The Hollow Heart of the British Constitution
The greatest distinction of the Queen’s realm – that she has always been ‘above’ politics – has led to her historic humiliation and, Anthony Barnett to ask: what’s the point of her?
The Supreme Court process now underway will have an enormous impact on the future of our country – both on our politics and our constitution; on our entire public life.
This leads on to a question which people are uncomfortably aware of: what is the role of the Queen? Many, perhaps most, think that the Queen has amazing political judgement. Some may even think that this is what has held the country together for more than 60 years. But, in reality, the crisis over the prorogation of Parliament demonstrates that the Queen has no political judgement whatsoever – good or bad. She is a nothingness, the hollow heart of the unwritten British constitution.
The more the constitution is now debated in the way all constitutions should be – as something vital, consequential and therefore relevant to the way we live – the clearer this becomes. As it does so, the monarchy becomes increasingly redundant.
For not even the most admiring wish to be ruled by a useless crown. The justification of deference is that one feels enhanced by the special enchantment of royal meaning and can share in its aura. If this drains away and the monarchy becomes irrelevant, allegiance to it becomes more shameful than enriching. Who would pledge one’s loyalty to a cipher?
The monarch’s nothingness is drawing the entire political system into the void that Elizabeth II has so meticulously and understandably defined as her role.
To understand why this is happening with respect to the case before the Supreme Court, it is necessary to grasp the nature of its quandary. Its decision hinges on how it perceives the blazing deception of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is claiming that his unprecedented closing down of Parliament had nothing to do with Brexit and was merely normal.
It is striking that no one, apart from Johnson himself at his most feeble, is making any effort to pretend that the Government’s description of its motives is true. No member of the Government has been willing to swear an affidavit or appear in court for cross-examination about its decision-making. Indeed, in his memorandum to the Supreme Court, Johnson in effect concedes this and merely states: “The courts have no jurisdiction to enforce political conventions… because those matters are determined within the political world.” In other words, he can do what he likes and break conventions at will for they are not legally binding or, to use the technical term, justiciable.
This puts the Supreme Court in a bind. The Prime Minister has acted in a despotic fashion by proroguing Parliament, the country’s sovereign body and home of what passes for our democracy. If the court concludes that this is unlawful it shatters the separation of the judiciary from the executive that is the hallmark of the British constitution. But, if it agrees that the Prime Minister can breach any convention he wishes because that’s politics and nothing to do with them, it endorses the destruction of the informal checks and balances on which the constitution rests. Either way points to a constitutional revolution.
What does this have to do with the Queen? Well, quite a lot. In a narrow way, she was correct. She wielded her authority to prorogue Parliament on the advice of her Prime Minister, given to her in her Privy Council. This advice was transmitted to her by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Government-appointed Leader of the House of Commons, who wrote in the Spectator about the advantages of prorogation for Brexit – something I discussed on openDemocracy.
The rules of the Privy Council are written in obscure language, in the oath its councillors take, but are basically clear. Everything said in Council is secret. What anyone says in the presence of the monarch cannot be revealed. But, the councillors are obliged to be truthful with the Queen – it is not just what they say which has to be true, it has to be the whole truth for they must “faithfully and truly declare” their “mind and opinion”.
Clearly, neither Rees-Mogg, nor through him, the Prime Minister did so. The monarch was misled as to her Prime Minister’s Government’s true reasons for closing Parliament and he breached his ancient pledge of faithfulness in doing so. The Queen should have replied: “Mr Rees-Mogg, as a Privy Councillor, you may kiss my royal arse, but you are forbidden to pull my royal leg.”
She did not do so because she followed a lifetime practice of never doing anything that might be deemed political.
Had she been a president, or had she sworn to uphold a documented constitution, it would have been her duty to expose Johnson’s request for what it was. But Elizabeth II has survived a lifetime on the throne by never appearing to be an agent. She preserved the regime through unprecedented change by floating. Her reward for being true to this extraordinary abnegation was having to give the go ahead to the toxic cynicism of Johnson and his Svengali, Dominic Cummings. The greatest distinction of her realm – that she has always been ‘above’ politics – has led to her historic humiliation.
In 2017, I set out why Brexit was like a supernova, a great flash of democratic energy that would collapse into a dark hole. What I hadn’t foreseen was the part that would be played in this by the absent centre that is the British monarchy.
Thanks to its passivity, the singular majesty that has endowed the United Kingdom with continuity could not withstand Johnson’s brutal carelessness with its vital conventions. The result is that the Supreme Court cannot now preserve them. It can only decide in what way Elizabeth II and the constitution enter their final reckoning.
Anthony Barnett is the co-founder of openDemocracy and the author of ‘The Lure of Greatness’