Friday, 8 July 2022

The rights of the British Monarch

are limited and seemingly lacking in any power.

The situation in Westminster was inevitably under discussion yesterday and somebody asked me, as the only person with any legal training in the room, "Can't the Queen just sack Johnson?"

The answer to that is  both "No" and "Yes". I know. It's confusing. I had to try and remember what Walter Bagehot had to say on the issue. Back in the late nineteenth century Bagehot wrote a book about the English Constitution and in that he stated the British Monarch did have rights but they were limited. 

The Monarch, he stated, has the right to be "consulted", "to encourage" and "to warn".  What does that mean?

In order to answer that we also need to look at something called "the Lascelles principles". They were only brought to play in the middle of the twentieth century. They gave the Monarch the right to refuse a request to dissolve parliament if one of three conditions was met.

The first of these was whether the parliament of the day was still "vital, viable, and capable of doing its job". The second was if a general election would be detrimental to the national economy. The third and perhaps the most interesting was if the monarch of the day could "rely on finding another prime minister who could govern for a reasonable period with a working majority in the House of Commons". 

When the UK government went for a short period to "fixed term" elections it was thought those principles no longer applied. Now that fixed term elections are no longer in place those principles are presumed to be applicable again.

So, where does that leave the Monarch? I think we go back to Bagehot. What he says would appear to be correct. It means the Monarch has both no power and ultimate power - and that is not the contradiction it would appear to be. 

British Prime Ministers traditionally meet with their Monarchs on a weekly basis. In the normal way the meetings take place at Buckingham Palace - the "office" if you like. What takes place in those meetings is supposed to remain largely private and confidential.  It would be a foolhardy Prime Minister indeed who breached that convention. It is what allows the Monarch to question and to give advice.

The present Queen Elizabeth is very, very well informed about the British Constitution. My Constitutional Law lecturer, the late Leslie Zines,  was no Monarchist but he once told us that she was one of the best constitutional lawyers he knew of. Her Majesty has acquired an enormous amount of knowledge over the years and she has used it. That is only right.

The Queen can seek advice herself of course. That is the role of the Privy Council. 

But could Her Majesty simply call in the Prime Minister and say, "You are sacked." No. There are past Prime Ministers she has not cared for in the least. Meetings with them were undoubtedly uncomfortable for both but she would not have sacked them. It is quite possible she would have hauled them into line with words of warning about their behaviour but she could not tell them "You're sacked". If Parliament was about to do something illegal or dangerous then the Prime Minister would be commanded to attend a meeting. He or she would be warned. The Monarch would already have consulted the Privy Council and the Prime Minister would be advised of the outcome of the Privy Council meeting. It would be a foolhardy Prime Minister who ignored that warning. If a Prime Minister attempted to do something following that it is very, very unlikely it would get up in Parliament. 

Despite the belief of many to the contrary Her Majesty had no role in the "Dismissal" here of the Whitlam government in 1975. The Governor-General has much the same powers as the Monarch and they were used to prevent an illegal act - governing without supply. Supply was being blocked in the Senate because Whitlam was proposing to borrow money in breach of the law at the time. Much is made of the way all this was done and the Governor-General was clearly out of his depth and the role of the High Court was brought into question. It gave the "republicans" ammunition too. In reality however Whitlam and his government were going to break the law and had to go. Our democratic system turned to a general election. If the people had wanted Whitlam to retain his position he could have been re-elected. 

The same  is true in the United Kingdom. Their Prime Minister will eventually have to face the electorate.It is the people who decide in the end. Perhaps it is that which really makes the Monarch powerful.

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