The crown at a constitutional crossroads – my Prospect column this month

5th May 2021

My column at Prospect magazine this month is about the monarchy.

Please click here to read it – and leave any comments below.

In particular, I would be interested in any views on my broad point that – regardless of the succession – the monarchy is likely to have to change anyway, as the current model was very much a response to the specific (and challenging) conditions of the mid-twentieth century.


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22 thoughts on “The crown at a constitutional crossroads – my Prospect column this month”

  1. As a citizen there are 2 things above all others which make me hesitate about the viability of the monarchy in its current form.
    1. I am concerned at the revelation that it can interfere in the process of government, not in the interests of its subjects but in its own interest. That concern stems from the fact that hitherto I saw it as one of the checks and balances that might protect us in the event that we had a rogue government or perhaps a PM with a criminal conviction for fraud or serious misdemeanour who refused to relinquish power or legislation that gave away something important to our U.K. or if proper consultation and voting had not taken place in which case Royal Assent could be withheld. But how can it be relied upon to act in that way if it is allowed to act in its own interests and not for the people? I would say that it cannot be so relied upon.
    2. A more domestic concern. Whilst evidence can be disputed, it seems fairly clear that “the firm” has been acting against some of its members and has not shown the integrity that we would expect in allegedly lying about events that have taken place to protect its own members. Prince Andrew has been protected from the spotlight and Megan has made certain allegations which, if true, should give great cause for concern. This lack of an open and fair approach in dealing with criticism appears to exist whomever you believe in the light of recent events. I frankly don’t see see how it can continue to hold things together unless it undergoes significant reform. New and younger members will find it intolerable and right thinking people will lose their respect for the institution.
    I have no strong views about the direction it should go but I am sure it cannot continue as it is at the moment. Examination of the operation of the monarchy should in my opinion form part of a wider review of the checks and balances that protect us from corruption within the process of government.

  2. I very much enjoyed the elegant, and cheeky, phrase ” …make the exertions of Brexit seem like a day trip to Barnard Castle”

  3. Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.’ What was true of C19 Sicily is true of our institutions also. By the time of King William V the monarchy will have trimmed its public image to a people friendly Scandi style but its wealth and privilege will remain. No major political party has the least interest in altering the constitutional status quo which suits them all, for different reasons. We’ve become lazy and unprincipled as a nation and Lampedusa will have got it right.

  4. The most useless function is the Head of State, like a King or Queen or even worse a president. Switzerland is a republic without a president and is one of the best run and most wealthy countries of the world.
    The Netherlands were once for two centuries a republic without a head of state. This period is still called the Golden Age.
    So you can end the monarchy in England. Your current head of state can, as long as she likes it, remain to be the head of state of Jamaica, Australia, Canada, Scotland, part of Ireland and o lot of other occupied territories as long as the people of these territories like to have this head of state or her successor.
    So, there are no formal objections to a state reform in the UK and it can be done without compulsory resigning.

    1. Many people are envious of the relative prosperity and stability of the Netherlands. My instinct is also republican. But when I look at the data, the other places that are (constitutional) monarchies in Europe, it does make me wonder.

      You cite Switzerland, and could cite Norway and Austria, within the peer group of successful small NW European countries. But these are outnumbered by the monarchies – Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg- they all do pretty well. And Spain does pretty well relative to its southern European peers. For all their difficulties, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand also do pretty well relative to their regional peers. It does make me doubt my republical instinct.

  5. I suppose that England can leave the United Kingdom legally, just like the Netherlands can leave the Koninkrijk, just like Surinam did 45 years ago. The biggest mistake Surinam made is to choose to have a president. As far as I know the Island of Man is a republic in the United Kingdom, just as France still has three formal kingdoms and a pricipality in their state.
    So what is your problem in the UK? In the world are so many working solutions.

    1. Queen Elizabeth, as Lord of Mann, is the island’s head of state.

      In the Golden Age Netherlands, I’d assert that the stadthouder was in effect a head of state, even if not formally given that position.

      While Switzerland has no single individual who acts as its head of state, it does have a seven-member Federal Council which acts collectively as the Swiss Confederation’s “supreme executive and directorial authority”. The President of the Federal Council, although primus inter pares, has a casting vote. The position rotates around the council, so the individual changes each year. This all seems an admirable reflection of the Swiss constitutional journey to statehood, but I can’t see it working everywhere.

      On David’s question, the English and British monarchy has adapted and evolved over centuries, along with our other constitutional arrangements and indeed the common law. Part of the reason we have no proper written constitution is that the UK has not really had that single “constitutional moment” of disaster or revolution since, arguably, the Commonwealth and the Restoration. I may be wrong, but I fully expect the monarchy to continue to adapt and evolve, as it has since 1953 er 1936 er 1931 er 1921 er 1801 er 1707 er 1603 er 1485 er 1215 er 1066 …

      We are very good at spinning a narrative of continuity, even if, like Trigger’s broom, few of the original component parts remain let alone are doing the same job.

      1. Andrew, you write: In the Golden Age Netherlands, I’d assert that the stadthouder was in effect a head of state, even if not formally given that position.

        That assertion would be wrong. If we take the Act of Abjuration (1581) as the start of the Dutch Republic, the years when all seven provinces had one and the same stadtholder are limited to: 1620-1625; 1747-1795.

        In the years 1650-1672 and 1702-1747 the economically dominant provinces of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht had no stadtholder – which, as the English experienced in very different ways (1667; 1702-1713), did not stop the Dutch Republic from functioning as an entity.

        Moreover a generally succesful stadtholder as Frederic Henry (functioning 1625-1648) was in almost continual negotiation with the Estates General regarding military funding and strategy, instructions for ambassadors etc. The Estates General – and through them the individual provinces, but through economical strength mainly the province of Holland – held the purse strings and kept control of foreign policy.
        J.J. Poelhekke, Frederik Hendrik. Prins van Oranje. Een biografisch drieluik. (Frederic Henry. Prince of Orange. A biographical triptych) 1978

        1. I’m sure you know this period of Dutch history better than I do, Frank in Leiden, but it seems to me that we run into some definitional issues immediately.

          First, when was the Dutch Golden Age? You appears to be claiming the whole of the Dutch Republic from 1581 to 1795. I’d suggest it is a fraction of that period.

          Second, who counts as a stadhouder who was in effect a head of state? I’d suggest the stadhouder of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht (always combined) was in effect the leader of the country, and the House of Orange had leadership position throughout, notwithstanding periods when some provinces had different stadhouder. Other officeholders came to the fore during the two stadhouderless periods, such as the grand pensionary Johan de Witt.

          That said, you are right: I should be less forthright in holding forth about the political history of any nation, because things are always more complex than a one-liner might suggest. So thanks for the corrective.

          1. Andrew, you fail to grasp that I was cutting you some slack by looking at the entire duration of the Dutch Republic. Your statement is even less true if we limit the view to, say, 1581-1672. Neither does limiting your statement to the stadtholders of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht help you very much. You end up with a head of state with no institutional status in half the country he is supposed to be head of state of. (In this context the word ‘leader’ is neither here not there. It merely obfuscates.)

            The Dutch Republic was a confederation of sovereign provinces and whatever central authority there was, was on a power from bottom to top basis. And that includes the stadtholderate.

    2. The Isle of Man is neither a republic nor in the UK. The UK queen is, I believe, the head of state in her guise as the Duke of Man. The UK is responsible for Man’s foreign policy but not its laws at home. It was never in the EU.

      It and the Channel Islands are very odd entities indeed.

      If DAG was at a loose end, a precis of the current constitutional status of such places, and how they got there would be very interesting, and quite topical given that Jersey and France appear to be rowing over fishing law.

  6. Few would disagree the monarchy needs reform and as an institution, trimming down towards that of other European dynasties – if only to detach itself from being perceived the apex of a sophisticated elitism system. The role of monarchy has its place – not only as a major tourist attraction- but as offering a sense of stability and continuity which is genuinely seen to be separate from the political arena.
    The departure of Prince Philip who did so much to protect the institution from its critics creates the opportunity for this to happen and would have the support of many.

  7. Thank you for an interesting and challenging review.

    For me the most important constitutional role of the Crown is captured in your beautifully elegant phrase “more important constitutionally for the power it prevents others from having than for any independent exercise of power itself”. Of course if you were starting from scratch no rational person would seriously suggest a monarchy based on inheritance (I hope and believe). However, it is far from the most important issue facing the country to change it. The current evolution of the Royal Family into a human equivalent of the flag, as a representation of the country and state is very effective – arguably better than any of the alternatives. It comes with the proven advantages of the ability to change the specific Monarch without damaging the institution of the Monarchy. The way in which the current Queen’s father came to the throne demonstrates how this can happen if the incumbent seeks to do something which is not acceptable to the majority.
    Changes presentationally may be important as characters and means of communication change. Your own phrase sums up its substantive significance ‘the Crown is the nearest thing in the United Kingdom constitution to a single coherent notion of the “state.”’ Now, when the norms of Government behaviour are under the greatest threat in my lifetime is not the time to start a process of change which would be disruptive, emotional and unpredictable in its outcome.

  8. Thought provoking David. I think this government may, eventually, raise constitutional questions through its actions which will inevitably involve the Crown, even if collaterally.

  9. The UK will likely experience profound changes in the next decade and The Monarchy will adapt in unforseen ways

  10. The role of monarchy has its place… as a major tourist attraction

    That’s the buildings and the estates, not the people – we could lose them tomorrow and “tourism” wouldn’t even notice.

    And we should – monarchy has no useful role in the UK except whatever we attach to it out of habit and inculcation.

  11. Two good reads for the price of one. Both your piece and Tom Clark’s are thought provoking but won’t the result be more can kicking down the road than a decision at the crossroad?

    So many impossible to predict ‘events’ coming that planning for the future seems a wasted effort, though lots of fun to be had on the way. Scotland and Ireland being the first two obvious potential challenges. Will Wales move slowly in the same direction or even the Union become a confederation of City or regional states – a modern Swiss or Belgian or historical Italian or German solution?

    Certainly the points about future monarchical roles in Tom Clark’s article make an interesting subject for discussion, but how does the UK get there? Too many vested interests – just reforming the House of Lords is beyond the government of any day.

    Of course to retur n to one of your favourite subjects none of this would probably be on the agenda if we had voted to remain- yet another failure to ‘take back control’.

    So thank you again for raising our sights above the daily grind of sleaze, scandal and grubby politics.

  12. I was taken aback by your characterising the current royal situation as “a curious compromise of public neutrality and private political engagement”.

    Does the Queen’s influence via weekly audiences mean that she is compromised by having been aware of and having assented to the UK’s downward trajectory?

  13. On a couple of narrow-ish points:
    1. M v Home Office may have been seminal in E+W, but: “I do not know what the law of England is, but I know of nothing in the law of Scotland which prevents the subject obtaining an interdict against a servant of the Crown, including any Minister” [JCS Reid -]
    2. Your penultimate paragraph:
    a. The Crown is most definitely not the source, theoretical or otherwise, for the church settlement in Scotland. That settlement predates the union state in any of its incarnations, and, of course, to accede to the regal role a qualified candidate has to take an oath to maintain said church settlement [see my comment on your 10 April post]. The monarch, or monarch’s representative, may observe the General Assembly from a gallery, and in a formal sense address the Assembly from said gallery, but may not enter the chamber of the Assembly nor participate in/consent to/veto its debates and decisions.
    b. Police constables in Scotland make a Constables Declaration:
    I do not think they make any oath re “Queen’s Peace” or similar concept.

    1. Thank you for this corrections and clarifications – I do strive not to be Anglocentric, but I too often fail!

      1. Re the Anglocentricity, it’s worth noting that the Crown in Scotland has a different history, and retains what you might call latent potential. A driving force behind the 1707 Treaty of Union was after all to secure the succession – which was directly threatened by the Act of Security, and perhaps the fact that the 1998 Scotland Act makes the sucession a reserved matter shows that this concern has remained.
        Of more interest is the fact the the royal prerogative in Scotland is not among the reserved matters – implying that the Crown in Scotland may act differently from the Crown in England. Indeed, the UK govt’s attempt to invoke art.50 via prerogative rather than through parliament left a potential loophole for Scottish unilateral action which was not entirely closed by the Gina Miller case.

  14. The Queen as one of the post-war institutions of international stability? It makes sense. And perhaps the monarchy itself will become “like a pop group doing the nostalgia circuit with only one or two original band members”. That might fit with the times. Ceremonial but still pre-empting the appearance of a modern band (for which read, President).

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