shortly be 87.  If she lives as long as her mother,  who died aged 101, she may reign for another 15 years.  If that happens Prince Charles will be 80 when he becomes King.  If he in turn lived to 100, Prince William would succeed to the throne at the age of 67.  And his child to be born later this year might succeed at the age of 70 …

My forecast ages may be wrong, but the point remains.  We are asking our senior Royals to take on the responsibilities of the Monarchy at an age when most people are retired.  And we are asking the heir apparent to spend all his adult life in waiting, and not to assume the throne until old age.  If we asked anyone else in their mid 80s to undertake the punishing schedule of the Queen’s public engagements  it would be called Granny abuse.  It is not kind to the Queen to expect her to go on like this; and it may not be kind to her people to live under a succession of monarchs who are all very old.

Is there any way out?  Look across the Channel to the Netherlands, where the last three Queens have abdicated at around the age of 70.  Queen Beatrix announced her abdication last month at the age of 75.  And look to Rome, where last week the Pope announced his retirement at the age of 85, before (as he put it) he loses his strength of mind and body.  But for our Queen abdication is unthinkable, the A-word is unmentionable, because of the abdication crisis of 1936, in what is seen by the Royal family as shamefully self-indulgent behaviour by Edward VIII.

It is also made much more difficult by the fact that our monarch is head of state of 15 other countries, the Realms, all of whom would have to agree to an abdication.  It has taken over a year for the realms to agree to the change in the rules of succession now being legislated for, with big legal and political difficulties in Australia and Canada, and a lot of shepherding required of the smaller realms.  So I don’t pretend it’s easy, it is not something which governments will readily want to tackle; but it is something that merits public debate, whether we want to have a succession of very elderly monarchs.