On the changing constitutional role of Elizabeth II

An Englishman's reactionary rant at the mother of the nation

The British constitution is a strange creature, incomprehensible to many, and at its centre lies a number of contradictions: a vehemently secular society with an Established Church the bishops of which have a role in Government, a constitutionally bizarre second house, a regional system of government that doesn't apply in England, the area of largest population. The whole edifice is built on tradition and convention, and in the heart of this interwoven muddle lies The Monarchy, sovereign of the country and currently embodied by Elizabeth II. Britain's long-running arguments over the Monarchy almost always revolve around principle, those in favour of the Monarchy elevate The Queen to a special status, those opposed to the Monarchy prefer to argue on grounds on idealism. The specific competence of the Monarch, and how well this role has been executed is rarely discussed publicly. But the Monarchy - like any other political role - reshapes itself to whoever has the job. Elizabeth II has had the role of Queen for quite such a long time (she ascended in February 1952) that there is almost no collective memory of what the Monarchy used to be like before she came along. As the trends of each era have changed, Elizabeth has undermined many of her historical roles, and left Britain's sovereignty no longer fit for purpose. Elizabeth II is among the worst queens England has ever had.

Common Sense by Thomas Paine (most known as the book that kick-started the American Revolution) has a nice summary (in hostile terms) of the role of the monarch in the British system that is a good place to start in viewing The Monarchy in context:

I know it is difficult to get over local or long standing prejudices, yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials.

First.—The remains of monarchical tyranny in the person of the king.

Secondly.—The remains of aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers.

Thirdly.—The new republican materials, in the persons of the commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of England.

The two first, by being hereditary, are independent of the people; wherefore in a constitutional sense they contribute nothing towards the freedom of the state. To say that the constitution of England is a union of three powers reciprocally checking each other, is farcical, either the words have no meaning, or they are flat contradictions.

To say that the commons is a check upon the King, presupposes two things.

First.—That the King is not to be trusted without being looked after, or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy.

Secondly.—That the Commons, by being appointed for that purpose, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the crown.

But as the same constitution which gives the Commons a power to check the King by withholding the supplies, gives afterwards the King a power to check the Commons, by empowering him to reject their other bills; it again supposes that the King is wiser than those whom it has already supposed to be wiser than him. A mere absurdity!

Paine's obviously hostile to the whole system, but if you read through his propaganda you see an idealised view of what the Monarch is for. The Monarch is the vessel that has to be used by Parliament in order to use its executive powers and get things done, and by withholding this executive privilege they act as a check on government (and of course this has changed over the last 300 years). They can't actually say no, but by paying attention and withholding their powers, a competent monarch is a check and balance on corrupt government. Bills don't become law till the Queen signs them, the Queen has national standardised addresses to the nation in which she is supposed to be politically impartial, and a number of executive powers can only be followed through in the name of the Queen. Basically the Queen is supposed to be an non-partisan leadership role for the country, and use her powers in the interests of the country at times of crisis.

It was on this basis that her great-grandfather declared War on Germany in 1914, and there followed a number of situations in the first half of the century where The Monarch leant on The Government in the interests of the country as a whole. The most notable occasion would be when her grandfather had a pivotal role in the formation of the National Government, an administration composed of all the main parties that was formed after the economic crash at the beginning of the Thirties. This was a move that went completely against normal politics, but was significantly the King's doing. But from this position of genuine influence, the Elizabethan era has shown a succession of major Royal privileges either being executed poorly, or being allowed to slip into the hands of her vassals, particularly the Prime Minister. Some examples: up until the mid-'60s The Queen was responsible for choosing the leader of The Conservative Party (on the grounds that they changed leaders when in government, and the Party deferred to her authority in choosing Prime Minister), The Dismissal Crisis in Australia occurred when another of her vassals, The Governor-General, used her supreme authority to dismiss the elected government and demand a new election. This was, again, a situation where she was wilfully asleep at the wheel.

This can only be described as an era of managed decline, and it the nature of this decline that shows Elizabeth II in such a poor light. Elizabeth is, to be brutally frank, hideously poorly educated. She lacks any leadership skills, any real interest/understanding of the political process, and is quite obviously primarily interested in her family rather than the country. For her entire reign she has mistaken her role of being non-partisan for meaning totally apolitical, showing little more national leadership than a village pastor. In a fantastically amusing article in The Guardian, one of Britain's leading public authorities on the monarchy — David Starkey — described her in a less than appealing light, titled "Queen is poorly educated and a Philistine, says Starkey"(1), it's worth reading for some historical context. Because of her exceptionally long reign, this flawed individual has allowed The Government and her minor officials to usurp many of her executive powers, and the defining feature of these hand-overs has been a respect for privilege and tradition at the expense of constitutional logic. This means that when a genuine crisis occurs in which the Government could be viewed as acting against the interests of the nation (The David Kelly affair is a perfect example), there is no constitutional body who can do the job of taking them to task. All these powers now reside in the government. We are left depending on the constitutional procedures of political parties, rather than of the country itself. We are all so used to this Queen that if she actually did start doing her constitutional job, there would be dismay.

So, following up the example of the aftermath of Dr David Kelly's death: at the time the entire country suspected the Government (and the PM's personal team in particular) of having a key public servant's blood on its hands as a result of their desire to go to war. This period showed a clear role for a non-partisan leader. In this case, the Government was proving extremely reserved about setting the terms of a public enquiry, a situation that could have been akin to Watergate if there was an independent body to intervene. At this point the Queen would, according to the British system, have the authority to step in and act as a check on the Executive when it comes to the terms and remit of the public enquiry.

But even accepting that she has irretrievably lost all executive powers, as any sort of matriarch of the nation she has proved woefully inadequate. Some further examples of the neglect of duty in the House Of Windsor is the disdain they have for their roles as Head of State in the Commonwealth countries. Elizabeth is Queen of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, and Saint Kitts and Nevis; Duke of Normandy, Lord of Mann, and Paramount Chief of Fiji. It's quite a list, but the family themselves act in an extremely provincial fashion spending the vast majority of their time on large estates in the countryside of England and Scotland. They have a clear tendency to treat visits to the countries where they are equally Head of State as if they were foreign visits. There are no state-houses that her family are sent to actually live in at all. No wonder The Commonwealth is a toothless international organisation if for its entire existence it has been embodied by a family who refuse to take their responsibilities to it seriously.

Now the role of the Queen is seen to be to perform certain ceremonies in a dramatic and austere fashion, and for her family's life to be documented at length in the national and international media... They are vessels for the media to enjoy as a narrative,a constitutionally important celebrity. It appears that their main job is to allow people to feel sentimental and nostalgic about the country - to somehow embody Britishness for the tourists. She makes the occasional international visit, and her family are supposed to shake hands with people to make those people feel important. As leaders, and as a check and balance on the government, they are totally incompetent. And in return for this woefully inadequate leadership, they are allowed to live in incomparable luxury at the taxpayers expense.

If a different person were monarch, and that person tried in some way to act in the interests of the country/countries rather than defending their own selfish clan, then the case for a monarchy could be defensible. Unfortunately Elizabeth II is a moron, her son is a fool despised by the country, and her family have spent far too long doing things Elizabeth's way. Furthermore it is impossible to depose a monarchical clan and replace them with another simply because they aren't up to it.

The Queen is a half-wit, and has done serious damage to the constitution... We'd be better off with a President. I wish her ill, preferably abdicated. Better yet she would never have been born.

(1)http://www.guardian.co.uk/monarchy/story/0,,2231413,00.html