I used to care a great deal about the British Monarchy. I was a signed-up member of Republic and considered myself to be a committed republican. I even wrote a book called Our Republican Constitution, although not a great deal in that book actually had anything much to do with the Monarchy (but that’s another story).
In the week of the new Princeling’s royal birth, I’m finding it pretty hard to get excited either way. I’ve dutifully posted a couple of critical throwaway lines on my Facebook page. When the birth was announced I wasted an hour on Twitter poking fun at Royalists and being generally sarcastic. But in my household it was my American wife — obsessed as she is with babytalk — who got the fire in her belly about the new little HRH, brilliantly managing to get the New York Times, no less, to post her thoughts on the matter on its groundbreaking Motherlode blog.
Why do I feel, after all these years of hostility to the Royals, a new-found dose of weary indifference? In part because, after a while, the sheer pointlessness of it all grinds you down. After the hiatus of the immediate post-Diana-death era, the Monarchy has recovered, yet again, to recapture, yet again, the dizzying heights of popular approval that no elected politician could even dream of (the once imperious Mr Salmond included, especially now his touch has so obviously deserted him). What angers and depresses me now is not the Windsor Firm itself, but the “perpetual bowings and cringings of an abject people”, as John Milton put it in 1660. It’s not the deference demanded by the Royal Court, but the sycophancy willingly delivered by an animalistic people that is so downright nauseating. Led of course by that most slavish of our tabloid media outlets, the BBC. In the old days they used to talk of a “balanced constitution” comprising elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. In the modern era, however, it is the unbalanced nature of the demos that allows monarchy to wallow in the never-ending treacle of fake hero-worship.
But, having got that off my chest, there is a calmer reason. Apart from revealing the dismal fact that so many of our fellow citizens are foolish chumps, our modern Monarchy is more or less irrelevant. It was as a lawyer that I developed my distaste for the Crown. It was the unaccountable power of the Royal Prerogative that I found objectionable. And bit by bit, almost unnoticed and certainly unplanned, that power has been so diminished that there really is very little left to moan about. At the beginning of her reign the Queen enjoyed formidable powers. She was no mere figurehead of nations and realms, She was a ruler. Only She could dissolve Parliament, just as only She could appoint Her Prime Minister (and the PM is Hers, not ours). At the same time, Her Government could exercise huge powers in Her name (not in our name), with no effective accountability either to Parliament or to the courts (which in London are, after all, the Royal Courts of Justice, the judges being Her Majesty’s Judiciary, etc etc).
In twenty-first century Britain much of this is now gone. The dissolution of Parliament is now governed entirely by statute, and not by prerogative, thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The appointment of the Prime Minister is now determined by clearly articulated rules, designed expressly to keep the Queen away from having any influence in the choice of ministers, overseen not by Palace courtiers but by the Cabinet Secretary in Downing Street. The greatest of the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers — the power to go to war — has become so heavily circumscribed by parliamentary expectation (following the fiasco of Iraq) that the current incumbent feels it to be beyond his powers even to send arms to Syria without seeking Parliament’s blessing first. Prerogative powers to ratify treaties are now subject to statutory controls, and the civil service, formerly governed by the royal prerogative, is now the creature of statute, in the form of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.
From time to time the inherent power of the Monarchy does still reveal itself — but in the Realms of the Commonwealth; not here in the UK. Thus, a Government was dismissed from office by the Queen’s representative in Australia in 1975 and the Canadian Parliament was prorogued for a time by Her representative in Ottawa in 2008-09. Both precipitated minor constitutional crises; neither seems likely to occur here.
None of this makes me a Royalist. I’m still appalled at the deliberately slippery way in which vestiges of Monarchy — such as Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall — manipulate the law so as to avoid taxation. And it’s an ongoing scandal in our constitutional affairs that key members of the Royal Family seem to exercise such enormous, yet hidden, influence over aspects of Government policy. I played a small part in the Guardian newspaper’s brave attempts to uncover the extent of Prince Charles’s political meddling, when I gave evidence in the paper’s case, brought under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, to seek access to his correspondence with ministers. We won the case, but the verdict was overturned by executive fiat, as the Attorney General vetoed the decision. The Attorney’s reasons for doing so implied that were the correspondence to come to light, it would “seriously undermine the Prince’s ability to fulfil his duties when he becomes King”. Well quite: some of us would say that this is a reason for making the correspondence public, not for covering it up.
It used to be said that the British Monarchy was one of those things, like the BBC and the NHS, that served to keep the Union glued together. Mr Salmond, despite the howls of disappointed republicans in his party, has pledged that were Scotland to vote Yes to independence next year, the monarchy would remain. Scotland would become another Realm of the Commonwealth. Her Majesty the Queen would be the Head of State: Queen of Scots as well as Queen of England (and Australia and Canada and so on). Perhaps it is because of this that the Monarchy has been irrelevant to the independence debate. Or perhaps this is because the Monarchy has in any case become irrelevant in law and politics, even if its lustre continues to bedazzle the masses.