Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: Report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
On Wednesday, August 20th, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee put before the House of Commons its report on the current hot topic in Parliament, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.
The report is enormous – 255 pages thick. The committee, chaired by Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, deserves an enormous amount of kudos for doing what it could in the time allocated. Because frankly, one of the biggest shames of this Bill is that it’s being shoved through the parliamentary process in the worst possible fashion.
The report criticises the fast pace of the progress of the Bill, and notes that the Bill, presented for First Reading on July 22nd 2010 with practically zero consultation with any interested parties. Parliament went into recess shortly after, meaning that Parliament has had precious little opportunity to scrutinise the Bill properly. While the Bill was paraded by the government as a ‘major step’ towards restoring people’s faith in Parliament:
“the Government’s failure to consult on the provisions in this Bill risk undermining that laudable intention.”
“it is always regrettable, and generally leads to poorer legislation, when such an approach to timetabling legislation becomes a characteristic of any government’s political reforms.”
The Bill is, essentially, two Bills in one: a Bill to establish a referendum on adopting a new electoral system, and another on reducing the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600. For some, (arguably Labour supporters), the Bill is largely a politically-motivated fix, not a principled attempt to correct flaws in the Constitution. However it makes sense to combine these two issues, but, the missed opportunity for the committee is adding Lords reform – meaning constitutional reform will continue to be dealt with piecemeal and not comprehensively.
The committee welcomed the government’s decision to put the electoral system change to a public vote. The report is silent on the merits of either FPTP or AV (makes sense – as the paper is long enough already!).
The Bill’s present question for the referendum is:
“Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘fire past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”
However the Electoral Commission proposed something a bit friendlier:
‘”At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”
The committee saw the merits and drawbacks of holding the vote on May 5th 2011, at the same time as elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The Scottish and Welsh legislatures claim it will overshadow their own elections and confuse the electorate, but Professor Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit in University College, London (UCL), disagreed:
“the likelihood is that the referendum is the second order poll, and that it will be overshadowed by the elections rather than vice versa. That has been the experience in other countries which have had referendums at the same time as elections. In Canada, and in New Zealand in 1993, the political parties remained silent on the referendum issue, not least because they were concentrating their efforts on fighting the election, not the referendum campaign.”
Pairing the elections and the referendum would save about £30 million in administrative costs, increase turnout, and minimise voter fatigue, which can only be to the good. If the referendum were held on its own, the turnout for the poll would likely be very low. The Hansard Society noted the low priority for the public of the issue, saying “only one in five (19%) report having discussed ‘the electoral system’ in the last year”.
So it makes sense ultimately for the referendum to buddy up with the devolved elections; but in order for everything to be ready in time, the Bill must become law 6 months before the vote – November 5th, 2011. This means there’s been a phenomenal rush to get the Bill onto the Statute Books. As it stands, the Lords will hardly have a moment to scrutinise the Bill within that deadline. Given the huge number of amendments being proposed to the Bill and the ambivalent nature of all the parties to it, I would be surprised if it’s met.
While this section of the Bill is principally the Conservative Party’s baby, the Liberal Democrats also pledged in their manifesto to reduce the number of MPs to 500 but only if the UK adopted Single Transferable Vote (STV). The Tories themselves wanted a 10% drop to 585. 600, then, is clearly a compromise.
The committee reported general surprise from its witnesses about the decision to cut the number of MPs. Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy (a pro-electoral reform body) felt that, without a debate with the public on what MPs are for, this decision is putting “the cart before the horse”, and Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit added that there has been no input from the public on this decision.
The Rt Hon. Paul Murphy, MP, argued that larger constituencies would make MPs still more remote from their constituents. The Deputy Prime Minister argued that the priority should be to ensure each vote carries the same weight. But the committee questioned the wisdom of this approach:
“there is an argument…that the point of a constituency-based system, rather than a system of proportional representation, is to prioritise representation of the views of local communities over absolute equality of votes for individuals. It is important that the equalisation requirement is not drawn so tightly, that new constituencies lack a sense of local identity as a result”.
Therefore, if equal votes is our priority, rather than representation of communities, then the government should not have picked AV as their replacement voting system, but have gone straight to PR.
The Hansard Society felt a reduction of 50 MPs was simply “plucked from thin air – 600 simply being a neat number”. Prof. Ron Johnston and Prof. Justin Fisher felt that it was largely “a rather populist response to the expenses scandal”, allowing the government to facetiously tell the country ‘we’re proving to the country we can work harder with less money’. The committee concluded that while it felt there could be a justification for reducing the size of the Commons, the government simply hasn’t presented it.
Nor would the reduction make Parliament work any better or more cheaply. According to the Hansard Society, increasing the average size of constituencies expand MPs’ casework, and require them to deal with even more local stakeholders and local authorities, implicating more time consumed and costs generated. No savings were demonstrated by the government – indeed, the report points out it would be about a millionth of the budget of the NHS.
International comparisons show the House of Commons is not that much larger than the German or Italian lower Houses (with 622 and 630 representatives respectively). More important than international comparisons is the uniqueness of the UK’s political structure – we are a unitary state, unlike Germany or America which are federal, and being parliamentary, unlike the US or France. Here, the executive sits in the legislature, requiring a larger legislature to ensure separation of powers.
The Boundary Commissions
The committee’s report was unhappy with the government’s attitude to constituency redrawing, describing it as ‘mathematical’, and that insufficient consideration of local views was being provided. The Committee has tabled an amendment to the Bill (which will be dealt with in the House’s committee stage) which would make it easier for members of the public to influence the redrawing process, and to have more of an impact. Let’s hope the House accepts it.
The committee was also unhappy with the concentration of power the Bill grants the government in clause 8(6), allowing the government to amend a Boundary Commission report at will. The government tried to assure the committee that this power would only be used to amend obvious errors in the reports, but as the boundary appeals are dominated by political parties, the committee wasn’t convinced. The committee therefore insisted on statutory limitations on these powers, namely that amendments to the Boundary Commission’s report only be made with the Commission’s consent.
By not attempting to reach a consensus on its boundary reform proposals, the government is leaving itself exposed to claims that the Bill is purely partisan, and it will set a precedent for future governments to tinker with constituency drawing more aggressively. The question of course is whether consensus on such a hot potato as constituency boundaries is at all possible, of course.
The Payroll Vote
The committee observed that the cuts threaten to make the ‘payroll vote’ – the number of MPs working for the government – proportionately larger, and threatening Britain’s separation of powers.
The number of ministers in the Commons is limited to just 95, as per the House of Commons Disqualification Act (1975), and each of these can have a Parliamentary Private Secretary, meaning the maximum potential number on the ‘payroll vote’ can be 190 MPs.
It’s likely that the 50 constituencies abolished would be backbenchers, meaning the government would grow in size in the House. In the government’s defence, reducing the size of the Executive in the House isn’t a simple mathematical affair, as the ministerial workloads would intensify. The side-effect may be an increase in the number of ministers sitting in the House of Lords. The committee wasn’t impressed by this, describing it as ‘ironic’ that the government would make excuses for this, given their haste and lack of concern about the impact of reducing the size of the House overall. Therefore, the committee tabled an amendment which would limit the payroll vote to 15% of the House.
All in all, the committee’s report appears to be quite constructive. It’s supportive of the Bill in principle, but critical of the spirit of its passage through Parliament. The arbitrary constituency boundary redrawings resembles not a little the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The House of Commons is coming to the end of its own committee stage for the Bill, and very shortly will be before the House of Lords.
Ah, Magna Carta. There are few documents which are so symbolic to the English-speaking peoples, and few which are so symbolic to the rise of constitutional government. Yet much of the document no longer exists in law. While the significance of Magna Carta for later generations, and for ourselves, is well appreciated, the significance of the document for contemporaries is often overlooked.
From an international perspective, Magna Carta isn’t really that special. The Concordat of Worms predates Magna Carta by almost a century and served to inspire the modern concept of national sovereignty; the Golden Bull of 1222 issued by King Andrew II of Hungary achieved much of the same as Magna Carta; and in 1356, the ‘Joyous Charter’ in the Low Countries was the result of a century’s accumulation of privileges granted by the Duke of Brabrant to his subjects.
But back to England. The Magna Carta of 1215 was repudiated by King John in the very same year, with the encouragement of the Pope. In 1216 John died, and his nine-year-old son Henry III became King, defusing the brewing civil war – but more on that in a bit.
Henry’s elderly regent, William Marshall, reissued Magna Carta in Henry’s name within days of John’s death, but omitting the more contentious chapters. In 1225, Henry came of age, and reissued a third, shorter Magna Carta.
Henry died in 1272, a very long reign for the time; long enough to allow Magna Carta become integral to English liberties. Edward I, Henry’s son, reconfirmed Magna Carta again in the Parliament of 1297. It became tradition for every English king to reconfirm Magna Carta, until the final time in 1416 by Henry V. It is the 1225 version which remains in legal force today…
…sort of. It took Parliament 600 years, but starting with the 1828 Offences Against the Person Act, sections of Magna Carta have since been overwritten or repealed.
What’s in force today
The first chapter to go was chapter 26; the last was chapter 30 in 1969. All that remains of Magna Carta is Chapters 1, 9, and 29:
“EDWARD by the Grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, and Duke of Guyan, to all Archbishops, Bishops &c. We have seen the Great Charter of the Lord Henry sometimes King of England, our Father, of the Liberties of England in these words:
HENRY by the Grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Guyan, and Earl of Anjou, to all Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Priors, Earls, Barons, Sheriffs, Provosts, Officers, and to all Bailiffs, and other our faithful Subjects, which shall see this present Charter, Greeting: Know Ye, that We, unto the honour of Almighty God, and for the salvation of the souls of our Progenitors and Successors Kings of England, to the advancement of Holy Church and amendment of our Realm, of our meer and free will, have given and granted to all Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Priors, Earls, Barons, and to all Freemen of this our Realm, these Liberties following, to be kept in our Kingdom of England for ever.”
Chapter 1, in which the English Church is declared free:
”FIRST, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever.”
Chapter 9, in which London is promised its ancient liberties to be governed differently from the rest of England:
”THE City of London shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which it hath been used to have. Moreover We will and grant, that all other Cities, Boroughs, Towns, and the Barons of the Five Ports, and all other Ports, shall have all their Liberties and free Customs.”
And Chapter 29, probably the most famous of all, which promises trial by jury:
”NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. “
The Inspiration for Magna Carta
So much for modern law. But Magna Carta’s significance goes beyond that of trial by jury. The very creation of the document was an expression of, but also a catalyst for major political change in the Thirteenth Century, which would ultimately result in the foundation of the House of Commons and the early beginnings of parliamentary government.
King John of England became King in 1199 in the midst of a time of great social and economic change. The kings of the Twelfth Century had been able to fight wars and govern the realm largely with the revenue of their own lands, through duties on imports, and through occasional feudal taxes known as ‘scutage’. But since 1180 heavy inflation had caused the revenue from Crown lands to fall to less then half its value by 1230, not exactly helped by the piecemeal portioning off of royal lands to reward royal supporters. Additionally in 1204 King Philip II of France conquered Normandy. All of these factors made the monarch less and less capable of supporting itself and the government.
John sought to offset this by exploiting the royal prerogative to the full, implementing scutage, abusing forest law, and enacting England’s first income tax. The ploy was successful, trebling royal income, but causing deep resentment in the kingdom.
In 1211 Llywelyn the Great of Wales rebelled against John’s overlordship, backed by the Pope who had declared John an excommunicant of the Church (in other words, persona non grata in the afterlife) in 1209 over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This crisis caused his campaign to recover Normandy to falter, coming to a crashing end in the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214. In the end,John reconciled himself with the Pope by offering to sell his kingdoms, England and Ireland, to the Pope for 1,000 marks. Understandably, this didn’t go down too well with his subjects.
The subsequent humiliating peace with France caused the Barons to rebel against John’s incompetent government. Llywelyn’s seizure of Shrewsbury in May 1215, joined with Scottish and French armies also invading, entering London in June. This made it clear to John that he had no choice but to come to terms with his barons if he was to save his kingdom. He met his barons at Runnymede, just outside London, on June 15th, and attached his seal to the ‘Articles of the Barons’, later to be solemnised as the Magna Carta.
Magna Carta, taxes, and Parliament
Magna Carta’s original document had 63 articles. Chapters 12 and 14 related to taxation. Article 12 prohibits taxation without ‘common counsel’ and lists the exceptions. ‘Our’ of course relates to the king, as signatory:
”No scutage or aid shall be imposed in our kingdom unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter, and for these only a reasonable aid shall be levied. Be it done in like manner concerning aids from the city of London.”
Article 14 then defines what a ‘common counsel’ is – in other words, a gathering of the kingdom’s magnates, bishops and great men:
”And to obtain the common counsel of the kingdom about the assessing of an aid (except in the three cases aforesaid) or of a scutage, we will cause to be summoned the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and greater barons, individually by our letters — and, in addition, we will cause to be summoned generally through our sheriffs and bailiffs all those holding of us in chief — for a fixed date, namely, after the expiry of at least forty days, and to a fixed place; and in all letters of such summons we will specify the reason for the summons. And when the summons has thus been made, the business shall proceed on the day appointed, according to the counsel of those present, though not all have come who were summoned.”
The most repugnant chapter from the view of King John, however, was Chapter 61, which sought to constrain his royal power and give the barons the right to rebel against his government if he did not carry out their commands. Here is an abridged version:
”…if we do not correct the transgression, or if we are out of the kingdom, if our justiciar does not correct it, within forty days, reckoning from the time it was brought to our notice or to that of our justiciar if we were out of the kingdom, the aforesaid four barons shall refer that case to the rest of the twenty-five barons and those twenty-five barons together with the community of the whole land shall distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely, by seizing castles, lands, possessions, and in such other ways as they can, saving our person and the persons of our queen and our children, until, in their opinion, amends have been made, and when amends have been made, they shall obey us as they did before.”
As we know, John was compelled to put his seal to Magna Carta to save his crown, but as soon as opportunity allowed he renounced Magna Carta and started the First Baron’s War. In 1216 he died, replaced by his son – and the rest we know.
Chapter 61 was the main bone of contention for John in 1215, but it was chapters 12 and 14 which would inspire and shape the evolution of the first true parliaments by the end of the century. Taxation by consent was fast becoming a universally agreed to requirement. ‘Common counsel’ in the form of representative barons and clergy suited the start of the century fine; but it would be unjustifiable in a representative legislature within fifty years.
Time was when the cost to maintain the dignity of the monarch was one and the same with that of administering government. Today there is a much sharper distinction, but there is still a blur in parts – endemic of the inability to fully separate the monarch from the person – the Queen, after all, can never retire, and can never truly take a break from the role.
Much of the struggles of the Seventeenth century were about Parliament gaining control over royal expenditure. This control was made almost complete by 1760, as is detailed below. It’s a broad approximation of a rather complex system, which really ought to be clarified and updated.
The monarchy is financed from six sources.
The Civil List
Firstly – and best known – is the Civil List. The name derives from the list of officials who received royal money for services to the government (the civil service, in other words). This was in contrast to a military list and a naval list, presumably. In 1760, on the Accession to the throne of George III, major reforms were made, in which Parliament provided the monarch with the Civil List as a lump sum payment. In return, the monarch surrendered the hereditary revenues from the Crown Estate, except for the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster. In 1830, on the Accession of William IV, the Civil List was defined as designed purely to pay for the costs incurred through the duties carried out by the monarch as Head of State.
This remains the same function for the Civil List today. In return for £200 million per annum in Crown Estate revenues (revenues which are produced from a range of sources, such as rents, commerce, trade, parkland and forestry, minerals and fishing – in fact, the second largest shopping centre in the UK is partly on Crown Land) supplied to HM Treasury (as of 2006/7), Parliament votes each decade an annual sum as the Civil List.
In 1990 this sum was set at £7.9 million per annum. An advantageous economic environment in the 1990s allowed the Crown to amass a substantial surplus, so that in 2000 there was no need to adjust the figure (Parliament is forbidden from actually reducing the List), and in 2010 the figure again stayed static. This reserve is now running low, and the Government recently confirmed it would revisit royal finances in 2012. In real terms, the cost of the Civil List has actually fallen by £4.5 million.
This is not ‘pay’ for the Sovereign, as the Sovereign cannot use the money for personal use. In fact the Queen doesn’t get paid at all. About 70% of this is used primarily to fund staff salaries in the Royal Household. The remainder goes towards official receptions, garden parties and official entertainment during State Visits. The full report can be found here.
The Civil List is nowadays set every ten years. There was a period of very high inflation in the 1970s which required much more frequent revisits to royal finances, but this proved impractical as it endangered the necessary space the monarchy needs to be independent of the government and of Parliament. Given that the Queen is monarch to another fifteen realms, and is Head of the Commonwealth, to place the monarchy fully under such control would endanger the monarchy’s capacity to carry out these functions independently of British institutions.
The Privy Purse
In addition to the Civil List, there is the Privy Purse, the revenue the monarch receives from the Duchy of Lancaster, that remainder of the Crown Estate which remains to the Crown for their use. It is kept apart from the Crown Estate as it is not held in trust to the nation but possessed by the Queen in person, in her right as Duke (yes, Duke) of Lancaster, a title held since 1413. In 2009, this amounted to £13.3 million.
The Privy Purse finances other Head of State functions, such as pensions for present and past employers, staff welfare, parts of the cost of Sandringham and Balmoral, and charity subscriptions and donations. The revenue from the Privy Purse is accountable to Parliament through the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Privy Purse’s annual report for 2009 can be found here.
In addition, grant-in-aid, provided by Parliament, is supplied to members of the Royal Family for the 3,000 public engagements the royal family undertake each year. For example, the Department of Transport helps the royals to get from place to place (broken down here). I should emphasise: this is costs for official duties; costs for personal jollies and private engagements are not on this bill.
A separate grant is provided by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to go toward the maintenance of royal residences. This particular grant (which is broken down here) accounts for about 75% of grant-in-aid. In 2009, grants-in-aid was £22.6 million.
All such grants are, of course, subject to Parliament. This, and Parliamentary annuities, is the only money which royals other than the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh can receive. Not even the Prince of Wales gets a penny of state funds unless he is specifically carrying out a representative role on behalf of the monarch.
Parliamentary annuities are grants to members of the Royal Family by Parliament to carry out representative roles on behalf of the monarch. In 2009, £400,000 was provided as an annuity to the Duke of Edinburgh. In the case of royals who are not the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen reimburses the Treasury the cost of the annuities.
This field is for other miscellaneous costs, including the cost to create medals and other honours, other ceremonials, State Visits, maintenance of Holyroodhouse (the Queen’s official residence in Scotland), maintenance of the Home Park at Windsor Castle, and equerries on secondment from the Armed Forces. In 2009, this was £4.6 million.
Finally, there is the Queen’s personal income as a private individual. This is sourced from her private investment portfolio and revenue from lands held in her own right (such as Sandringham and Balmoral). This source of funding is used, understandably, for the Queen’s own private expenses.
This does not include the Crown Jewels, the Royal Art Collection, or Royal Palaces – these are held by the Crown, not the Queen. It’s the same as the difference between former President George Bush Jr. having resided in the White House but owning Crawford Ranch in Texas.
The Sovereign is forbidden from generating new wealth, in terms of earnings or business activities. Being unable to retire, the monarch also cannot bypass Inheritance Tax by passing assets on at an early stage to the Heir.
Since 1992, the Queen has voluntarily paid tax on her personal income and the Privy Purse. This isn’t actually much of an innovation – Queen Victoria did the same from 1842 upon Sir Robert Peel’s introduction of income tax, as did Edward VII. In 1910, however, George V managed to get out of it – in return for forking up the cost of entertaining visiting Heads of State. The Prince of Wales, incidentally, voluntarily pays tax on his revenues from the Duchy of Cornwall. All other royals are taxed like any other citizen.
All of this is, of course, a great simplification of an extremely complex form of financing. It clearly needs clarification and updating. Note also that nowhere in this list of sources of revenue has the Queen received any direct pay.
So, to recap – staff salaries and garden parties are from the Civil List; staff pensions and charity subscriptions are from the Privy Purse; Duke of Edinburgh functions are from Parliamentary Annuities; travel is from grants-in-aid; building maintenance is jointly from grants-in-aid and government funds; and State Visit entertainments are jointly from the Civil List and government funds.
The total cost then, would be Civil List plus grant-in-aid, plus Parliamentary annuities plus government funds. The Privy Purse is not a burden on the taxpayer, and nor is the Queen’s private expenditure. Many critics have attempted to criticise the monarchy by pointing to their apparent spend-happy private life, but it’s frankly irrelevant.
In total, we’re looking, as of 2009, at £41.5 million, as can be seen in this annual summary.
This total does not include the costs incurred to the protection of the royal family to the police and the Armed Forces; these are not disclosed.
Is this good value for money? All estimates seem to indicate to the monarchy not being all too expensive. Per taxpayer, this equates more or less to two pints of milk, or 61 pence. As Robert Hardman noted in the Daily Mail on July 10, 2010, if MPs’ salaries were pegged to the Civil List, they would still be paid £26,701 instead of the present £63,291.
(Incidentally I’m most certainly not a fan of the Daily Mail, but I guess even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day.)
The Republic website erroneously claims that the cost of monarchy is significantly higher – a remarkable £184.8 million. However, this tally is disingenuous in a number of ways. It counts the charges I list above, but they throw in an addition £100 million ‘as an estimate’ for security, which they readily admit to be biased towards the highest possible figure. They also count upkeep of the Palaces as a separate charge even though they are accounted for in the charges I list above.
While they are correct in stating that the Crown Estate is held in trust to the Crown and hence the country, they also take it upon themselves to proclaim that the Queen and the Prince of Wales have no right to have the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall as their personal possessions. I know of no lawful authority that could seize a person’s property in such a way. Sorry, Republic.
They also criticise the fact that we don’t know how much the Queen pays in tax – but then, isn’t such information supposed to be covered by Data Protection laws, anyway? It is rightly kept private.
The most important question however is this: if Britain were to abolish the monarchy, would these costs go away? Answer: no.
The security bill (even if it were £100 million!) would remain pretty much the same. Equally, the cost of maintaining the palaces would remain the same – the German Bundespräsident has a number of official residences too, after all. The staffing costs, the pensions, the full range of duties a Head of State carries out will still have to be carried out by whatever replaces the monarchy. State Visits would continue. Garden parties would continue. Visits to local councils, receptions and the granting of honours would continue. The Head of State’s functions as constitutional umpire would continue. And of course, the new Head of State would require a salary.
What’s more, out of all the G8 countries – France, Italy, Russia, Germany, Japan, the United States and Canada (okay, Canada shares our Queen, but the flight carries the Governor-General), the Queen doesn’t have her own plane, despite increasing terror concerns since 9/11.
I have done my best to find an English language translation of the German federal budget to ascertain the cost of the Bundespräsident; alas, it is not forthcoming, so you’ll have to trust me on this; the Budget seems to indicate that in 2009 the Presidency, which is close in approximation to the role of the British monarchy, cost £20 million. However, this is purely for the dignity of the president, much like our Civil List. Therefore, while at first glance it appears to be half the cost of the monarchy, in truth half the cost is simply moved elsewhere, into a generic building maintenance fund in the Budget. In the end, it works out broadly the same then.
So the cost of the monarch is not all that burdensome; nor can it be made sufficiently cheaper to be worth ditching. At best, you can argue that a republic would save us, what? £5 million? Half a Mars Bar for everyone, then. But then we’d lose the bulk of the £13.3 million the monarch provides from the Privy Purse.
Also, thanks to Gallia Watch, a French politics blog, we can see in action the great contradiction of republics that mean they can accumulate bloated salaries and huge personal budgets without any outcry from the public. At least here the monarchy has to make sure every penny is well-spent before it goes cap-in-hand to Parliament.
I have also heard rumour that the expenses for the President of the Italian Republic is currently around £200 million. However I have not been able to verify this as of yet.
Most importantly though, if we became a republic, we’d be losing a whole lot more that can’t be quantified in money. You cannot put a price on magnificence.
Bogdanor, V (1997) The Monarchy and the Constitution, Oxford University Press
— King Albert I of the Belgians
The Royal Prerogative is the powers of decree that the British monarch may use without consent of Parliament. They are wide ranging and used frequently.
This is, of course, in theory. In practice, the Royal Prerogative is exercised only on the advice of the Government, which is held to account to Parliament for the advice it gives to the monarch. The following will describe the established prerogative powers and I will attempt to explain why they are held by the Crown. I’ll start with the easiest ones first.
The monarch issues passports, creates royal charters, mints coinage, authorises the mining of precious metals, is the State guardian of orphans, awards the allocation of treasure, bestows copyrights and franchises, and other similar functions. The monarch also has the power of Mercy (pardoning of criminals), can requisition ships for State use, can prohibit aliens from leaving UK territory, and can permit hearings before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
Officially, these are done by the monarch without consent of Parliament. This is, however, only half the story. The Queen, in order keep her job, only exercises these prerogatives on the advice of her ministers. For example, the prerogatives relating to passports, Mercy, and restraining aliens are exercised on the advice of the Home Secretary (Britain’s Minister of the Interior), and decisions regarding the Judicial Committee would be under the remit of the Lord Chancellor. The Home Secretary, being an MP in the House of Commons, is accountable to Parliament – Parliament can express displeasure at the advice the Home Secretary gave the Queen and censure him as it sees fit.
The monarch grants Royal Assent to Bills before Parliament. Withholding Assent is essentially a legislative veto.
Theoretically powerful, this hasn’t actually been used in over three hundred years and is principally a formality. The last time was by Queen Anne in 1708, against the Scottish Militia Bill. It is highly unlikely the monarch would ever find cause to reactivate this prerogative, unless the government sought to pass a bill which would attack the democratic core of the constitution.
The monarch signs treaties, declares a state of emergency, and declares war and peace.
Again, half the story. Since the 1920s the Ponsonby Rule has meant that Parliament has seen all treaties before they are signed. It is utterly inconceivable that the monarch could exercise these particular prerogatives if Parliament were to object to them. As before, she can only use them on ministerial advice, who are subject to Parliament. One of the last acts of the Brown Ministry was to transform the Ponsonby Rule from a convention to an explicit legal requirement, and gives Parliament the express right to vote down treaties. This is a welcome development.
On war and peace powers, again, the monarch cannot use them without the government’s advice. And in turn, no government would dare go ahead with a military campaign in the face of Parliamentary opposition. Parliament’s absolute power here is obvious, even if it isn’t formally written. In 2003, Parliament debates and voted on whether British forces should participate in the invasion of Iraq. The House of Commons took a vote and narrowly approved the action.
Imagine that the vote had gone the other way. In theory, the government could have advised the Queen to declare war anyway, but in reality the most likely outcome if they had tried it would have been a successful no-confidence motion against the government.
The monarch appoints ministers, judges, peers, bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England.
The monarch only appoints them on the advice of her ministers. To do otherwise would have the government resign and the Queen unable to raise an alternative one from the House of Commons. Again, the government is accountable to Parliament and so must ensure it doesn’t take it for granted.
The monarch creates and confers knighthoods and other honours.
Honours are a mixture – the lower degrees of the orders of knighthood tend to be dispensed on the advice of the government, as a means of honouring people who do service for the country (and the breadth of fields honoured is, well, broad). The higher degrees however, including the most elite Orders – such as the Garter, Thistle and the Bath – are purely in the gift of the monarch without input from the government.
The monarch is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Crown.
This is chiefly a symbolic function, the deployment of troops decided by the government, but the Queen is known to take a deep personal interest in the welfare of servicemen and meets regularly with senior commanding officers. The servicemen in the Armed Forces all pledge allegiance to the monarch – not the government. A great many British servicemen take pride in this distinction and their direct connection to the Crown is taken seriously as a symbol of the Forces’ non-intervention in politics.
The monarch legislates by Order in Council/letters patent.
The refers to legislative decrees carried out by the Privy Council. Again, while in theory the Privy Council’s actions are not subject to Parliament, in reality the government’s control of the Council ensures that Parliament in turn holds its actions responsible.
The monarch summons, prorogues, and dissolves Parliament, and appoints the Prime Minister.
Here the importance of the monarch as impartial constitutional umpire starts to become more apparent.
In many ways the two-party system of the past 70 years has made the need for such impartiality less clear by limiting the need for royal oversight. But in the periods of multi-party tension the British monarch has often played a key role. Queen Victoria and George V sought to bring the parties together to discuss Irish Home Rule; Victoria again sought to bridge the divides over Irish disestablishment in 1869 and in 1884 over the Reform Act.
Ironically, reform of the electoral system in Westminster could see a resurgence in the monarch’s role. We can look to examples in Europe for the key role monarchies in Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium have in facilitating cross-party agreement.
For example, the Queen rarely refuses a dissolution of Parliament because the government, comprised of one party, governs alone. Refusing a dissolution would handicap the Queen’s government as the Opposition would not have sufficient seats in the Commons to sustain themselves. Opposition to a dissolution here would be lunacy.
Right now of course, Britain is experiencing its first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s. The negotiations between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiating teams in May 2010 were carried out by and large without the monarch’s involvement.
There’s a lot of what-ifs about the coalition, though. What if the talks had collapsed, and Cameron was installed a PM of a minority government? What if Brown had refused to quit Downing Street? Theoretically, he could have asked the Queen for another dissolution immediately, but the Queen would have been duty-bound to refuse it even if Brown had even thought about it. The fact that the Queen has not had cause to use her Prerogatives much isn’t a sign that they’re defunct, but that Government and Opposition have tended to act constitutionally.
There are older examples and other theoretical cases the monarch would be crucial in deciding. For example, if the PM were to lose the support of their party or cabinet, then the PM would not be automatically granted a dissolution. An election requires political camps to close ranks in order to pursue votes; calling an election would in effect be used by the PM as a means of stifling parliamentary accountability. For example, Harold Wilson threatened to call an election in 1969 over highly controversial trade union reform, and Major did the same over rebels in his party opposed to the Maastricht Treaty. In 1990, having performed less than expected in her party’s leadership election, Thatcher considered going on to the second round and calling a General Election if she lost. The Queen would have had no choice but to disappoint her.
Bogdanor, V (1997) The Monarchy and the Constitution, Oxford University Press
King Edward II’s reign was not altogether a happy one for England; more on that at a future date. There was at least one signficant and long-lasting change; in 1322, the King pledged that henceforth and forever, all laws would be created and amended through Parliament.
In essence, Edward was confirming established practice, but this was in the light of recent violations of the law by himself. Edward was in the midst of yet another power struggle with the Commons, Lords and Clergy over his association with powerful individuals, notably his favoured Hugh Despenser. Edward angered the nobility by ignoring laws and clearly acting to accrue wealth and power to the Despensers; following a rebellion in 1321 led by the Earl of Hereford and the Earl of Lancaster, Edward was forced to treaty with the barons and made the following pledge:
“It is accorded and established, at the said Parliament, by our Lord the King, and by the said Prelates, Earls, and Barons, and the whole Commonalty of the Realm, at this Parliament assembled, That all the Things, by the said Ordainors ordained and contained in the said Ordinances, shall from henceforth for the Time to come cease and shall lose their Name, Force, Virtue, and Effect for ever; The Statutes and Establishments duly made by our Lord the King and his Ancestors, before the said Ordinances, abiding in their Force: And that for ever hereafter, all manner of Ordinances or Provisions, made by the Subjects of our Lord the King or of his Heirs, by any power or Authority whatsoever, concerning the Royal Power of our Lord the King or of his Heirs, or against the Estate of our said Lord the King or of his Heirs, or against the Estate of the Crown, shall be void and of no Avail or Force whatever; But the Matters which are to be established for the Estate of our Lord the King and of his Heirs, and for the Estate of the Realm and of the People, shall be treated, accorded, and established in Parliaments, by our Lord the King, and by the Assent of the Prelates, Earls, and Barons, and the Commonalty of the Realm; according as it hath been heretofore accustomed.”
The Despensers were. as consequence, banished and the monarchy became more dependent upon Parliament for his power.