The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill – a return to constitutional normality?

Alison Young argues that the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill transfers power from parliament to the government, and not to the people, and that it is wrong to place the blame for the extraordinary events of 2019 on the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) has not had a good press. So much so, that a promise to repeal the Act was included in the 2019 manifestos of both the Labour Party and the current Conservative government. However, as the second reading of its replacement, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill demonstrates, the apparent consensus ends there. There appeared to be two strong themes to the debate. First, how far does the FTPA’s replacement transfer power from parliament back to the government, or from parliament back to the people? Second, to what extent did the FTPA cause the difficulties – however defined – for the then Conservative minority government in 2019?

Turning back the clock

The FTPA placed the prerogative power of the dissolution of parliament on a statutory basis. It fixed the terms of the Westminster parliament to five years, setting the dates for general elections. It provided two ways in which parliament could be dissolved earlier. First, it was possible for two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons to vote in favour of an early parliamentary general election. Second, dissolution could occur following a vote of no confidence, if, within a two week period, it proved impossible to form a government which had received the backing of a vote of confidence from the House of Commons.

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill aims to return the Westminster parliament to the position prior to 2011. It repeals the FTPA (section 1) and ‘revives’ the prerogative power to dissolve parliament and to call a new parliament (section 2). However this is interpreted, it is clear that the bill’s intention is to ensure that parliament can be dissolved and recalled ‘as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted’ (section 2). Fixed terms of five years are now replaced with a maximum five-year term (section 4). Moreover, the bill seeks to make the dissolution and calling of parliament non-justiciable (section 3) – arguably making the prerogative powers even less subject to judicial review than was the case prior to 2011.

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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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‘Palace letters’ show the Queen did not advise, or encourage, Kerr to sack Whitlam government

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Four decades after the dismissal of the Whitlam government, letters between the Palace and the Governor-General of Australia have been made public. Anne Twomey explains that they show the Queen acted properly, neither advising nor encouraging the government’s dismissal, recommending simply that he obey the Australian Constitution.

For more than four decades, the question has been asked: did the Queen know the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, was about to dismiss the Whitlam government, and did she encourage or support that action? The release of the ‘palace letters’ between Kerr and the palace can now lay that question to rest. The answer was given, unequivocally, by the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, in a letter to Kerr on November 17 1975. He said:

‘If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing The Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.’

Certainly, Kerr had kept the palace up to date with the various developments in Australia. While governors-general usually communicate with the Queen only three or four times a year during ordinary times, it is common during a crisis for updates on the political situation to be made every few days – particularly if there is a risk of the Queen becoming involved or the exercise of a reserve power drawing the palace into the crisis.

In 1975, there were multiple issues that might have drawn the palace into the crisis. First, there was the question of whether Kerr should exercise a reserve power to refuse royal assent to an appropriation bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Fortunately, Whitlam dropped this idea, so that controversy disappeared.

Then there was the question of whether state premiers would advise state governors to refuse to issue the writs for a half-Senate election, and whether Whitlam would then advise the Queen to instruct the governors to issue the writs. This didn’t happen either, because Whitlam did not get to hold his half-Senate election. But the prospect was enough to worry the palace. Continue reading

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

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the Sandringham settlement

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgbob_morris_163x122.jpgFollowing the decision of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to withdraw from a frontline royal role, the nature and timing of that departure has now been announced. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris explain what the settlement means for both the Sussexes and the monarchy itself. 

When it wants to, the British monarchy can move with remarkable and decisive speed. There were just ten days between the Sussexes unilateral declaration on 8 January and the outcome of the second Sandringham meeting released on 18 January. What has it all been about and how should the immediate and longer-term effects of the settlement be understood?

The settlement of 18 January

Its main features are:

  • The couple will from 1 April 2020 withdraw from active royal duties (including Prince Harry’s honorific military offices), no longer receive public money, surrender use of their ‘HRH’ titles, and seek to become self-sufficient financially.
  • They will live for substantial periods each year in Canada, at a location as yet undetermined.
  • So far as their activities abroad are concerned, they have undertaken ‘to uphold the values of Her Majesty’: this a reference to the Nolan Principles of Public Life.
  • Frogmore Cottage on the Windsor estate will remain their residence in England. They will reimburse the £2.4m public money cost of the refurbishment.
  • The working of the arrangements will be reviewed from 1 April 2021. During this period, the Prince of Wales will continue their funding of £2.3m a year until they become self-sufficient.
  • No constitutional changes are involved, but some possible secondary implications of reducing the size of the active royal family are considered below.

Not settled in the statement are:

  • The Canadian immigration, residential and tax status of the couple – Canada’s leading daily newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, raised some sharp questions on whether they should be allowed to live in Canada and advised that the Canadian government’s response should be a simple and succinct ‘No’. Although the Canadian government has so far been silent, it is expected to have a more welcoming, if cautious, attitude.
  • Meghan’s application for British citizenship – still under consideration, where length of residence outside the UK will be one of the criteria in the balance.
  • How financial self-sufficiency is to be achieved – the reference to upholding ‘the values of Her Majesty’ shows some anxieties about the means that the couple may choose. 
  • The arrangements for police protection – British police officers have no police powers in Canada, nor may they carry firearms. The nature of protection and defraying the considerable costs of providing it remain to be settled.

Immediate effects

While some changes (resigning the post of Captain General of the Royal Marines) will happen immediately from 1 April, withdrawal will be a process rather than an event. It will also be conditional on the progress made. That is, the settlement implies that permission to keep but not use the HRH title can be withdrawn if the Queen is, say, dissatisfied with the way the Sussexes embark on commercial ventures which capitalise on their royal status (HRH status was withdrawn from the wives of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York following their divorces). Similarly, establishing a review mechanism not only leaves open the possibility of the Sussexes’ return to UK public life, but also a possibility that the settlement’s terms might be tightened if developments are not to the Queen’s satisfaction. Continue reading