The Privy Council is, like many elements of the British Constitution, a bit of a political anachronism. It originated as the council of advisers to the monarch. It's common belief Privy Council meetings are held standing up as motivation to keep them short1. but it has since declined in importance as the power of the Cabinet has increased. Members of the Privy Council, who are (normally) there for life, gain the prestigious title of "Right Honourable", often abbreviated to "Rt. Hon." and have priority speaking status in parliament.
What it does
As the power of the monarch in deciding law has reduced, so has the power of the Privy Council. It now plays a largely ceremonial role and most people would consider that it mostly exists as a club for the recognition of important politicians. Tony Benn, a member of council since 1964, claims that there has never been a council meeting since then. This is because the whole Privy Council only assembles when:
The Privy Council does, however, still perform some regular function. A Privy Council meeting normally consists of the President of the Privy Council (a role normally combined with being Leader of the House of Commons) reading out Orders in Council which the monarch agrees to. Privy council meetings are known to last for less than five minutes. These regular functions consist of:
- The Judicial Committee
- This is one of, along with the House of Lords, the United Kingdom's highest courts and is formed of Privy Council members. However, it has greater significance in other Commonwealth countires, as some Commonwealth members maintain the right to appeal to Her Majesty in Council, making the Privy Council the highest court of appeal for that country. Jurisdiction in the UK includes disputes over whether someone is eligible for election to the House of Commons.
- Royal Charters
- Around 400 Chartered Bodies exist in Britain, forming groups of individuals into a single legal entity. They consist of both public and private organisations. The Privy Council is responsible for the creation and amendment of such charters. These charters cover universities instituted prior to 1992.
- As well as control of universities' royal charters, council approval is required for use of the titles "University" or "University College" for institutions and it decides whether they are "competent" enough to grant degrees.
- High Sheriffs
- Ok, so these are a bit of an anachronism in themselves. But they still exist and are appointed by the monarch at Privy Council meetings. Three nominations are placed in front of them, and they prick a hole in the winner with a bodkin.
- Professional bodies
- The council is responible for the appointment of lay members to, and the approval of regulations from, the following bodies:
More information on these things can be found in the Privy Council Office.
Privy counsellors have to take the aptly named "Privy Counsellor's Oath" (see below). This includes the line "keep secret all matters...treated of in Council" and has resulted in the image that the Privy Council is very secretive. However, this is a misinterpretation. Meetings are reported in the Court Circular and Orders in Council are made in the public domain. Very rarely is a conversation made "on Privy Council terms". In fact, the oath provides a useful way for the Prime Minister to brief the Leader of the Opposition on important events whilst ensuring national security.
How do I join?
Privy Counsellors are appointed, of course, by the monarch, on the suggestion of the Prime Minister. Because of the way it works, Cabinet Ministers automatically become Privy Council members. You can get in by having the correct title or by being some other senior politican. For example, the Leader of the Opposition is nearly always made a privy counsellor. You can only lose your post if the monarch says so.
The Privy Counsellor's Oath
You do swear by Almighty God to be a true and faithful Servant unto The Queen’s
Majesty as one of Her Majesty’s Privy Council. You will not know or understand of
any manner of thing to be attempted, done or spoken against Her Majesty’s Person,
Honour, Crown or Dignity Royal, but you will lett and withstand the same to the
uttermost of your power, and either cause it to be revealed to Her Majesty Herself,
or to such of Her Privy Council as shall advertise Her Majesty of the same. You
will in all things to be moved, treated and debated in Council, faithfully and truly
declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience; and will
keep secret all matters committed and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of
secretly in Council. And if any of the said Treaties or Counsels shall touch any of
the Counsellors you will not reveal it unto him but will keep the same until such
time as, by the consent of Her Majesty or of the Council, Publication shall be made
thereof. You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance to the Queen’s
Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and
Authorities, granted to Her Majesty and annexed to the Crown by Acts of
Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or
Potentates. And generally in all things you will do as a faithful and true Servant
ought to do to Her Majesty
SO HELP YOU GOD
1Thank you, The Debutante