Harry and Meghan: five lessons from the documentary about monarchy as a unique institution

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) have been open about the intrusion upon their privacy which followed the announcement of their relationship, as chronicled by a new documentary. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris argue that a lack of privacy is a common problem across European monarchies and reducing the size of the royal family might allow more of its members to escape their ‘gilded cage’.

Robert Hazell appeared in Episode 1 of the Netflix documentary, in an interview drawing on our book The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy (now available in paperback with a 30% discount for readers of this blog: use the code RMMD30). That was a comparative study of the other monarchies in Western Europe, as well as the UK: Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. It showed that monarchy makes extraordinary demands not just of the monarch, but of other close members of the royal family, whose lives are restricted from the moment of their birth.

The first and biggest restriction is that all royals suffer from constant intrusion of the press into their private lives. The worst cases come from the UK, where intense competition in the tabloid press has led to extraordinary invasions of their privacy. These range from Camillagate, when the People published a transcript of a late night conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in 1993; to illegal hacking of the phones of staff to Prince William; to paparazzi using dangerous tactics to get photos of the two-year old Prince George.

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Reforming the royal prerogative  

The Brexit process raised questions about how – and in what areas – the royal prerogative should operate. Following a lengthy project, which has resulted in a new book on the subject and a Unit report – published today – on options for reform, Robert Hazell explains why the prerogative matters, and how it might be reformed to strike a better balance between parliament and the executive.

The royal prerogative has long been a mystery to most observers. I have now produced a book Executive Power: The Prerogative, Past, Present and Future to help demystify it. It was written with my former researcher (now a barrister) Tim Foot, and covers the whole range of prerogative powers, from going to war and ratifying treaties, appointing and dismissing ministers, regulating the civil service and public appointments, to the grant of honours and pardons and the issue of passports. The book’s 19 chapters provide a comprehensive guide to the operation of the prerogative – past, present, and future – together with suggestions for reform.

Working with us was another researcher, Charlotte Sayers-Carter, and Charlotte and I have distilled the key findings of our book into a much shorter report, Reforming the Prerogative. It selects just five powers, to illustrate the scope for reform through codification in statute, soft law, or by clearer and stronger conventions. This blog offers edited highlights from the book and the report, to explain why the prerogative matters; to illustrate this with a few prerogative powers; and to suggest ways in which it might be reformed.

What is the prerogative?

The prerogative derives from the original executive powers of the Crown. Over the years these have been overlain and superseded by statute, and most powers have transferred to ministers. The monarch retains the power to summon, dissolve and prorogue parliament; to grant royal assent to bills passed by parliament; to appoint and dismiss ministers. The main prerogative powers in the hands of ministers are the power to make war and deploy the armed forces; to make and ratify treaties; to conduct diplomacy and foreign relations; to grant peerages and honours; to grant pardons; to issue and revoke passports.

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The accession and coronation of King Charles III

Before the accession of King Charles III, the Unit published two reports related to the accession of the new King: one on the accession and coronation oaths, and another on the coronation ceremony. Today the Unit has published revised versions of these reports. In this post, co-authors Robert Hazell and Bob Morris outline the reports’ conclusions and discuss how the coming coronation will be on a much smaller scale than the previous one, in a UK that is radically different from the Britain of 1953.

Five years ago we conducted a study of the accession and coronation oaths. These are three religious oaths which the new monarch is required by law to take at or soon after his accession. King Charles has already taken one, the Scottish oath, at the inaugural meeting of his Privy Council. He swore to uphold the Presbyterian church in Scotland in the following words:

I, Charles the Third by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland, and of My other Realms and Territories, King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the True Protestant Religion as established by the laws of Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly an Act intituled an ‘Act for Securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government’ and by the Acts passed in both Kingdoms for the Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland: so help me God.

At his first state opening of parliament King Charles will take a second oath, under the Accession Declaration Act, to be a faithful Protestant; and at his coronation he will swear to uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of England. All three oaths are a hangover from an earlier age. Legally speaking none of the oaths are necessary. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 gave full parliamentary recognition to the Church’s status as a national church. The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 contain strong guarantees of religious freedom. Nor can it be said that the oaths have any effect. Now that the sovereign has long ceased to be head of the executive, it seems odd that the King should be asked to swear to something which he has no power to enforce.

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Must a caretaker government be a zombie government?

During the recently concluded Conservative leadership contest, the government appeared to be in a holding pattern, taking little or no action of substance until the election of Boris Johnson’s successor. But did the government, which had a substantial parliamentary majority and an electoral mandate, need to act as if it was merely a ‘caretaker’? Robert Hazell explains that the rules around a ‘lame duck’ PM remain fuzzy, and argues that steps must be taken to clarify the position as soon as possible.

Something very strange happened at Westminster over the summer: a government which enjoyed a comfortable working majority of 71 seats was declared to be a caretaker which could not take any major decisions. It was variously accused of being a ‘zombie government’ ‘asleep at the wheel’, and incapable of taking urgent decisions required by the energy crisis. In its defence the government might have responded that as a caretaker it was precluded from taking such decisions. But the Whitehall rules on this are far from clear. So, what are the Whitehall rules about caretaker governments, and the principles underlying them? And given the confusion this summer, do the rules need clarifying or updating?

‘Caretaker government’ is not a term to be found in any UK government guidance. The Cabinet Manual talks instead about ‘restrictions on government activity’. A leadership election in the governing party is not one of the circumstances when the Cabinet Manual says government activity must be restricted. It envisages just three such circumstances when governments are restricted:

…governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character in the period immediately preceding an election, immediately afterwards if the result is unclear, and following the loss of a vote of confidence.

Paragraph 2.27.
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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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