Mr Corbyn, Mrs Windsor (and Mr Charles Windsor)

What is the potential significance of Jeremy Corbyn refusing to bend his knee to the Queen?

Tim Treuherz
6 November 2015

Image: Sleeves Rolled Up, End Austerity Now/March on the State Opening of Parliament, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

His job title is Leader of the Opposition and MP for Islington North. To get his job, he must be elected.

Her job title, according to a proclamation she made in 1953, is Elizabeth II, (and I am not making this next bit up) 'by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith'. To get her job, she must be a descendant of Sophia, the eighteenth century Electress of Hanover next in line to the throne, and a Protestant.

He is the-man-who-didn’t-sing-the-national-anthem. He was not expecting to become a member of the Privy Council. But he did attend the state banquet for the Chinese president, dressing up in all the right kit.

As Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn becomes a member of the Privy Council. It goes with the job. On his appointment, Corbyn will be expected to bend his knee and kiss the Queen's hand. (According to the (Rt Hon) Sadiq Khan MP,   on Have I Got News for You, appointees are not actually expected to actually kiss her hand, but merely to brush it gently against their face.) He will then be required to pledge to his ‘ … uttermost to bear Faith and Allegiance to the Queen’s Majesty; and … assist and defend all civil and temporal Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty and annexed to the Crown [keep going, not long to go now] by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates.’  

You can understand why he might be reluctant to say this. Quite apart from the fact that he might not know what it means, he is a republican and does not believe in this stuff. Anyway, it is a bit of a diversion from the day job.

We should not underestimate the Privy Council. Recent press coverage has tended to focus on the less exciting aspects of its role. Whilst it is true that at recent meetings, it has approved new coins and amended the Charter of the Worshipful Company of Clothworkers, this is to ignore its central role in our constitutional arrangements. The coalition government’s groundbreaking Cabinet Manual describes the Cabinet as the executive committee of the Privy Council. The Privy Council itself has the power to declare war and make peace as well as responsibility for amending legislation passed by parliament in a great number of areas. It might seem like smoke and mirrors, but it is central to the architecture of our constitution.

All members of the cabinet are Privy Councillors (sometimes also referred to as counsellors) as well as the Leader of the Opposition. Privy Councillors are appointed for life. They can put ‘Rt Hon’ (Right Honourable) before their name. Corbyn, like all MPs, is already surrounded by the symbols and trappings of the monarchy. When he was sworn in as an MP, he will have taken the affirmation – an oath for those who do not believe in God – saying ‘I  do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth'. No mention of those pesky constituents here. Corbyn is after all, the Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition. He is a member of an institution that she opens every year, travelling in her fairytale horse-drawn coach and accompanied by men in tights with titles such as Rouge Croix Pursuivant of Arms in Ordinary.

The bills he votes for – or rather, against – need her assent so that they can become Acts of Parliament and part of our law. They begin with the words 'Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons assembled, and by the authority of the same… '.  The text that the Queen herself has to sign each time Royal assent is granted runs to over 400 words and includes choice phrases such as 'To Our right trusty and right well beloved the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and to Our trusty and well beloved the Knights Citizens [this is interesting because the use of the word citizens is relatively rare in British constitution speak] and Burgesses of the House of Commons in this present Parliament assembled GREETING'. Knights and Burgesses were entitled to sit in the parliaments of old, but today we have something called universal suffrage.

We must all defer to this system in some way. We carry around notes and coins with her picture on the back. We pay our taxes to HM Revenue and Customs. When we go abroad and show our passport to some bored border official, what we are really saying is printed in our passports. The Queen, our Head of State, is asking a foreign government to let us in: ‘Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests …'.  I won’t go on. Just look at your own passport.  

Some of this is symbolic, some of it is very real. Most of the  powers of the ‘crown’  are exercised by ministers under the so-called Royal prerogative, the residue of discretionary or arbitrary Royal authority left in the hands of our government. Many of these powers could quite easily be replaced by powers set out in Acts of Parliament and so put under democratic control. Indeed some of them have been over the years.  For example the last Labour government put the civil service on a statutory footing under the Constitutional Reform and  Governance Act 2010.

But there are two particular prerogative powers that have to be exercised by the sovereign personally. These will be much harder nuts for any republican to crack: the appointment of the prime minister and giving the Royal assent to Acts of Parliament. The sovereign is central to our constitutional arrangements because by appointing the Prime Minister, she gives the government legal authority to be, well, the government. Appointment involves kissing the Royal hand and taking the Privy Council oath, if the individual in question  is not  already a member. With this legal authority, the civil service recognises the government and implements its policies and the courts recognise the right of the government to make decisions which are subject to the rule of law.

Similarly Acts of Parliament are given validity by the grant of Royal assent which is confirmed by the statement at the beginning of each one. Although we might think that it is parliament that makes our laws, constitutional lawyers describe the body that makes our laws as The-Queen-in-Parliament, rather than simply parliament.

If Jeremy Corbyn does decline to kiss the hand at the Privy Council now, there will be the usual media storm. MPs such as Sir Nicholas Soames will accuse Corbyn of snubbing the Queen once more. But there is unlikely to be a major constitutional crisis. A snub to Royal authority now will not matter that much. But to understand the potential implications of Corbyn declining to bend his knee and kiss the hand, we have to fast forward to the day after the next general election and to indulge in a bit of fantasy.

Following the death of the Queen and the accession of King Charles III, the popularity of the monarchy among the public is at a very low ebb. Charles has continued to try to interfere in the day-to-day work of government. The election is won by Jeremy Corbyn with a thumping majority. The previous Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, goes to the palace to resign. The palace calls for Jeremy Corbyn. As leader of the party best able to command a majority in the House of Commons, he is entitled to be the next prime minister. He refuses to go, arguing that the voters have made him prime minister and there is no need to go to the palace. He has form here. He has previously refused to be summoned to the Lords at the state opening of parliament to hear what is formally known as the gracious speech but more commonly known as Queen’s speech. 

He turns up at the Downing Street gates. Will the police let him in? They will probably do what the civil service tells them to. Will the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service let the voters’ choice into No 10? Allowing Corbyn through the door would be deeply symbolic and one suspects he would probably prefer to meet the man claiming the job of Prime Minister on more neutral territory.  

Assuming that King Charles and his advisers were in no mood for a compromise, the civil service is placed in something of a dilemma. Their job between elections is to carry on His Majesty's Government. Their job after an election is to serve HM Government. Refusing to let Corbyn into 10 Downing Street and to give him and his chosen ministers access to the machinery of government would be seen as an affront to democracy, given the scale of his victory. On the other hand, letting him through the door could signal a constitutional upheaval and the end of the monarchy as we know it. Any government led by a ‘Prime Minister’ without the Royal approval and a kiss of the hand would not be His Majesty's government. There are many unknown factors. Ominously, the King would remain Head of the Armed Forces. The issue is one of recognition. Will the civil service recognise the party that has won the election as the party of government? Will the courts recognise the actions of such a government as lawful? What would the position be if one of Corbyn's chosen ministers broke ranks and went to the Palace?

Down the road in the Palace of Westminster, Parliament has decided to open itself, perhaps with its own men in tights. New MPs are taking their oaths of allegiance not to the King, but to their constituents, the citizens and the speaker. Parliament begins to pass laws – Acts of Parliament – but does not submit them for Royal assent. Will the judges, still sitting in front of the royal coat of arms, treat them as valid? Again, the constitutional crisis boils down to a question of recognition.

This little picture is not intended to be a realistic one. It is certainly not intended as a blueprint for abolishing the monarchy or even curbing royal power, as it would lead to far too much instability. It is simply intended to illustrate how Royal power passes to government and the potential consequences of declining to kiss the Royal hand.

Right now, there is little appetite for abolition of the monarchy. Republicanism is not a big issue. But that is not the same as saying that there is little appetite for constitutional reform. To borrow a phrase from Corbyn himself, it does not have to be like this. We could have a Parliament that opens itself and passes its own laws. We could have a Prime Minister who is given authority in a different way. We could have fewer of those men in tights. With his access to the Privy Council, Jeremy Corbyn can be part of a debate on how we want to be governed that challenges the deference and flummery at the heart of our constitutional arrangements.


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