The death of HM Queen Elizabeth II is a sad and significant moment in the history of the United Kingdom. I’d like to express my condolences here to those who mourn her passing and say thank you to her 70 years of service.
In the context of this blog, I’m particularly interested in some of the recent reflection on the UK’s monarchy, in its current constitutional settlement, that is has remained “above politics”.
I think this is wrong; and of course, the monarchy (and wider patriotic sentiment) has been used by others for political purposes. In the UK, not supporting the monarchy can and has been used against political opponents. For example, recent old video footage of the current prime minister calling for a republic at a political conference back in the 1990s has been used critically by opponents. Before the Brexit referendum, one tabloid newspaper allegedly reported the Queen’s Brexit scepticism relaying a private conversation with ministers – was that deliberate? It was also widely speculated that an intervention in 2019 was an attempt to urge compromise on the exact nature of Brexit after the referendum.
The assumption is that British monarch does not get involved in party politics and were they to do so, then that would undermine the institution and upset the British constitutional settlement stemming back to the accession of William III in 1689. Some commentators think a fundamental condition for the success of her reign was that she made no attempt to intervene in politics, or even to express a political opinion. There’s a bit caveat needed here and that should be ‘public political opinion’. What we don’t know, and this may never be known, is what Elizabeth said to her ministers in private or how she exercised her prerogative to be ‘consulted, to advise, and to warn’. The closest she came to a political opinion was a few days before the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 where, in what some suppose were carefully choreographed comments, she was clearly overheard telling a member of the public that she hoped Scots would ‘think very carefully’ before casting their vote. Of course, people should always think carefully before exercising their right to vote, and this comment had plausible deniability, but it did not stop criticism that she was making a (risky) intervention in the political sphere.
British monarchs of the modern era (i.e. after the right to vote was extended) have not always kept their constitutional discretion in check. Queen Victoria exercised a personal preference for Prime Minister in 1894. George V during the economic crisis of 1931 held a conference at Buckingham Palace, at which the King had virtually ordered the three party leaders to come together in a national government: a highly controversial use of the sovereign’s discretion.
As a constitutional monarch, the Queen had no power. But this did not mean she had no influence. That influence was primarily exerted at her confidential weekly audiences with her prime ministers. She had the benefit of a far longer experience of public affairs than any of them, going back to the days of Winston Churchill, her first PM. Audiences, based on the Queen’s assiduous reading of official papers, may well have had an effect on the thinking of her prime ministers.
On occasion, and sometimes by design, the Queen’s views have become known. She has expressed her fears over the possible break-up of the UK. Speaking to parliament on her silver jubilee in 1977, when the Labour government was enacting proposals for devolution, she declared: “I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of the United Kingdom.”
In the 1980s, it was widely believed that she was distressed, not just by differences between Thatcher’s government and other Commonwealth governments on South African sanctions and attitudes towards the illegal white regime of Ian Smith in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, but also by Thatcher’s economic policies, which appeared to be causing distress to many communities. (The latter was imagined in one episode of Netflix’s ‘The Crown’.)
In public view, the British monarch acts on ministerial advice, signing her/his name or initials where required. But they have always done more than this. They exercise extensive soft power by influencing government policy and bills before they are introduced to parliament. Their power is exercised behind closed doors. One would imagine this would ordinarily happen through a quiet word during the Sovereign’s weekly audience with the prime minister. No records are kept of such meetings, which remain strictly confidential. But documents uncovered by The Guardian newspaper showed an alternative, more direct exercise of power. In 1973, the Queen’s personal solicitor met with public servants to ask them to change a proposed companies bill to ensure the Elizabeth’s shareholdings were not exposed.
What is interesting is that public servants agreed to the meeting and tried to work out ways to accommodate the Queen’s wishes before even seeking ministerial approval. There seemed to be an expectation that public servants should meet her wishes. Moreover, there seemed to be no shock or surprise her solicitors should intervene in this way. It is even less of a surprise when you consider the speculated personal wealth of the British sovereign and the value of the hereditary Crown Estate.
This was because such intervention by the Queen’s solicitor was not a one-off. In a further article, The Guardian has also revealed three more instances of pressure being imposed by the Queen’s solicitor or the palace to secure changes to proposed laws before they were passed.
In 1872, Prime Minister Disraeli insisted: “The principles of the English constitution do not contemplate the absence of personal influence on the part of the sovereign; and, if they did, the principles of human nature would prevent the fulfilment of such a theory.” But the precise effect of that influence will not be gauged until her official biography appears, and perhaps not even then if state papers and private diaries remain classified.
I find it hard to believe that monarchy is above politics – it has to be in the broadest sense to survive in a modern age. And a big part of the Queen’s success is that UK politics, and public opinion supporting by polling data, is a colder home to republicanism now than it was in the 19th century.
God Save the King!