Arrests, constitutional tensions and the UK government’s relations with Overseas Territories

Overseas Territories flags (CC BY 2.0) by Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

The arrest of the Premier of the British Virgin Islands in April and a Commission of Inquiry’s finding of ‘parlous failings in governance’ have raised questions about the British government’s relations with and stewardship of its Overseas Territories. These issues are raised in moments of crisis, following natural disasters, acute periods in the several sovereignty disputes linked to the Territories, or headline-grabbing scandals. George Fergusson argues that they merit more regular review.

The decision on 8 June of a British official to reject the principal and firm recommendation of a Commission of Inquiry by a former Court of Appeal judge has produced little political or media stir. This is largely explained by the decision being one concerning a British Overseas Territory, in this case, the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

The recommendation was that a period of direct rule was needed to implement a series of urgent and radical reforms identified by Gary Hickinbottom’s damning report on corruption and ‘parlous failings in governance.’ As Hickinbottom wrote: ‘Such a suspension is not only warranted but essential, if the abuses which I have identified are to be tackled and brought to an end.’

The report’s publication was accelerated by several weeks after the dramatic arrest on 28 April of Andrew Fahie, the BVI’s premier, at Miami International Airport, together with the managing director of the BVI Port Authority, with all the classic movie trappings of a sting by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.

Fahie’s arrest, unlike the decision on direct rule, was sensationally published across the British media. While the decision was formally made by the BVI’s Governor, John Rankin, this will have been in close consultation with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Amanda Milling, the minister responsible for Overseas Territories within the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

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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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The sovereignty conundrum and the uncertain future of the Union

Brexit has led to numerous clashes between London and the devolved governments, raising fundamental questions about the very nature of the United Kingdom, in a context where the European Union is no longer available as an ‘external support system’. Michael Keating argues that we need to find new constitutional concepts for living together in a world in which traditional ideas of national sovereignty have lost their relevance.

Since the Brexit vote, there have been repeated clashes between the UK and devolved governments. Some of these concern policy differences, notably over the form Brexit should take. Some reflect the inadequacies of mechanisms for intergovernmental relations. There is an inevitable rivalry between political parties at different levels. Beneath all this, however, are fundamental questions about the nature of the United Kingdom as a polity and where ultimate authority lies, especially after 20 years of devolution.

On the one hand, there is the classic or ‘Westminster’ doctrine, according to which sovereignty resides with the Monarch-in-Parliament. In the absence of a written, codified and enforceable constitution, this is the only foundation of authority. In this view, Westminster has merely ‘lent’ competences to the devolved legislatures, which can be taken back at any time, however politically imprudent that might be. Westminster may not often exercise this power but it provides a trump card in any conflict with the devolved authorities.

This is a powerful doctrine but at the same time an empty one since it rests on a tautology. Westminster is sovereign because, by dint of its sovereign authority, it says it is. The point was illustrated in the debates on the 1978 devolution legislation when an alliance of unionists and nationalists defeated a clause asserting that Westminster remained supreme, the nationalists because they did not want it to be true and the unionists because it was redundant. Westminster sovereignty is a myth, that is a story that may be true or false but works as long as people believe it. When the spell is broken, as it has in recent years, its supporters have to fall back on other arguments. There is a historical argument, that parliamentary sovereignty is rooted in constitutional practice; a normative argument, that in an age of universal suffrage, it really amounts to popular sovereignty; and an instrumental argument, that it allows for powerful and effective government. All are open to question. The historical argument is based on English practice and challenged in Scotland. The normative argument assumes that there is a single UK people with one channel for expression, rather than multiple peoples, the smaller nations having more inclusive electoral systems. The instrumental argument needs to be proven empirically rather than asserted.

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The role of monarchy in modern democracy

In the 21st century, monarchies remain pivotal parts of several democratic countries across Europe, including the UK. In a new book, edited by Unit founder Robert Hazell and Bob Morris, contributors from across Europe consider the constitutional and political role of monarchy, its powers and functions, how it is defined and regulated, the laws of succession and royal finances, relations with the media, its popularity, and why it endures.

Monarchy has a long history in Europe, being the predominant form of government from the Middle Ages until the First World War. At the turn of the twentieth century every country in Europe was a monarchy with just three exceptions: France, Switzerland and San Marino. But by the start of the twenty-first century, most European countries had ceased to be monarchies, and three quarters of the member states of the European Union are now republics. That has led to a teleological assumption that in time most advanced democracies will become republics, as the highest form of democratic government. 

But there is a stubborn group of countries in Western Europe which defy that assumption, and they include some of the most advanced democracies in the world. In the most recent Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, six out of the top ten democracies – and nine of the top 15 – in the world were monarchies. They include six European monarchies: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the UK.

This paradox of an ancient hereditary institution surviving as a central part of modern democracies prompted the comparative study which led to our latest book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared. Our study, written by 20 academic experts, includes the six countries listed above, plus Belgium and Spain. 

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Coronavirus: how Europe’s monarchs stepped up as their nations faced the crisis

bob_morris_163x122.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgLast Sunday, the Queen spoke to the nation in a rare televised address. The speech was widely praised, and several other European monarchs have made similar attempts to connect with the public. Bob Morris and Robert Hazell argue that her intervention demonstrates the value of an apolitical head of state that remains compatible with modern democracy. 

The British Queen’s address to the nation on Sunday, April 5 evoked huge interest, respect and widespread appreciation. Nearly 24 million people in the UK watched her deliver the four-minute speech, which paid tribute to National Health Service and other key workers, thanked people for following government rules to stay at home and promised ‘we’ll meet again’.

Her words were greeted with almost universal praise from politicians, press and the public alike. But what made it so special? Who advises the Queen on such occasions? And what does it tell us about the monarchy – what can monarchs do that political leaders cannot?

It was special because of its rarity – this was only the fourth occasion on which Elizabeth II has addressed the nation other than in her annual Christmas message. All have marked particular national moments: war in Iraq, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, her thanks for the celebrations for her diamond jubilee. In different ways they bring the nation together – her heartfelt address before Diana’s funeral was especially effective in bringing her people to understand why she had prioritised consoling her bereaved young grandchildren.

The coronavirus speech – a little over 500 words – came invested with the authority of someone able to draw on long personal experience of the country’s trials. Instancing her own message as a 14 year-old to child evacuees wrenched from their families in 1940 was but one way of giving the speech a depth of field to which no politician could aspire. Continue reading