Photo credit: West Midlands Police – Royal Diamond Jubilee Visit
The Queen, I learned recently from my Murdoch Sunday newspaper, is “keen to hit her stride again” and indeed is already “ramping up for a very busy summer”. Unsettling image, a ramping-up 95-year-old. More personally, though, justification for not feeling too bad about airing a long-term grievance – for, as I’ll explain, I reckon she owes me.
This royal debt dates back to my pre-INLOGOV days, when, as mentioned in a name-dropping blog only quite recently, part of my 1970s was spent endeavouring to interest visiting American students from California’s Stanford University in the similarities and contrasts between their presidential government system and our constitutional monarchy.
Seminar exchanges would go something like this. You Brits call yourselves a constitutional monarchy, so you must have a constitution? Yep – a set of the most important rules regulating relations between the different parts of the government and the British people.
But not written down? Of course they’re written down, but in various forms: parliamentary statutes, judge-made laws, works by constitutional ‘authorities’, and what have become accepted conventions.
They’re just not ‘codified’, or fossilised, in an almost unamendable 1787 capital-C Constitutional document like yours – which, incidentally, says almost nothing useful about the US electoral system, political parties, or modern-day powers of its Supreme Court.
Britain’s uncodified, small-c constitution has enabled us, I’d suggest, to assimilate potentially huge changes without agonising for decades about whether and how to amend a capital-C Constitution.
Proof? The 19th Century metamorphosis during Queen Victoria’s reign from a real, if limited, executive monarchy to a virtually ceremonial one or effectively a republic: a state run by the people’s elected parliamentary representatives, but without a directly elected head of state.
[Literally parenthetically, I might add here that I genuinely can’t now recall how much of this stuff I actually believed and how much was pedagogical convenience. I don’t feel I’ve ever wholly supported the UK having an all-encompassing, written capital-C Constitution, as advocated recently for instance by the Lib Dems in their 2019 Manifesto (p.79), and for the Constitution Unit by QMU’s Prof. Douglas-Scott – not least because I’ve found it hard seriously to imagine it actually happening.
[I was, though, and think still am, in favour of something resembling what – in evidence to the (subsequently Conservative-abolished) Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform – Profs George Jones and John Stewart termed a more limited “constitutional settlement governing relationships between central and local government”, giving the latter constitutional recognition as an elected institution].
Back, anyway, to the role, and powers, of that ‘virtually ceremonial’ constitutional monarchy, with which, like most Americans, Stanford students had an almost insatiable fascination.
They knew before arriving that their Berkshire Thameside campus, Cliveden House, had been the country home of the 18th Century Prince of Wales, and staged the first performance of the even then embarrassingly patriotic anthem, ‘Rule, Britannia!’.
They quickly learnt about the Queen owning all the river’s ‘unmarked mute’ swans, having her own Swan Warden, driving without a licence and number plate, and – from glossy US magazines in those pre-Google days – dozens more “incredible powers you didn’t know she has”.
So much truer than I realised! My role then, however, involved emphasising how most of these incredible powers – even, I guessed, recruiting Swan Wardens – were symbolic, and in practice exercised by others.
Some were easy. Supreme Governor of the Church of England: Henry VIII was certainly hands-on, but nowadays it’s a combo of the PM and Church leaders. Head of the Armed Services: Ministers and the Defence Ministry do policy, armed forces most of the fighting.
Opening and closing Parliamentary sessions, the Queen’s Speech, the Government’s legislative programme, creating members of the Lords – again, all determined by Ministers. Appointing the PM – yes, but following election by their party.
My biggest explanatory problem was Royal Assent and Consent. Royal Assent is straightforward: the Sovereign’s purely formal agreement that a Bill, passed by both Houses of Parliament, be enacted as law. Last refused, as all textbooks dutifully record, in 1708.
But check those same textbooks for Royal, or even Queen’s, CONsent, and you’ll be lucky to find much more than the 5-line paragraph graciously offered under ‘The Queen and Parliament’ on the www.royal.uk website: “It is a long-established convention that The Queen is asked by Parliament to provide consent (which is different to assent) for the debating of bills which would affect the prerogative or interests of the Crown”.
Long established maybe, but minimally publicised, discussed and understood. And there’s more. Should the Royals (Charles has a Prince’s Consent too) even suspect that something in any draft Bill might adversely affect their extensive prerogative rights or ‘personal interests’, they can potentially stop it even getting debated, never mind becoming law, and usually without leaving even a written record.
That’s why I reckon they owe me personally – as well as, obviously, all UK citizens (sorry, I forgot: ‘subjects’). Because, while I was wittering to Stanford students about Swan Wardens, none of this seriously important stuff was public knowledge, in the sense of being debated, questioned, researched, quantified, or featuring in even ‘British Constitution’ textbooks.
Instead, there was/is effectively – in both senses – an Establishment connivance, between the leaderships of successive, supposedly democratically accountable Governments and the Royals, to keep all significant details of Royal Consent from us mere voters, taxpayers and university lecturers.
Only quite recently has even its scale become public knowledge, thanks particularly to The Guardian newspaper’s research moles. While I might have guessed at there being maybe two or three Royal Consents a year, it’s actually some ten times that.
The Guardian excavators have compiled a wondrous database of 1,062 parliamentary Bills (and rising) subjected since 1952 to the Queen’s or Prince’s Consent – or ‘royal vetting’, as they put it – from that year’s Clifton Suspension Bridge Bill (no idea why) to the 2020 EU Future Relationship Bill (I’d guess Sandringham and Windsor farming subsidies). All of which the Royals had first go at influencing in their own interests.
One serious purpose of this blog is to draw even some minimal additional attention to this fantastic research base and potential teaching aid – albeit decades too late for me personally. In 1975, though, I know exactly what I’d have done: given groups of five students a year’s worth, say 25, and asked them to research what in each case they reckoned the Royal Consent hoped to gain.
[The original version of this blog was written for the Birmingham Post, July 1st, 2021, under the title ‘Secrets of Royal Consent that you’ll never hear of’]
Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan. He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.