Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The austerity monarch

Amid all the publicity about the "bonfire of the quangos" there is one unelected quasi-autonomous body that seems to be being abolished with a little less fanfare – the British monarchy. It was missing from the various lists in recent days on business, health and the arts.

But Cameron and Co clearly have their eye on it. The constitutional reforms soon coming on stream are surreptitiously removing the Queen's prerogative powers and duties. Can the UB40 be far behind?

David Cameron started his attack in 2006 almost as soon as he became Conservative leader. At that time he exempted "the personal prerogative powers of the monarch, such as the power to dissolve parliament and appoint a prime minister". But those are exactly the powers he now has in his sights. In these straitened times, nothing is sacred. It's a simple question: What does the Queen do? Does it need doing? Could someone else fill the gap?

It is slightly difficult to work out what the Queen's powers and duties are because we have an unwritten constitution. Fortunately we also have Wikipedia. It acts rather like the British constitution: bits are added, changed, taken away by mysterious unknown hands yet it looks as if it has always been the same. So, according to this unimpeachable source, these are the Queen's significant personal prerogative powers:

Appointing and dismissing the prime minister
We now know that the Lib Dems do this. If Nick Clegg has his way, this constitutional power will be enshrined in the alternative vote system, giving the Lib Dems, pretty well, a guaranteed veto on the issue. The Queen's personal right will devolve to Clegg and his heirs in perpetuity.

Dissolving parliament
Calling and dissolving parliaments has been in the monarch's sole power since there have been parliaments. Now the Lib-Cons want fixed terms but with a power of dissolution given to parliament – on a two thirds vote or a simple majority if it is a matter of confidence.

There is a precedent – in 1640 when parliament gave itself the power to dissolve itself. It didn't end well. In fact it took 20 years before what was left of the Long Parliament finally disbanded after executions, civil wars, more executions, purges, abolition, dictatorship, reinstatement and finally a return to the ways things were. The monarch has retained the power ever since.

What happens, thanks to the prerogative powers, is that the prime minister goes to the monarch and asks for the dissolution. By convention she is expected to accede to his request – but it is her call. She might instead accept the resignation of her prime minister and then go looking for another one. The important principles involved are enshrined in documentary form viz an anonymous letter published on 2 May 1950 in the Times – up there with Wikipedia as an authority of the highest constitutional standing. It notes:

"It is surely indisputable (and common sense) that a Prime Minister may ask– not demand – that his Sovereign will grant him a dissolution of Parliament; and that the Sovereign, if he so chooses, may refuse to grant this request."

Under the reforms, even if parliament's dissolution decision went to the Queen for her formal agreement, she would be denied any discretion in the matter. To come into conflict with an elected parliament would be a far more serious thing than dealing with a mere here-today gone-tomorrow prime minister. It would be a constitutional crisis. So her prerogative in this matter is to be lost.

Other prerogative powers
The important ones of these are exercised by the prime minister already as executive powers of government. He gets to declare war, make treaties, choose Her Majesty's ministers, peers and Church of England archbishops. The Queen owns the wild swans but not in any practical sense (like eating them). The crown estates are ripe for privatisation (Vince Cable is happy enough to flog off Her Majesty's Royal Mail; he's unlikely to balk at selling the crown estates). The foreshore is the Queen's, but some sensible arrangement could be made about the driftwood, plastic bottles, condoms and winkles found there. She has the prerogative of mercy – but mercifully Ken Clarke is now in post and preparing to throw open the prison gates.

There is not much here, then, for which the presence of a monarch is essential. But what about all those other little jobs she does, the ceremonial stuff? Opening civic centres? Glad-handing the cast of Lord Lloyd-Webber's latest hit? Step forward once more Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister. If the Queen is to be a woman with a constitutional position but no role, Cleggy, surely, is a man with no constitutional position desperately seeking just such a role.

Richard Alcock guardian.co.uk, Sunday 1 August 2010