The Counsellors of State Bill: an elegant solution, but a temporary one

The House of Lords yesterday debated the merits of the Counsellors of State Bill, which seeks to add Princess Anne and Prince Edward to the list of people that can act when the monarch is unable to do so. As Craig Prescott explains, this is a neat solution, but a temporary one.

The start of a new reign inevitably brings change to the monarchy. One specific change is that the monarch will once again travel overseas, including visits to some of the 14 other countries that also have a new head of state.

But what about the monarch’s constitutional and legal role while they are away? This role includes the granting of royal assent to legislation, appointment of ministers, ratification of treaties, and appointment of judges and diplomats. Many of these functions require the personal signature of the monarch (the royal sign manual), or in the case of holding Privy Council meetings and the state opening of parliament, their personal participation. This reflects how the monarch, as head of state, remains a central part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. It is pivotal to the machinery of government that the royal authority is always available to grant the final, formal legal approval to wide range of decisions made by government and parliament.

The necessary continuity is provided by the Regency Act 1937, supplemented by the Regency Acts 1943 and 1953. If the monarch is overseas, or is unwell and unable to conduct their duties, Counsellors of State can be appointed to exercise the royal functions. During the reign of Elizabeth II, Counsellors of State were appointed over 100 times, facilitating the Queen’s extensive overseas travel and establishing her position on the international stage.

The Regency Acts provide that the Counsellors of State are the spouse of the monarch and the first four in the line of succession, of full age, domiciled in the UK. For the heir apparent or heir presumptive, the Regency Act 1943 allowed for then Princess Elizabeth to become a Counsellor of State when she became 18, otherwise ‘full age’ for these purposes is 21. The 1943 Act also allowed for any potential Counsellor of State to be excluded if they are overseas during the period of appointment. This provision was introduced so that Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, would be excepted while Governor-General of Australia to prevent any potential conflict between that role and his position as a Counsellor of State.

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Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

Northern Ireland is again governed by civil servants. Alan Whysall argues that London’s self-interest requires it to give Northern Ireland serious attention in coming months. But success may require more effort and time than is currently envisaged, and a return to the approach that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not making this commitment could have grave consequences for the entire Union, not just Northern Ireland.

This blog draws on the Unit’s report on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, published in May (hereafter referred to as the Report).

No government again

Northern Ireland has had no functioning Executive since the DUP’s withdrawal of its First Minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, in February. The party declined to appoint a deputy First Minister following Assembly elections in May – when, for the first time, Sinn Féin emerged the largest party, entitled to the First Minister post (the DUP deny their refusal to appoint has anything to do with this, but Sinn Féin and others are sceptical). Government was carried on by ministers on a caretaker basis, unable to make controversial or crosscutting decisions, amid social and economic challenges often (as in the NHS) worse than in England. There is no budget and a £660 million overspend (exacerbated by the absence of an Executive). The DUP also blocked meetings of the Assembly.

On 28 October, with no Executive formed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, came under a duty to hold further Assembly elections, before mid-January. By law, the caretaker ministers have now lost office, and civil servants are in charge.

Few wanted the elections, however, and either by his own decision or the Prime Minister’s, the Secretary of State announced emergency legislation on 9 November to put them off for 6, potentially 12 weeks. They could be avoided by the DUP agreeing to appoint an Executive by 8 December (19 January if extended). The legislation would also underpin civil servants’ powers, set a budget and enable the Secretary of State to reduce the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs).

Political prospects

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains intractable. The DUP refuses to return to devolution until it changes fundamentally; it appeared unimpressed by the threat to reduce MLA pay. The EU is willing to discuss implementing the Protocol more flexibly, but not to rewriting it.

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Demise of the Crown: what happens next?

Queen Elizabeth II sadly died yesterday, bringing to a close the longest reign in British history. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris offer a brief guide to what happens next, as King Charles III prepares for both the funeral of his predecessor and his own coronation. They also explore how the new king will have to adapt to his changed constitutional status.

At the age of 96 and after a record-breaking reign of 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II has died. A life of service to which she committed herself as a young woman has ended:

I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.

[Concluding words of a speech from South Africa on her 21st birthday, 21 April 1947.] 

As we mark this anniversary, it gives me pleasure to renew to you the pledge I gave in 1947 that my life will always be devoted to your service.

[Accession Day 70th anniversary statement, 5 February 2022.]

There will be great public mourning for a woman who has been at the centre of the UK’s public life for so long, and many heartfelt tributes. It is not only for her longevity that she will be remembered, but also for her impeccable devotion to her public duties. In this post we explain what happens next, in terms of the accession of the new monarch, and plans for his coronation.  

Demise

Demise is the technical term which relates both to the death of a sovereign and the passage of the crown to the heir. It embodies the old common law maxim ‘Rex nunquam moritur’, that is to say that the sovereign may die, but the crown never does: the heir’s succession is immediate on the death or abdication of a predecessor, so as to preserve the continuity of government. Thus, Charles is already King.

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The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee: what does the future hold for the monarchy? 

The Platinum Jubilee was a time for celebration, but it also provoked many questions about the future of the monarchy, and what it might look like under the next monarch. In this post, Robert Hazell and Bob Morris attempt to answer those questions, relying on their detailed knowledge of modern European monarchies.

The Platinum Jubilee was an occasion for celebration and relaxation rather than profound reflection about the monarchy and its future. But for Robert Hazell and Bob Morris it was an exceptionally busy weekend, as they responded to a deluge of media requests from around the world. These clustered around the same set of questions:

  • How can a hereditary monarchy be part of a modern democracy?
  • Will public support for the monarchy outlive support for the Queen?
  • What kind of King will Prince Charles be? What changes might he want to introduce?
  • What is the future of the monarchy in the realms, the 14 other countries around the world where the Queen is also head of state?

This post offers more detailed answers to these questions than allowed by brief media interviews. It does so through a comparative and constitutional law lens, based upon our co-edited book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchy

How can a hereditary monarchy be part of a modern democracy?

The first question is easily answered: there is no contradiction between monarchy and democracy, with some of the most advanced democracies in the world also being monarchies. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand are countries which regularly feature at the top of the annual Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit: all are monarchies. They have survived as monarchies because the monarch no longer has any political power; the monarch reigns, but does not rule. Constitutional monarchs act on the advice of the elected government; if they fail to do that or otherwise step out of line, they risk losing their thrones. That was the lesson brutally learned by Edward VIII in the abdication crisis of 1936, but he was not the only European monarch forced to abdicate. The same fate befell King Leopold III of the Belgians in 1950, Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde of Luxembourg in 1919, and King Juan Carlos of Spain in 2014, when opinion polls showed that two-thirds of Spaniards felt he should abdicate.

Will public support for the monarchy outlive support for the Queen?

Monarchy as a system of government depends on the consent of the people as well as the government. If the people withdraw their support from monarchy as an institution, it is finished. That is how monarchy came to an end in referendums in Italy after the Second World War and in Greece in 1973-74. In all, there were 18 referendums held on the future of the monarchy in 10 different European countries during the last century. Not all led to the country becoming a republic: referendums have reaffirmed continuation of the monarchy in Denmark and Norway, and restoration of the monarchy in Spain.

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What happens if Boris Johnson loses a party confidence vote?

Conservative MPs will vote tonight on whether or not to retain Boris Johnson as party leader and Prime Minister. Robert Hazell explains that if Johnson loses, he might step aside immediately or act as caretaker until his replacement is elected. But he might instead stay on and seek to call a snap election, which could place the Queen in the constitutionally awkward position of having to refuse.

The political pundits predict that Boris Johnson will win tonight’s confidence vote amongst the Conservative parliamentary party. But what will happen if he loses, either this time or in a second vote at some point in the future? How long might it take for the Conservative Party to elect a new leader, and how will the country be governed in the meantime?

Under current Conservative Party rules, if more than 50% of all Conservative MPs (currently 180 MPs) vote in support of Boris Johnson, he can stay as party leader and Prime Minister and no new vote can be triggered for 12 months. But the rules can easily be changed. Theresa May won a confidence vote with a majority of 83 in December 2018, but was subsequently forced to announce a timetable for her departure under the threat of a rule change and new vote. She had been under pressure to say that she would go, and finally went after a disastrous European Parliament election result for the Tories in May 2019. Boris Johnson may similarly find that he survives the initial confidence vote, but his long-term position is not secure.

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