Monday, 18 May 2009

No, the Queen can't save us

What is to be done? It is now generally accepted that public esteem for the government, for the House of Commons, and for politics as a whole has sunk so low that only the cathartic cleansing process of a general election has any chance of saving the day. For a while, at least. But the likelihood is that Labour will stagger on for as long as possible in the Micawberish belief that something will turn up. And you can't really blame them. It's a choice between being obliterated now and obliterated next year. Of course they'd prefer to be obliterated next year. In the meantime, the government will surely manage to squeeze in a few more liberty-sapping laws, a few more insane squanderings of taxpayers' money, just to make the situation that David Cameron will inherit a little bit worse. It's in their interests to do so. The country couldn't hate them any more than they do now.

So we're in for a truly abominable year, politically speaking. More immediately, the "summer of rage" that was being predicted a few months ago in response to the economic crisis might well come to pass, except that it will be targeted at politicians rather than bankers. The desire for a thoroughgoing clearout is overwhelming, but there's no obvious mechanism, short of revolution, for bringing it to pass.

Various people think that Queen could come in and sort it out. Simon Heffer, for example, writes that


She will know from her experience that the situation is without precedent; that it is fraught with danger; and that the stability and continuity of our democratic institutions are at stake. If a constitutional monarchy means anything, it is that the monarch is guarantor of those institutions. They are gravely under threat after the exposure of the appalling conduct of many who are part of them.


As commentators generally do, Heffer quotes Bagehot, who described the monarch's three privileges as "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn". That was only ever Bagehot's personal opinion, but it has come to be enshrined, in that illogical British way, as one of the unwritten "conventions" of the constitution. In any event, it's pretty meaningless. Why should Gordon Brown listen to the Queen's warnings when he doesn't listen to anyone else's? Any advice she did offer would have to be given in the strictest confidence, and may well have been so. It was reported the other day that she was "concerned" about the effect the row was having on the reputation of Parliament. An unnamed courtier was (presumably with royal permission) quoted as saying that the behaviour of the members "goes against everything she believes in". That's as far as she can safely go. It is not supposed to be her role to intervene in the political process, and she is highly sensitive to that fact, as Heffer recognises:

The question is whether, with all her massive experience (her Prime Minister had just been born when she ascended the throne), she judges the situation is sufficiently grave for her to take, however discreetly, an initiative designed to cool the national mood. The floundering lack of leadership displayed by Mr Brown exposes a vacuum that someone must fill.


The notion that the monarch's role is to come in and sort things out is a sign of madness. That's not what she's there for. It may have been what monarchs used to be there for, but any venturing into the political labyrinth would set a profoundly dangerous precedent, even if, on this occasion, she would be speaking for the nation. She's no more likely to depose the government than she is to start refusing royal assent to acts of Parliament she disapproves of. Hankering after a royal solution is akin to praying for divine intervention: a sign of heartfelt desire, but not remotely realistic. It's fantasy politics. Likewise, the words of Cromwell to the Rump Parliament, "In the name of God, Go!", have been widely and wistfully quoted

There is indeed a power vacuum, but it can hardly be filled by an octogenarian hereditary monarch. It might well be useful if there were the political equivalent of a referee who was able to step in at moments like this. That's what many countries have presidents for. But we don't have a president, and it would be inappropriate and democratically dangerous to turn the monarch into one. It has in the past been suggested that the Speaker of the House of Commons might be a suitable person to perform such a role in a rejigged constitution. But then what do you do if the Speaker is useless, politically biased and has his own snout in the trough?

Besides, people who live in glass houses are ill-advised to throw stones; people who live in glass palaces still less so. If the royal finances were to be subjected to this slightly deranged public examination, the assorted TVs and moat clearances of honourable members would start to look modest by comparison. There are, of course, periodic revelations about royal extravagances and claims upon the public purse. It's not so many years ago that Her Maj was persuaded with the greatest reluctance to start paying income tax. Right now, the Mail is raising the very pertinent question of whether the £250,000 per year of taxpayers' money being expended upon the "protection" of Her Royal Brattiness, princess Eugenie. Eyebrows are being raised - especially when she slips into, or occasionally out of, one of her bikinis. But less eye-catching members of the Royal Family also have their little indulgences. As Bagehot himself liked to say, and as many politicians are learning afresh, it's always dangerous to let daylight in upon magic.

15 comments:

RavingMad said...

Even if the queen ain't I AM NOT AMUSED by the corruption of Parliament and its aides. This is no longer about expenses - this is about our democracy. Brown and Martin embody the nature of the problem - neither have ears or a mind capable of understanding - we don't want them - ELECTION NOW

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Simon Heffer remains a few bookcases short of an Expenses Allowance. There is some entertainment value I suppose in his gibbering.

I was amused to watch Brenda handing the Ninny of Wales yet another medal for his achievement of being her eldest son. This time it was for gardening. Beyond parody isn't it?

What will save Parliament? Time. Give it six months and everyone will have forgotten what it was all about. Look at the other news items, the Police have brought to justice, using the DNA database, some kid for stabbing another kid but nobody cares as that was last year's panic. We're not panicking about that this month officer, sorry to have wasted your time.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I don't want Brown either, but I am don't want Cameron even more than I don't want Brown. No election please, every day the Boy George and the Bullingdon Club chums are kept out is worth the pain of Michael Martin, Hazel Blears and even the awful Jack Straw.

Things can only get worse.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Someone always parrots Cromwell. I recall it being said all the time in the John Major years. He hung around doing less damage the less able he was to do anything at all before finally being dragged away to wreck Surrey CCC.

In the words of WML to the Bullingdon Club Chums "In Atum's name pleas, please, please don't come!"

harebell said...

Heffer always was a bit of a soapy schoolboy when it comes to powerful women. He has a romantic view of England and its past and an even larger hard-on for the likes of the Iron Lady and now apparently her Maj. I don`t think the lad really cares about democracy, just being told what to do by a matriarchal figure.

Having just left the UK after 3 weeks of watching journos highlight the expense fiddling excesses of parliament while ignoring the tax avoidance practices of their owners I have come to the conclusion that a country gets the politicians and the press that they deserve. While undoubtedly some played fast and loose with the expenses rules, it is also very apparent that the media in the UK has not been exactly objective or honest in its reporting.

Ayrdale said...

The Queen's representative turfed Gough Whitlam out of office in Australia to the great relief of the general public.
If it's all right for the colonies why is such action taboo in The Motherland ?

Edwin Moore said...

I second Woolly for once. Things can always get worser. Cameron I see as a sort of Ed Hussain figure - if you're only paying half attention it all sounds not too bad but occasionally the mask slip, and you begin thinking kindly of devils you know.

As for what MPs, or MSPs or Euro MPs for that matter are for, Tony Benn has the answer in one of his diarty entries a long time ago, when he recorded the first piece of UK legislation passed by Europe, passed by people we never voted for or heard of.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Have you tried reading the history and looking at the facts of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis? The Aussies, like other nations, love to tell themselves myths about their own past - for example the pernicious myths they tell themselves about Gallipoli. I would advise against listening to the popular myths but instead look into the facts of the case which, as happens so often, are rather different.

Good old wikipedia has a few pages on the subject that are worth a perusal. Australia has a constitution and it was under those powers that Kerr acted. It was nothing to do with the monarchy and the lesson we should draw is clear, a proper written constitution is vital so that reckless PMs can be removed. For example both Heath (who I rate highly) and Wilson (who I don't) would have fallen foul of the constitution in the 1970s if we had had one.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

But nobody could ever explain what Tony Benn was for.

Other than being a reliable indicator of what is wrong and always assuming that the opposite of what he says is probably right I can't think of much else. He did have a son, Hilary, who is ten times the politician he ever was, so he's the Randolph to Winston I suppose. He deserves to have a logical fallacy named after him due to his mismanagement of the Concorde fiasco.

peitha said...

I fear you have a somewhat overly rosy view of Presidents. Firstly, I'm not aware of many countries where a President could credibly act as a referee since they are elected, and rely for the support to get them elected and stay in office, on behalf of, or on the slate of, one of the very parties between whom you are suggesting they should referee. It would be like one of the teams in a football match appointing the referee.

As for the wider issue of the role of MPs being 'glorified social workers', are not MPs themselves responsible for this? The massive payroll vote, excessively large majorities (which have made rebelling useless since it can only be to the MP's personal detriment in terms of getting the extras from a payroll position whilst being futile in terms of preventing bad legislation), excessively strong and extensive use of the whip, and a willingness on not much more than tribal grounds to allow so many guillotine motions from the executive have all conspired together to create the situation where the traditional and proper role of an MP has been discarded. A further problem is simply that with the growth of the 'career politician' lacking significant outside experience few MPs have anything worthwhile to offer in a debate on legislation. All credit to Thamesmead CLP for refusing to select Georgia Gould, but who in their right mind would think that someone like that would have the experience or gravitas to deserve the privilege of being an MP?

In such circumstances, the devil makes work for idle hands so MPs do too much which they should not, nor should they need to, be doing.

The interesting question is how to sort it out. I would suggest, (i) reduce the size of the payroll vote, (ii) reduce the size and authority of the Whips office, (iii) make chairmanship of select committees appointable by secret ballot of the Commons.

The last thing we need is a further slide towards an executive presidency.

The Heresiarch said...

I'm sure there are countries where the president performs that sort of role. Ireland?

As to your analysis of the problem, I tend to agree. But MPs are not "themselves" responsible for the payroll vote - it is built into the system, and arises from the fact that ministers are also members of Parliament. A cap on the number of ministers, together with the abolition of the role of PPS, might be a start. But, as with most possible reforms, it would face the problem that turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

There already is a cap on the payroll vote which is why so many positions are unpaid. For example Harriet Harman at one stage was an unpaid minister.The conventional 'wisdom' is that the backbenchers are lions led by the officer class donkeys on the front benches. I seem to be a rare example of someone who thinks the main problem is not actually with the payroll or the executive it is with the back benchers.

Hopefully Speaker Ming will sort out this MPs Allowances issue with a properly transparent and publicly accountable process.

In an ideal world we would have a constitution of some sort with a non-executive President on the Irish or German lines in place to defend it. But to expect hundreds of MPs to vote to end their careers is over optimistic. Perhaps the solution would be to abolish the unelected House of Lords and split the existing Commons elected MPs 50:50 into two chambers. Thus we make the chamber of a more sensible size and refrain from requiring turkeys to vote for Christmas all in one fell swoop?

Peitha said...

"Ireland"

No, the President in Ireland is basically a ceremonial role, essentially a time-limited elected equivalent of the Monarch, even wrt powers etc. The equivalent of the Speaker is the Ceann Comhairle, who basically replicates the role of the Commons Speaker.

Peitha said...

"The conventional 'wisdom' is that the backbenchers are lions led by the officer class donkeys on the front benches."

Given that the front benchers are drawn from the back benches, isn't the logical assumption that they are all donkeys?*

*Though that description seems a bit harsh on donkeys who AFAIK are generally hard-working reliable animals who are relatively cheap to keep.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

While Lions are lazy creatures that contribute nothing to the pride but just sit around in the sun and let others do the actual work.

So maybe conventional wisdom is right, but not in the way it thinks it is.