Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: why half in, half out just isn’t an option for royals

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Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to step back from royal duties has been described as a crisis for the monarchy, but they are the ones who are most likely to suffer the damage, as Robert Hazell and Bob Morris explain.

Members of the royal family are in a conflicted position. They lead lives of great privilege, but they also lack fundamental freedoms. They aren’t free to choose a career, they cannot speak freely and they have limited freedom to privacy and family life, which the rest of us take for granted.

Harry and Meghan are not alone in finding that frustrating, Prince Laurent of Belgium is another who is visibly unhappy in the role.

The harsh reality is that younger sons are spares who are ultimately dispensable from a hereditary monarchy: it is only those in direct line of succession who count. As spares they are subject to the same personal restrictions as the immediate heirs, without either the prospect of succession or the freedom to develop truly independent careers of their own.

Other European monarchies (encouraged by parsimonious governments and legislatures) have learned to keep the core team as small as possible. It can be just four people – in Norway and Spain it is the king and queen, the heir and their spouse. In 2019, the King of Sweden removed five grandchildren from the royal family, under parliamentary pressure to reduce its size and its cost.

The UK has a larger population – over ten times the size of Norway – and it could therefore be contended that it makes sense for its royal family to be larger to carry out necessary duties. A bigger team is also required given the realms: the queen is head of state of 15 countries other than the UK, and Prince Charles and his sons make regular visits to countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In total, 15 members of the British royal family conducted almost 4,000 royal engagements in 2019 alone.

Cutting the spares

Prince Charles is said to want a smaller, streamlined monarchy, perhaps just the core team of the queen, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate: but with a smaller team they could accept fewer royal patronages and fulfil far fewer engagements. It is not clear how far Prince Charles has thought through such consequences any more than Harry and Meghan have thought through the consequences for others of what they want. Continue reading

Do we need a written constitution?

image1.000.jpgPrior to the general election, several of the parties’ manifestos called for the creation of a codified constitution for the UK. In December, the Constitution Unit hosted an event to debate the merits and downsides of such an exercise. Harrison Shaylor summarises the discussion.

What did the 2019 Liberal Democrat election manifesto and the Brexit Party’s ‘Contract with the People’ (from the same election) have in common? Both advocate the need for a written constitution in the UK. So too did the Green Party manifesto, and that of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Meg Russell took part in a discussion on a written constitution in The Briefing Room on Radio 4 in September, and on 28 November, the Constitution Unit held its own event entitled ‘Do we need a written constitution?’. Two distinguished law professors – Sionaidh Douglas-Scott of Queen Mary University of London and Nicholas Barber of the University of Oxford – set out the case for and against a written constitution, in a debate chaired by a former Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell. What follows is a summary of the presentations made by each participant. 

The argument for a written constitution: Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

‘Someone, I haven’t been able to trace whom, once said: Constitution building is a bit like dentistry: there’s never a good time for it; no one does it for fun; but it’s sometimes necessary and, when it’s done right, it prevents greater pain in the future.’

Professor Douglas-Scott explained that a constitution delineates the relationships between the major institutions of state, such as the executive and the legislature, as well as between the state and its citizens. More abstractly, a constitution says something about legitimacy and power. How does the state exercise power? And when is it legitimate for it do so?

The UK is unusual in not having a written constitution, in the sense of not having the fundamental rules of the constitution codified in a single document. It is one of only a few democracies in the world which lacks one, alongside Israel and New Zealand. The reason for this is historical. Since 1688, Britain has not experienced a revolution or regime change – a ‘constitutional moment’ – like the American or the French Revolution, or the withdrawal of colonial rule. Rather, Britain’s constitution has evolved slowly over time under relative stability; it has never been deemed necessary to list the fundamental laws and principles underpinning the country’s polity. As the Constitution Unit website states: ‘What Britain has instead is an accumulation of various statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution.’

This arrangement, Professor Douglas-Scott argued, is no longer adequate. The current constitution is deficient for three reasons: its lack of clarity; its failure to properly protect fundamental rights; and the inadequacy of the current devolution settlement. Continue reading

Enacting the manifesto? Labour’s pledges and the reality of a hung parliament

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgMedia coverage in this election has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labour, and their competing policy plans. But a key difference between the parties is that, while a Conservative majority government is clearly possible based on the polls, a Labour majority government is not. Hence a Labour-led government would need to negotiate its policy with other parties, which would soften its stance. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell reflect on the lack of coverage of these questions, and what a Labour-led government would actually look like – in terms of personalities, policies and style.

Consistent opinion poll evidence during the general election campaign suggests that there are two possible outcomes: a majority Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, or a hung parliament. In the event of the latter, Johnson might still remain Prime Minister, but he has few allies – even having alienated Northern Ireland’s DUP. So a hung parliament might well result in a government led by Labour, even if the Conservatives are the largest party. But one thing is clear: nobody is really expecting a Labour majority government. 

Consequently, particularly as the polls have failed to shift into majority Labour government territory during the campaign, it is strange that so little attention has been given to the question of what a Labour-led government might actually deliver in policy terms. To navigate policy through a hung parliament this would need to be accepted by other parties. In some areas – notably the commitment to a referendum on Brexit – the parties agree; but in other areas there may be less agreement. So whilst significant attention has been paid to the radicalism of Labour’s manifesto, a hung parliament – which might lead to a minority Labour government, or less likely (given statements from the Liberal Democrats and SNP) a formal coalition – would inevitably result in some dilution. As noted in the Constitution Unit’s 2009 report on minority government, hung parliaments ‘[entail] a greater degree of compromise and concession than leaders of governments at Westminster are used to’.

Thus focus on Labour’s economic policy – such as its tax or nationalisation plans – might usefully have been tempered by journalists asking questions of the other parties about the extent to which they would accept such plans, or how they might be softened as a result of negotiation. In a country where hung parliaments are more frequent, debate about the likely compromises between parties would be far more upfront during the campaign. Instead, the UK’s legacy of single-party majority government (notwithstanding the fact that this situation has applied for just two of the last nine years) has led to parties and journalists alike avoiding such questions. This, in turn, risks leaving the public ill-informed about the real prospects post-election. Continue reading

Prince Andrew: six lessons for modern monarchy

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Prince Andrew has withdrawn from public life and his royal duties. Robert Hazell, who has just completed work on a comparative study of European monarchies, offers six lessons that the monarchy can learn from the events that led to the prince leaving a front-line royal role.

Following the announcement that Prince Andrew is to withdraw from public life, we have been putting the finishing touches to a book about the constitutional monarchies of Europe, to be published next year by Hart. So it seems a suitable moment to reflect on some of the comparative lessons we have learned, and to ask whether the situation Prince Andrew finds himself in could have happened in any of the other European monarchies. The short answer is that it could have happened in any one of them, and the response would have been equally swift. We put our royal families on a pedestal, and expect them to be models of good behaviour – something we do not seem now to expect of the politicians who are our real rulers. So one of the many paradoxes of monarchy is that this seemingly unaccountable institution, based upon heredity, in practice has proved to be quite closely accountable: a point returned to at the end of this post.

Our comparative study looked at seven other constitutional monarchies in Europe, in addition to the UK. In 1900 every country in Europe was a monarchy, save for just three: France, Switzerland and San Marino. By 2000 most countries in Europe had become republics, with the only exceptions being the Scandinavian monarchies of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Spain and the UK. These monarchies have survived partly for geopolitical reasons, most of the other European monarchies having disappeared at the end of the First or Second World Wars. But they have survived also by being quick to reject royals who step out of line, or in Prince Andrew’s words ‘let the side down’: modern monarchy depends ultimately on the support of the public, and it has to be keenly responsive to public opinion. So what are the lessons to be learned from these other monarchies; and what risks do they face in the future?

Lesson One: keep the Firm small. The greater the size of the royal family, the greater the risk that one of its members may get into trouble and cause reputational damage; and the greater the risk of criticism about excessive cost, and too many hangers-on. So in Norway the royal family consists of just four people: the King and Queen, Crown Prince and Princess. And in Sweden last month the King, under political and parliamentary pressure, removed five of his grandchildren from the royal family, and dropped their HRH titles. But the size of the royal family will vary depending on the size of the country concerned. The UK, with a population more than 10 times that of Norway, needs a larger royal family to fulfil all the demands for royal patronage and visits. The Norwegian royals carried out 866 public engagements last year; the British royal family conducted over four times that number, with around 3,800 engagements. And the Firm is four times the size, with 15 members of the family undertaking public duties (reduced to 14 now that Prince Andrew has withdrawn). Continue reading

Ten things you need to know about a hung parliament

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgimage1.000.jpg.pngWe know there will be an election on 12 December, but the outcome, in terms of parliamentary seats and who will form the next government, remains uncertain. Robert Hazell and Harrison Shaylor answer some of the key questions about what happens if the election creates another hung parliament.

With an increasingly volatile electorate, and uncertain forecasts in the polls, it is possible the 2019 election will result in another hung parliament. Although bookmakers currently have a Conservative majority as comfortably the most likely election result, and the Conservatives are currently polling around 11 points ahead of Labour, a hung parliament is by no means out of the question. It would be the third hung parliament in four general elections. This explains what lessons can be learned from our previous experience of hung parliaments at Westminster and around the world. It addresses questions such as how a new government is formed, how long formation of that government will take, what kinds of government might emerge, and what the most likely outcomes are.

How common are hung parliaments in other countries?

In most democracies across the world, single party majority governments are the exception. Whereas the ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) voting system used in the UK has had the tendency to encourage adversarial two-party politics and majority government, this is far from a default setting. Proportional representation tends almost always to produce coalitions: many countries in Europe currently have a coalition government.

Recent years have shown that, even in countries using FPTP, hung parliaments can occur quite frequently. In Canada, whose parliament uses the same electoral system as Westminster, there were 10 minority governments in the 20th century. There have already been four since 2000, including the incumbent minority government led by Justin Trudeau, formed after the Liberals lost their majority in the October 2019 federal election.

What is the experience of hung parliaments at Westminster?

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Westminster has more experience of hung parliaments than is generally recognised. There were 20 governments in Westminster in the 20th century: four were coalitions, and six were minority governments. But single party majority governments dominated after the Second World War. The 2010 coalition government was the first since 1945 and the product of the first hung parliament in 36 years. Since 2010, however, two out of three general elections have produced hung parliaments (and the fact that David Cameron’s Conservatives succeeded in obtaining an absolute majority in 2015 was a surprise). Continue reading