As the suspension of parliament has dragged Queen Elizabeth II herself into the Brexit controversy, Liam Glen writes on the precarious convention that royals stay out of politics.
Brexit has pit British society against itself. Perhaps the only figure that has managed to stay above the fray is Queen Elizabeth II. Leave or remain, she is a public figure that nearly every Briton can support.
But even she found herself caught – if only briefly – in the partisan storm when Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked her to prorogue parliament, so that it will not have time disrupt Britain’s planned exit from the European Union on October 31.
For supporters of the democratic process, it is a moral dilemma. A Prime Minister asks a monarch’s permission to suspend parliament so that he can deliver on a policy that a narrow majority of voters approved in a 2016 referendum, but a plurality seems to now oppose.
Luckily for the Queen, she has an easy way out. In cases like these, convention dictates that the monarch complies with whatever the government wishes, so she prorogued the parliament.
Remainers who see the suspension as illegal were irate. Labour MP Kate Osamor went as far as to invoke the abolition of the Greek monarchy in the 1970s after the king’s complicity in a military coup.
In truth, it is hard to say that the Queen made the wrong choice. Declining Johnson’s request would have set off an even greater crisis. But the incident highlights just how much power the British monarchy has over the country’s governance, even if it rarely exercises it. And it calls into question how long the institution can stay out of politics.
Constitutional Monarchal Crisis
Britain’s constitutional monarchy is a relatively young and fragile system. It rests on the idea that the monarch serves as a symbolic head of state who unifies the country. In turn, the royalty must have no role in partisan politics or any other controversies.
This puts a massive amount of pressure on the Queen and anyone who is born to or who marries into her family. Serving as a totally noncontroversial figurehead seems contrary to living a healthy human life.
The royals faced a massive amount of controversy after Princess Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles in the 1990s. Their reputation has since recovered, but that is far from the worst thing in which a person can be implicated. Prince Andrew, eighth in line for the throne, currently stands accused of involvement in the Epstein child sex trafficking ring.
The greatest fear for any advocate of constitutional monarchy, however, is that the royalty will try to influence legislation. This would blatantly undemocratic, as the monarchy has no claim to authority other than bloodline, and it would threaten public support for royal institutions.
The Queen is not completely innocent of this sin. In 2014, she gave what was believed to be a statement against Scottish independence. But whenever she finds herself embroiled in a contentious issue, such as Brexit, she typically finds the least controversial way out.
However, there is no guarantee that future monarchs will follow in her footsteps. Prince Charles, the heir apparent, has shown a much more active interest in politics.
His so-called “black spider memos” to high ranking officials were released in 2015 after being blocked from public view for years. They revealed that he had been lobbying the government on a range of idiosyncratic issues. The most controversial of these is his ardent support for scientifically-unsupported alternative medicines.
He is also no stranger to public controversy. In 2002, he was reported to have compared the movement against fox hunting, a sport associated with the upper class, to the persecution of ethnic minorities. The Prince went as far as to threaten to leave the country if the practice was banned.
If Prince Charles continues to be outspoken as king, as his friends and allies say he will, it would call the very conception of an apolitical monarchy into question.
An Inevitable Conundrum?
Writing on Prince Charles’s controversies in 2015, Jessica Elgot of The Guardian notes that royal intervention in politics has been the norm throughout British history. The current Queen has been exceptional in her restraint.
From this point of view, it is pointless to hope that a monarch can serve as a ceremonial head of state without using their inherited authority to unduly influence government decisions.
In defense of the monarchy, however, it may be more appropriate to compare them to their contemporaries than their predecessors. Along with several microstates, seven other major European nations possess constitutional monarchs: Belgium, Denmark, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden.
Few of them attract as much controversy as the British royalty. Perhaps it is because they lack their superstar status. In 2017, Dutch King Willem-Alexander revealed that he had spent been passing his free time over the last 21 years as a co-pilot on passenger flights. He managed to do this in secret because most Dutch passengers were unable to recognize their sovereign.
Royal involvement in politics is not inevitable. And even when it does occur, its impact should not be overstated.
The Guardian was one of Prince Charles’s greatest critics during the black spider memo controversy, but even its columnist Simon Jenkins admitted, “black spiders are harmless creatures compared with the multimillion-pound tarantulas of big-time political pressure, uncharted and undisclosed.”
But as long major privileges are awarded to royalty, there will always be a temptation to use them as a political tool. Even if the risks are small, no monarchy will ever be completely free of them.