Charles: answer to a republican’s prayer?

Prince Charles has strong opinions about architecture, alternative medicine, and the English countryside. In continuing to press them on government ministers he is in danger of breaching the constitutional contracts of 1689.
Iain McLean
19 December 2009

Among our ancient mountains,

And from our lovely vales,

Oh! Let the prayer re-echo

God bless the Prince of Wales!

(G. Linley, 1863, on the occasion of the engagement of the future Edward VII)

Prince Charles has strong opinions about architecture, alternative medicine, and the English countryside. In continuing to press them on government ministers, in conversations and in regular letters, he is in danger of breaching the constitutional contracts of 1689. He would not be the first Prince of Wales to make that mistake. It becomes a much more serious mistake, for the monarchy, if and when he becomes king of the United Kingdom. He may be the answer to a republican’s prayer:  God bless the Prince of Wales. But if his actions worsen a constitutional crisis, as happened in 1914, it will be an expensive answer.

The UK monarchy depends on two constitutional contracts. King James II of England (James VII of Scotland) fled to France in 1688. As I explain in my recent What’s Wrong with the British Constitution?, in both countries Convention Parliaments were called. A Convention Parliament is one not summoned by a king: because there was no king to summon them. Both conventions offered the crown to the same couple, William of Orange and his wife Mary. Both imposed conditions, which William and Mary accepted. James’s attempts to return were defeated in Scotland and Ireland in 1689-90. Further Acts of both Parliaments laid down rules for the succession after Mary’s sister Anne would die childless. These inconsistent Acts were reconciled in the Treaty and Acts of Union 1707, which created the state of Great Britain.

But it is easy for monarchs to forget that they reign by the consent of Parliament. Surrounded, as is only natural, by people of the same class and cast of opinion as themselves, they have often tried to impose their will on Parliament. William IV dismissed his Whig government in 1834, to install a minority Tory government under Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington. But they were defeated at the election and the king was left to deal with the Whigs again. Late in life, Queen Victoria developed an obsessive hatred of W. E. Gladstone, and did all she could to undermine him and his successor as Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery. For instance she sent an unenciphered telegram to Gladstone at Carnforth Station in 1885, denouncing his government for having failed to prevent the death of the (actually insubordinate and possibly insane) General Gordon at Khartoum.

When George V succeeded as king in May 1910, party passions were running high. The Lords’ rejection of the 1909 Budget had led the re-elected Liberal government to make plans to curb the Lords’ power. Everybody knew that, as the government depended on the bloc of 85 or so Irish Nationalists, they would be in a position to demand devolution to Ireland, which the Conservatives (then called ‘Unionists’) primordially detested. Unionists were already lobbying the king, an instinctive Unionist himself, when Prime Minister H.H. Asquith sent him a most direct warning in December 1910. "The duty of the Crown", Asquith said,

is to act upon the advice of the ministers who for the time being possess the confidence of the House of commons, whether that advice does or does not conform to the private and personal judgment of the Sovereign.... It follows that it is not the function of a Constitutional Sovereign to act as arbiter or mediator between rival parties and policies; still less to take advice from the leaders on both sides, with the view to forming a conclusion of his own.

As the crisis unfolded, the king did exactly what Asquith had warned him against. Worse, he took opinions only from his own side – the Unionists. He contributed to what I have called the “Unionist coup d’état” of spring 1914, when the Irish policy of the elected house of Parliament was frustrated by a coalition including the king, the unelected Lords, Professor A. V. Dicey, Professor Sir William Anson, army mutineers, Ulster Protestant paramilitaries, and the 30,000 German rifles which they landed in Larne. George V’s actions were among those that exacerbated the long tragedy of Ulster.

What is the point of the non-executive head of state in a democracy? Apart from holding dinners for other heads of state and giving out medals for bravery, it is to protect the state at times of constitutional crisis. The decision of George VI to stay in London in 1940 is an example – one shudders to think what would have happened if the Nazi-sympathizing, bagpipe-playing Edward VIII had still been king. To protect the state, its head must have two properties: to be universally respected, and to act wisely in a crisis. Divine right of kings has gone out of fashion: so the monarchy can be justified only by its continuity and its low(ish) transaction costs. (Will Charles show his mother’s wisdom and take the 10.45 to Kings Lynn rather than the Royal Train?)

Apart from wars and invasions, a UK constitutional crisis is most likely if there is either a hung parliament or a deadlock between the houses. Deadlock remains a critical risk while the Lords are unelected and there are no mature rules for inter-house bargaining (as there are in every other bicameral democracy). Relying on an unelected monarch to break deadlock is inherently dangerous. The Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 proved that. The Governor-General dismissed the government that had the confidence of the lower house. In so doing he inevitably made the monarchy partisan. If Australia had then had grown-up rules to break deadlock, the parties would not have played the games they did. Since then, it has revised its constitution; and the monarchy is almost certainly on the way out.

What should the head of state do if the government has a shaky majority, or no majority at all, in the Commons? The answer is remarkably unclear. In 1950, when the Attlee Labour government had a shaky majority, an anonymous letter-writer to The Times, calling himself ‘Senex’ (‘old man’), announced some constitutional rules ‘in so far as this matter can be publicly discussed’. Senex turned out to be king’s private secretary, previously an unsuccessful stockbroker. One of Senex’s rules was that the king should not permit a dissolution if ‘a General Election would be detrimental to the economy’. It would be unfortunate if the judgment on this question were left to an unsuccessful stockbroker advising a monarch in private.

The two revolutions of 1689 mark the moment when sovereignty passed from the non-existent monarch to the people of England and Scotland. The two Convention Parliaments had no other authority. The American revolutionaries who wrote their constitution in 1787 understood this point perfectly, when they called themselves “We, the people”, no less. Several of them were lawyers; several were close students of the revolutions of 1689. English lawyers still seem to prefer a rival notion, of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. To them, Parliament comprises three houses: monarch, Lord, and Commons.  But on what grounds can the unelected pair of those three houses claim to rule us? The characteristic biases of the two houses are well known. The House of Lords contains a lot of lawyers and a lot of country people. They have defeated the elected house on human rights and hunting. Prince Charles is not a lawyer, but he is a countryman. His accession would mean that the 5% or so of the UK population who live in the countryside would dominate both unelected houses, and the other 95% would control only one house out of three.

Unlike Ulster in 1914, architecture is not a matter of life and death. Nor is hunting – for humans. But alternative medicine is. If the monarchy is to continue, Prince Charles must learn to shut up and not blunder into the “no go” area Andreas Whittam Smith warns of in the Independent. If he does not, the (currently tiny) body of republicans in the UK will be the main gainers.

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