Throne into disarray

The Hidden Writing - The Monarchy and the Constitution
December 1, 1995

One result of the specialisation of modern academe is that political scientists such as the two authors under review live in a different world from students of international affairs such as myself. Two noted commentators on the British constitution can thus produce books on its current crisis without recognising that the main damage to its functioning has been Britain's incorporation into a European federal system. The law-making and tax-raising powers historically associated with the British Parliament have been delegated to supranational bodies, and the decision as to what is or is not law has been handed over to a court mainly composed of judges alien to our own common law. In a separate process what may or may not be done in some important areas of government is decided by a court at Strasbourg, equally remote from this country's concerns. If our "partners" were to get their way, the forthcoming intergovernmental conference would complete the process.

Peter Hennessy shows no awareness of all this except for a passing reference to the "European shadow". Vernon Bogdanor does have some inkling of what is going on, but seems to approve of it; he even suggests that the monarchy could be revivified by seeking to identify itself with "Britain's continental commitment".

If one takes the two books on their own terms, they are clearly useful. Of the two, Hennessy's volume with its excellent photographs is the better read. Like the late Richard Crossman, Hennessy probably sees himself as the modern Bagehot. But he is not naturally attuned to Victorian high seriousness. Indeed his title may conceal a joke, perhaps unintended. If "hidden wiring" indicates the distribution of electrical energy within the constitutional system, then unearthing it could produce shocks all round.

It would be better to think of Hennessy as the Autolycus of political science, "a picker up of unconsidered trifles" - give him an official document or two, however banal its apparent contents, and a lot of things previously mysterious come to light. If that fails, it helps to be on good personal terms with parliamentarians and civil servants; and if all else fails some willing graduate student can be sent to ask some notable and innocent question and get at the truth that way. It must be much more fun to be taught by Hennessy than by Bogdanor.

The difficulty about studying the British constitution is that it only produces problems at quite long intervals. For most of the post-Bagehot period the relations between the Crown, its ministers, Parliament and the judiciary have only rarely been subjected to strain. In particular the political neutrality of the Crown has been easier to preserve because of the domination of the political scene by two main parties. Getting rid of the Irish from the House of Commons was the principal benefit of the Treaty of 1921. Proportional representation would force upon the monarch a different and more controversial role. But even without embracing that folly, an overall single-party majority cannot be taken for granted. Perhaps Hennessy's most useful contribution to our understanding of how that absence has been or would be tackled, comes in his discovery of the "golden triangle" - the monarch's private secretary, the cabinet secretary and the principal private secretary to the prime minister. They are the officials who have disentangled previous crises, and it is a relief to know that if the election of 1992 had gone wrong their counterparts at that time were ready to spring into action.

Hennessy's close contacts with the world of government makes him very sensible of its problems, particularly the overload on the prime minister. The suggested solutions - the development of an "inner cabinet" to share the burden, and a new "think-tank" at its service are arguable, though one can see where the difficulties would lie. On the other hand, he takes a rather conventional view of the importance of the departmental select committees in maintaining some element of control over the executive. These committees cannot escape from the control of the whips, which is itself essential to the working of the system. Hennessy would have been better advised to look at the way the other favourite reform of recent years, the creation of "agencies" has diminished the possibility of pinning responsibility where it belongs.

Even less convincing is the espousal by Hennessy of "devolution" as a recipe for dealing with "overload" - devolution not only for Scotland and Wales where for practical purposes it already largely exists, but even for the English regions. To complicate a system increases the burden on its rulers; it does not diminish them. Hennessy is too prone to fall for current fashions; he would do better to look back in British history beyond Bagehot. He would then not write that civil servants have developed "as a great fixture of State from the mid-19th century". What about Samuel Pepys or Geoffrey Chaucer?

Bogdanor is also not without some odd ideas about the past. While it is true that there have been occasions when the passage from a monarchy to a republic has been peaceful, the emergence of the United States hardly fits into that category. Again in discussing the possible role of the monarchy in helping with the broadening of British society to include minority religions and ethnic groups he says: "Edward VII through his friendships did a great deal to encourage toleration towards Jews at the beginning of the century." He gives no evidence for this belief, and the most recent (and excellent) book on the subject, David Feldman's Englishmen and Jews, never mentions either Edward VII or any of his Jewish "friends".

Like Hennessy, Bogdanor wishes to be on the side of reform even where the monarchy is concerned. While convinced that hereditary succession is a better way of selecting a nonpolitical head of state than any alternatives that always end up with political figures, he wants to change the order of succession, both to remove the discrimination against Roman Catholics and the precedence it accords to males. He would also like to reform the Royal Marriages Act. There are no doubt good arguments for all of these but, given the role of the monarchy as the symbol of continuity in a changing world, ought one not preserve even the illogical rather than run the risk of change precipitating further change?

Bogdanor devotes a rather long but interesting chapter to the sovereign in her (or his) capacity as supreme governor of the Church of England and the contrasts between the position of that church and the established church in Scotland. He concludes with an analysis of what difference would be made to the monarchy if disestablishment came about in England (as in Ireland and Wales). It would, as he rightly points out, have repercussions on the nature of the monarchy. What form would the coronation take? And what would be done about the coronation oath? "There can be no doubt," he writes, "that a secular monarchy would be a very different type of monarchy from that to which we have historically become accustomed, and this would involve a breach with its historic origins. But a secularized monarchy might nevertheless prove to be a monarchy more in tune with the spirit of the age." But what is the "spirit of the age"?

What is said about the monarch's constitutional role in respect of the secular governance of the United Kingdom is perfectly sound and illustrated from the inevitable examples - it is hard to treat an institution whose interventions are so intermittent, but its current role is well designed and explained. On the other hand, it is impossible to know what may still happen. The development of the constitution since 1689 has been, as Bogdanor rightly observes, one of continuous limitation upon the power of the sovereign and he suggests that a point of resistance might be reached if there was a threat to the constitution itself, which determines the role of the head of state. At that point, it is suggested, the sovereign has the right to exercise his or her discretion, to act as constitutional guardian, to ensure that the values that lie at the foundation of the constitutional system are preserved. One might find it hard to translate this into concrete terms - the only example given is the attitude of George V to the home rule crisis of 1914.

We have, to take a point already made, no evidence that the Queen ever considered exercising her veto over the European Communities Act of 1972. Would she veto an act ceding Ulster to the Irish Republic? One assumes not. The difficulty is that though one can see inroads upon the constitution threatened in the future, it is hard to see how royal intervention to safeguard it might be exercised.

The most interesting and to some extent novel aspect of Bogdanor's book is its treatment of the relatively new role of the monarch, that of head of the Commonwealth. He is right to point out that the original idea held in some quarters that in the Commonwealth countries that retained the monarchy the sovereign could play the same role as in the UK, could not possibly work out. Even with modern communications, the Queen could not go from country to country, like a medieval monarch progressing from one estate to another eating his way round the country. Her or his role as sovereign of the UK is bound to be paramount and the British taxpayer will continue to fund the cost of her or his Commonwealth role. (Bogdanor is incidentally very helpful on the tangled problem of the royal income where some tidying up would seem sensible.) The role of head of the Commonwealth does involve some constitutional issues. Who advises the monarch about the Christmas broadcast or when she addresses the Commonwealth conferences of heads of government? But it is a role that the monarch of the UK will have to fulfil as long as the Commonwealth survives; ought the head of the Commonwealth to be a citizen of Europe?

Certainly no substitute could be envisaged. Bogdanor pours justified scorn on Tony Benn's suggestion of a headship to rotate among the members at four-yearly intervals - which means that each country's chance would come round once in 200 years. Is it not curious that both Bogdanor and Hennessy should quote Tony Benn's views on constitutional matters upon which he is always pronouncing with the minimum of knowledge and common sense? Perhaps even though deference is supposed to have disappeared from British society, a hereditary viscount (even one who has renounced his title) still gets automatic respect from mere academics. How hard it is to write sensibly about a country like Britain.

Lord Beloff is emeritus professor of government and public administration, University of Oxford.

The Hidden Writing: Unearthing the British Constitution

Author - Peter Hennessy
ISBN - 0 575 06176 6
Publisher - Gollancz
Price - £17.99
Pages - 261

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