The Emperor of Japan, Prince Philip and the ‘a’ word

Two recent announcements – the Japanese government’s agreement to the Emperor’s wish to abdicate and Prince Philip’s retirement from public life, both on grounds of advancing age – highlight the fact that there is no continuing provision for abdication in UK law. Bob Morris considers the implications of this and suggests that there may be a case for change.

The Japanese government has agreed to the request of the current Emperor of Japan, Akihito, to abdicate on grounds of age and growing infirmity – he is now 84 years old. Prince Philip, 96 this year, announced on 4 May that he would be withdrawing from public life later this year on grounds not dissimilar to those of the Emperor. What are the implications, if any, for the United Kingdom monarchy?

Abdication – background

The problem for Japan is that Japanese law does not allow for abdication. The last abdication took place 200 years ago and there are no precedents for how a retired Emperor should be styled or otherwise accommodated in the political system. Moreover, revisiting the succession rules was likely also to come up against their continuing ban on female succession when male only succession has prevailed for 2,600 years. A Commission study of the issues reported on 14 April recommending a one-off law for Akihito alone – he would be given the title of ‘Grand Emperor’ – rather than a continuing provision. The gender issue, even though there is a shortage of male heirs, was ducked.

In continental Europe the experience is more varied. Dutch Queens from Queen Wilhelmina in 1948 have abdicated at around 70 – Queen Beatrix most recently at 75 in 2013 – in ways which permit their heirs to grow their families in relative freedom and privacy before taking on full public duties in maturity. (The current King Willem-Alexander succeeded at age 46.) There have been abdications in Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg. Particularly notable was the retirement of Pope Benedict in 2013. There have not been age-based abdications in Scandinavia where, so far, only two sovereigns (Norwegian kings) have exceeded 90 on death.

The position in the UK

There is no continuing provision for abdication in UK law. Further, the circumstances of the last abdication – that of Edward VIII in 1936 – continue to be of painful memory in the House of Windsor. As is well known, Queen Elizabeth II has repeatedly declared her intention of serving for the whole of her life. Now herself 91, the fact of her husband’s ‘retirement‘ at nearly 96 raises the question what sort of withdrawal (partial or otherwise) might be appropriate for her when she reaches a similar age retaining her faculties but experiencing at least the physical frailties of advanced old age.

The present law offers two possible routes: regency and abdication. However, neither route is entirely straightforward. It has also to be borne in mind at all times that the UK sovereign is simultaneously head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth countries, known as the ‘realms’. For both routes the appointment of a regent or succession of an heir in such exceptional circumstances would require acceptance in each of the fifteen realms in order to ensure that they all have the same sovereign. A number of the realms would need to legislate – a particular difficulty in federal systems such as Canada and Australia.

It is possible, of course, that abdication particularly might encourage some realms to become republics. However, as Buckingham Palace has previously made clear, that is and always has been a matter for the realms concerned. Its avoidance cannot, therefore, be an object of UK policy or the prospect therefore of an impediment to responding to a personal need.

Under the Regency Acts 19371953, a regent may be appointed – other than in the case of a minority – only where it is certified that, including on the evidence of physicians, ‘the sovereign is by reason of infirmity of mind or body incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions’. The declaration of incapacity must be supported by medical evidence and signed by three or more of the consort of the Sovereign, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls. The bar has deliberately been set very high. Granted what is visible about their condition, neither the Emperor nor Prince Philip could pass the test. It is also the essence of the concept of regency that it should be a temporary not a permanent expedient.

This leaves only abdication as it is presently understood for the departure of a reigning sovereign on grounds of frailty of age rather than actual incapacity. In other words, existing UK law makes no provision for the circumstances of the Emperor and Prince Philip: the real issue is not abdication but simply retirement. It is only because of greater personal longevity that retirement has emerged to confront a legal environment which has assumed monarchs would die in office. The Dutch monarchy has dealt with the issue by in effect recognising a kind of therapeutic abdication as acceptable.

If the Queen achieves the age of her mother (101), the Prince of Wales (68) might not succeed until aged almost 80; and if he lived to a similar age, his heir, the Duke of Cambridge (now 34) not until 68. It is very doubtful whether permitting such a gerontocratic succession can be in the public let alone the private and personal interests of the people involved. It is partly in the face of this arithmetic that some have favoured ‘skipping’ a generation in the succession. But this would be a miserable reward for the Prince of Wales who has been diligent in his public duties and imaginative in his instigation and support for charities – effort for which his father has been rightly praised.

We remain some way off the Dutch solution in the UK. Not only is there the awkward memory of 1936, but we alone of European monarchies still also anoint our sovereigns to signify the conferment of God’s grace upon their reign. While other monarchies, for example in Scandinavia, require their sovereigns to be members of the state churches, none still anoints. In the Netherlands there is not even a constitutional requirement to belong to a particular religious denomination – a fact that may have made therapeutic abdication easier to contemplate.

The UK may be different from others in religious practices but it is not clear that those practices necessarily require lifelong service. The UK sovereign becomes monarch immediately on accession and the functions are not conferred by coronation and anointment. Nor does the UK sovereign by virtue of headship of the Church of England occupy any sacerdotal office. In other words, the UK sovereign occupies what is essentially a public office – august no doubt but still a public office. When even the most senior judges (and bishops) have to retire at age 70, it is not clear – even without the example of Pope Benedict – why retirement (however formally described) should not be permitted to the sovereign. No doubt there are still those who in their minds invest the office with some sacral significance or believe that permitting retirement would somehow demean the office and its significance: the Dutch example suggests the contrary.

Conclusion

In the purely legal sense, the UK monarchy is stuck in a position which permits insufficient flexibility to recognise degrees of personal frailty short of incapacity as grounds for permitting withdrawal from monarchical duties. The monarchy has so far responded by sharing out the Queen’s more routine functions amongst her closer family. While that may do much to alleviate the burden, it is a good way short of actual retirement. It has to be asked whether the present law is sufficiently responsive to the cost exacted from a sovereign who has discharged crowded public duties for so long and in so exemplary a fashion. No-one could conceivably take the view that honourable retirement should be withheld should the sovereign wish it.

Prince Philip’s retirement suggests the need for some positive and clement thought for his spouse as she comes to match his present age. In response to growing longevity, abdication appears to becoming more common even in religious circles. For some time now, Archbishops of Canterbury have not been expected to hold their office until death. Even in the Papal monarchical theocracy there is the example of Pope Benedict’s retirement which suggests that religious scruples should not stand in the way of human needs.

Part of the difficulty is the Queen’s own extraordinary dedication and lifelong commitment to public service, which makes it difficult to initiate any public debate about the possibility of abdication without seeming presumptuous and disrespectful. But perhaps Emperor Akihito should be seen as offering a way forward for all monarchies?

About the author

Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant and a member of honorary staff at the Constitution Unit. At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, and has latterly tended to lead on royal issues.

The Queen at 90: the changing role of the monarchy, and future challenges

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To mark the celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday the Constitution Unit has published a new report that discusses the formal powers of the monarchy, and its wider role and functions. The report concludes by looking ahead to what further changes can be expected in the coming decades. It is summarised here by its authors, Robert Hazell and Bob Morris.

This week the Constitution Unit has published a report to mark the celebrations for the Queen’s 90th birthday, which discusses the formal powers of the monarchy, and its wider role and functions. The report also helps to set the scene for two new projects on the monarchy: the first, led by Bob Morris, is on the next accession and coronation, and the second, led by Robert Hazell, is to be a comparative study of the other monarchies of western Europe.

The changing role of the monarchy

0806161The report records how much the constitutional powers of the monarch have changed during the Queen’s reign, and her lifetime. All the important prerogative powers remaining in the hands of the monarch have been removed or severely restricted. The most important of the personal prerogatives are the power to appoint the Prime Minister; to summon and dissolve parliament; and to give royal assent to bills. We found that in exercising each of these powers, the monarch no longer has any effective discretion:

  • The constitutional conventions about the appointment of the Prime Minister have been codified in the Cabinet Manual, which explains that it is for the parties in parliament to determine who is best placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and communicate that clearly to the sovereign.
  • The prerogative power of dissolution was abolished by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Parliament is now dissolved automatically after five years, or earlier if two thirds of MPs vote for an early election, or the government loses a no confidence motion. The power for the Prime Minister to ask the Queen for an early election has gone.
  • Royal assent to a bill has not been refused since 1707. It would only be withheld now (as then) on the advice of ministers.  That might happen with a minority government which could not otherwise prevent the passage of legislation against its wishes.

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‘Living with Difference’: The Butler-Sloss Commission’s report reflects the interests of its members rather than the public interest

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The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life published its report, ‘Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good’, on 7 December. Bob Morris discusses the report, arguing that its recommendations reflect the nature of the Commission’s membership rather than an open-minded commitment to the interests of public life and policy.

The issue

Britain is experiencing considerable change in its religious landscape. Two quite different phenomena are taking place simultaneously: on the one hand, about half the population is prepared to say that it belongs to no religion, and on the other hand recent decades have seen the growth of the number of non-Christian religions present in what was formerly an almost wholly Christian country. In other words, Britain is experiencing both secularisation and pluralisation at the same time. As a result the question arises of how the country should adjust to the new situation. . In such discussions, religious bodies have displayed anxieties particularly about the place of religion in a more secularised ‘public sphere’.

What follows explains the nature of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life set up by the Woolf Institute to look at the issues, summarises its main recommendations, records some initial public reactions, and tries to assess – primarily from a constitutional point of view – what it might all be taken to mean.

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The Queen’s Sorpasso

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9 September 2015 marks the day Elizabeth II becomes the UK’s longest reigning monarch. Bob Morris takes this milestone as an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the monarchy in relation to the constitution in recent years.

Today Queen Elizabeth II’s term exceeds Victoria’s and she becomes the nation’s longest reigning monarch. The institution she heads is not subject to any current serious challenge. Indeed, it is now probably as popular as it has ever been.

Milestones like this prompt reflection and the following attempts to consider what the present reign tells us about the monarchy and the constitution.

Resisting republicanism

To state the obvious first, the monarchy has survived. That should be regarded as an achievement in itself and not assumed to be a constitutional given. The very concept of monarchy is hardly attuned to the spirit of the times – increasingly egalitarian, democratic, undeferential, worldly, multicultural, secular. Some maintain that monarchy represents a vanished feudal worldview of fixed hierarchy, deference, social immobility and religious uniformity.

Despite these claims there is, apart from small sections of the chattering classes, no serious pressure to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a republic. With the possible exception of Australia, this appears to be the position too in the other former ‘settler’ dominions of Canada and New Zealand. Nor does a concerted move against the monarchy seem likely in the twelve other Commonwealth ‘realms’ of which the Queen is head of state. Polling support in the UK for a republic has only ever once – and in evanescent special conditions – just exceeded 20 per cent. Republicanism has yet to establish any real political traction.

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Will plans for a British bill of rights be reduced to a bill for England only?

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Opposition from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales could pose a serious challenge to Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris write that if the new government tries to push ahead regardless, it may only be able to create an English bill of rights, with potentially negative consequences for the UK as a whole. 

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

The Conservative manifesto, building on pledges in previous manifestos, contained these statements about replacing the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights:

  • We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK. The Bill will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights (p.73)
  • The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK (p.60).

We have not yet seen the detail, and the draft bill which the Conservatives promised to publish before the election never materialised. The plans are likely to raise a whole series of difficulties, with the judiciary, with the House of Lords (where the bill will have a very difficult passage – see here and here), and with the Council of Europe, if the UK tries to remain in the ECHR but somehow leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. But this blog concentrates on a further difficulty closer to home, which is opposition from the devolved governments and assemblies.

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The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 has landed

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On Friday 26 March 2015 the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act was finally brought into force. Bob Morris offers an overview of the Act and explains why it has taken so long to come into effect.

At practically the last gasp of the now dissolved Parliament, the bringing into force of the Succession to the Crown Act was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in his capacity as Lord President, on Friday 26 March 2015 [Hansard, Lords, HLWS483].

Many people may well have concluded that all this had been accomplished when the Act was passed in 2013. Some may even have thought that it had all been settled when the Prime Minister secured agreement to proceed on 28 October 2011 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Perth, Australia. It may be a mark of how little general interest there was in the final consummation that the first publications to greet it were the Hello and Elle magazines.

However, the latest development is not insignificant. What follows seeks to:

  • Recapitulate what the Act is about
  • Explain why it has taken so long to come into force
  • Discuss how the changes are to be understood

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Deliver us from EVEL?

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Bob Morris draws on the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure currently passing through Parliament to consider the viability of English Votes for English Laws.

Yes, from EVEL (i.e. English Votes on English Laws), not evil as in sin.

But, surely, now there is devolution all round except in England, it must be right that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs should not be able to vote in Parliament on matters affecting only England when English MPs cannot vote on issues devolved to the other assemblies. As part of the reaction to the politics of the Scottish referendum, the government is accordingly considering again how EVEL might be encompassed.

England-only laws are relatively rare but one example currently before Parliament – Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure – would permit the appointment of women bishops in the Church of England. There could hardly be a more obvious example of an English law since the Church of England is disestablished in Ireland and Wales and was never established in Scotland. The Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, set up under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, in its 233rd Report on 30 September declared that the relevant Measure was ‘expedient’ and it will come before both Houses accordingly for a final vote.

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