We need elected members, not the Wingnut of Windsor
The revelation that Prince Charles has the power to veto legislation is shocking, but UK democracy in general has fallen into disrepute.
‘I write to formally request the consent of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to provisions to be included in the… Bill.’
So, history fans, in which democracy-forsaken year did a member of the Houses of Parliament open a letter to an heir to the throne with this line? Not sure? Perhaps this sentence will help: ‘Granted that these proposed changes… will apply to… contracts entered into by or on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall, we should be very grateful to receive the consent of the Prince of Wales.’ There are plenty of clues there: the cowering, creeping tone; the excessive, almost fearful formality; and, of course, the sheer palpable deference towards the Crown. Surely this particular parliamentarian’s request must originate from some time before parliament began to forcibly assert its interests against those of the Crown during the seventeenth century? Perhaps it was even earlier: 1590 or maybe even 1565.
The real date of composition, however, is rather more recent: 2008, in fact. And the piece of legislation for which then Labour communities minister Lady Andrews was requesting Prince Charles’ consent was the draft Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.
This Bill, affecting the way in which planning permission is given, and construction-contract disputes are handled, was not exactly the most eye-catching piece of legislation then making its way through parliament. But what the Guardian exposed by obtaining a copy of this letter under the Freedom of Information Act, is still pretty shocking: Prince Charles, by virtue of birth, has, in certain instances, the power to alter legislation and even to veto it. For anyone with a sense of what democracy ought to entail, this revelation is a stark reminder, if any were needed, that British society is still riven (and ruled) by the monarchic antithesis to democracy. We steadfastly remain subjects, not citizens.
Dating back to 1337, when Edward III established the Duchy of Cornwall as the permanent property of whoever happens to be the heir to the throne, this particular power to interfere with parliamentary legislation is almost as old and as retrograde as the monarchy itself. As it stands, it means that any proposed new law or change to the law, if it affects the prince’s private interests or the royal prerogative, must receive his consent.
Neither is this power limited just to the Duchy of Cornwall. It also applies to the Earldom of Chester and the Principality of Wales. In fact, so pervasive is the prince’s sphere of political sovereignty that, according to one newspaper, this power has applied to 34 pieces of legislation since 2001, taking in issues as disparate as the London Olympics, road safety, gambling and, that mercantile favourite, shipwrecks. But aside from the one letter obtained by the Guardian, it is difficult to know quite how the prince has exercised this power. This is largely because the departments of justice, education and food and rural affairs have all invoked exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act to avoid having to disclose correspondence between the government and the Prince of Wales’ headquarters, Clarence House.
Still, what that solitary letter exposes, as the silence from other departments conceals, is the extent to which Prince Charles is in a position to overrule a legislative body that we actually elect. MPs may be far from perfect but, unlike the king-to-be, at least we can get rid of them at the ballot box.
Yet what has been striking about the reaction to the Guardian’s report has been the sheer absence of democratic outrage. Instead, much of the ire has been focused upon the figure of Prince Charles himself. He is the problem, not the continued institutional violation of any aspiration to popular self-government. The idea of the monarchy, the idea that we need an arbitrary power to check the will of the people, seems to trouble commentators far less than the idea of Queen Elizabeth II being replaced by her daft son. This, so run the concerns, is the man famous for writing hectoring letters – or so-called black spiders – to ministers, the man who campaigns against things he doesn’t like, such as the proposed redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks. Give this wilful berk a constitutional inch, and he will take a sovereign mile.
‘The Prince of Wales’s cack-handed political interference’, writes a Guardian columnist, ‘serves to underline just how deft his mum has been in these near-60 years in keeping out of trouble – resolutely dutiful, cheerfully unfashionable, shrewd.’ Over at the Telegraph another commentator writes that the Queen ‘has the sympathies of almost everyone’, before adding: ‘But Charles, even before this latest news, has been seen as a sort of ticking constitutional time-bomb. Since 1984, when he decided to intervene in London planning-permission decisions with his “monstrous carbuncle” speech, he has been unwilling to follow the convention that the royal family should stay out of politics…’. Even the anti-monarchy campaign group, Republic, seems as concerned by the buffoonish Charles as it is by the actual idea of the monarchy: ‘That [the prince’s legislative veto] exists shows our constitution is fundamentally anti-democratic, but Charles’s decision to exploit it betrays his utter contempt for the British people. Charles is quite capable of doing the right thing by refusing to exploit his position for personal gain – yet he refuses to do so.’
Underpinning the specific attacks on Prince Charles is a general sense, then, that the monarchy is harmless. It can be left as it is, just as long as the figurehead remains ‘out of politics’, or ‘does the right thing’. This is the ‘modern monarchy’, one blessed with but disinclined to exercise its immense formal powers. (Under the royal prerogative, for instance, it can launch wars, as ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was to find to his joy, and thousands of Iraqis were to find to their cost, in 2003.) So while a ‘modern monarchy’ might in principle be every bit as oxymoronic as ‘democratic feudalism’, in practice it garners very little criticism.
But there’s a deeper reason for the lack of democratic outrage than the supposed popularity of the modern monarchy of Queen Elizabeth, even when she’s played by Helen Mirren. And that is the profoundly low regard, writ large in the MPs’ expenses scandal, in which our contemporary elected rulers are held.
The main consequence of this disillusionment with parliamentary democracy has been the blasé acceptance of deeply anti-democratic practices. So, on the one hand, the political class itself is all too willing to plonk celebrities in policymaking positions on account of them not being, well, politicians. So in 2009 The Apprentice’s Lord Alan Sugar was made then-prime minister Gordon Brown’s business tsar; in 2010, his noble lord of the high street, Philip Green, was asked by current Prime Minister David Cameron to conduct an efficiency review of government spending; and of course over the past five or six years celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been consistently courted by politicians of all stripes, in some specious attempt to justify the so-called war on obesity.
On the other hand, activists and campaigners increasingly circumvent democratic means in the attempt to realise their ends. The most recent case of the anti-democratic embrace was the decision of the Trades Union Congress to attempt to oppose the recent Health and Social Care Bill by lobbying the Lords. That is, trade-union activists didn’t take their opposition to the elected House of Commons, but to that remnant of aristocratic tyranny, the House of Lords. As Patrick Hayes wrote at the time, ‘having failed to successfully mobilise the public in sufficient numbers to rally against the Bill… and having failed to win an argument with elected MPs, the TUC is now turning to a body that doesn’t represent the public at all’.
It seems, then, that profoundly anti-democratic tendencies are taking forms beyond that of the old wingnut himself, Prince Charles. To see the residual tyranny of the chinless Windsor wonders for what it is will require a broader revival of the democratic spirit. And this is something that both the dictatorship of the celebrity and the appeal to the Lords and Ladies sat in parliament’s upper house will do nothing to help foster.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.