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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Purring – Mr Cameron, the Queen and the British Constitution

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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.