Hacked By ReKaNErrOr
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Kurdish Hacker Was Here
Kurdish Hacker Was Here
I’m guessing a few of you have noticed there’s been a huge, yawning gap in this site for the past few months – a seemingly shocking state of affairs as this is the one time that people are actually excited about politics celebrex medication. So what gives? Well, for one there’s been the small matter of having a baby – that scuppered pretty much everything for a good couple of months – but also because I’ve been quietly beavering away at this:
Basically, I had a lot of feedback from people saying that they love the site but the posts are too long – the simple answer to which would be to edit them down mercilessly. However, I’m very loath to do that as British politics only makes sense when you’ve got enough space to join the dots and see how the whole thing hangs together – something that can’t really be done in bite sized chunks. With this in mind, I thought it might be worth trying to do them as videos (a rather rash move for a man armed only with a smart phone, Windows Movie Maker and a budget of approximately zero) and above is the first attempt at this rather grand folly. Hopefully, I’ll get the rest of the existing posts turned into videos over the next few months and we’ll pick up where we left off after that.
Anyway, hope you enjoy it and let me know what you think, either by leaving a comment below or emailing me at email@example.com.
Having established that the monarchy – despite being very powerful on paper – is only really a ceremonial and symbolic component in our political system, it’s now time to look at who really calls the shots. However, before we get stuck into the details, it might be worth having a quick look at the different forms that political power takes as these concepts are central to understanding how the various institutions that make up our political system work. If that sounds like an invitation to a philosophical slumber party then you have my sympathies, but don’t worry – I’ll make it as painless as possible and then we’ll move on to the far more exciting question of who’s actually in charge around here. Until then, onwards – to abstract and not entirely watertight theoretical concepts…
Divvying Things Up…
The standard way to carve up the differing aspects of political power is to cut into three slices: The executive, the legislature and the judiciary. These are the three separate elements that exist in the vast majority of modern political systems and knowing how they relate to each other is the first step in figuring out who gets to throw their weight about and in what manner. Let’s start with the sexiest first…
50 Shades of Executive…
Just like an executive in the corporate world, executive power in politics is very much concerned with telling people what to do, being the head honcho and ‘the vision thing‘. On a practical level this means that the executive is responsible for the day-to-day running of the state, representing it on the international stage and enforcing the laws of the land. In order to do this the executive branch often has a specific set of powers that it alone can use – powers such as the ability to declare war, manage the national budget and the setting of policy. In short, the executive is the boss (or ‘government’) in any given system and just like bosses in the real world, it has a tendency to get carried away with itself. As a result, most political systems have a second source of political power known as the legislature.
The role of the legislature in most systems is to actually make the law and to keep an eye on the executive branch so it doesn’t go wild with power. This is achieved by having some sort of assembly (or assemblies) that proposes, debates and votes on laws – crucial powers as an executive can’t survive with its limited powers alone. Sometimes it’ll need laws to achieve its aims and for that to happen, it needs to convince the legislature that these laws are a good idea. In many systems it is also the case that any budget or spending decisions need to be approved by the legislature so they’ve got plenty of fiscal short and curlies to tug on in the case of errant government, not to mention other restraining influences such as committees, vetoes and votes of no confidence. Having said that, the legislature is also somewhat reliant on the executive to make sure that the laws it passes are actually enforced so it’s a two-way street.
…And justice for all…
The final slice in our trisected cake is the judiciary and their job is to interpret the law – a very boring sounding remit with very unboring real world consequences. Essentially, the judiciary is supposed to be the impartial player who ensures that the laws passed by the legislature and the powers exercised by the executive are applied in the manner that they were intended to – much like the referee at a football match ensures that both sides stick to the rules. In short, they’re supposed to be the adult in the room.
So far, so abstract. Is there a point to all this?
Yes, there most certainly is! The point is that if you want to figure out how a certain governmental system works, you need to know how these pieces fit together or – to be more precise – the degree of overlap between them. For example, America runs on a presidential system of government and they have what is known as a ‘separation of powers’ – a state of affairs where all three branches are entirely independent of the others. This stems from the deeply engrained American fear that if left unchecked, one branch of government will always seek to dominate the others and could potentially open the door to tyranny – an eminently sensible point of view for a country that started life as a colonial whipping boy.
To counter this threat, the American system is designed so that both the legislature and the executive have ways of reining the other in while the judiciary ensures that everything is above-board. For example, the President can veto any law passed by Congress (although this veto can then be counter-vetoed if Congress can get a 2/3rds majority in both houses) or can drag his/her feet when it comes to enforcing the laws passed by Congress – thus giving the legislature an incentive to keep the President sweet. However, Congress is far from powerless and they have all manner of levers to yank – such as the threat of not passing the Federal Budget, refusing to propose/pass legislation the President requires or the nuclear option of impeachment – to make sure the executive is kept in check.
On paper, this is a very elegant system in which risk is mitigated by ensuring that no single branch has the power to ride roughshod over the other but – as is usually the case when I start a sentence with the dreaded words ‘on paper’ – it has practical downsides, the main one being that if Congress and the President don’t get on you can end up in a situation where the government is gridlocked and next to nothing actually gets done. This can lead to a situation where the President is nominally in charge but due to Congress’ refusal to play ball they are practically powerless to do anything of real consequence.1
And we figure into this where exactly? Wait, let me guess – in a ‘weird and fuzzy’ manner, perchance?
Entirely correct! In Britain the executive and the legislature are smooshed together in a melange known as a ‘fusion of powers’. It works like this: The executive – while technically the monarch – is in practice composed of the Prime Minister, his or her Cabinet and all the various departmental jobs such as Under-Secretaries and Parliamentary Private Secretaries, positions that are only open to members of the House of Lords or House of Commons (the legislature).<a href="https://mail.google celebrex price.com/mail/u/0/?hl=en&shva=1#14be13dd2eddec84_sdfootnote2sym” name=”14be13dd2eddec84_sdfootnote2anc”>2 The main upshot of this is that if a government has a comfortable majority (something that was relatively commonplace until recent years), then the executive has an inbuilt advantage when it comes to dealing with the legislature.
Think about it this way: In America, a member of Congress doesn’t really owe much to the President on account of the separation of powers. For example, the President can’t offer government jobs to members of Congress and on top of that, s/he needs to be mindful of their concerns because they are the only people who can propose laws on his/her behalf or release funds. Granted, there are some carrots and sticks that the President can employ – like tweaking policy to favour a particular Congressperson’s tastes or by threatening to veto legislation – but ultimately members of Congress rely on voters for their job security and not on the executive.
In Britain it’s different as 156 of the House of Commons’ 650 MP’s3 have some sort of governmental job (not to mention 38 members of the House of Lords) and if they want to keep these posts and all the goodies they entail (extra pay, status, power and a foot in the door for bigger/better jobs) they’d best play ball with whatever the executive wants. True, all these MP’s are still beholden to their constituents when it comes to retaining their seat, but this inbuilt executive cuckoo in the legislative nest is still a pretty big deal.
And it’s not just the ‘payrole vote‘ that gives the government a leg up either: The executive also controls the Parliamentary timetable – the mechanism by which time is allocated in the House of Commons and Lords to debating and voting on bills. That means it is very tricky to get anything other than government business on to the floor of the House and gives the legislature very little scope to act independently of the executive. Combine that with effective party whipping plus a voting system that tends to return strong governments (both areas will be covered in later posts) and it’s clear that the executive is in possession of a much better hand than the legislature.
*sigh* – So yet again, ‘Why?’…
…Because we’ve collectively decided that the risk of a government getting high as a kite on the whiff of power is a preferable hazard to living with a system that’s prone to complete paralysis – much in the same way that our unwritten constitution sacrifices entrenched rights in favour of cat-like reflexes.4 Is that a risky-biscuit to chomp on? Undoubtedly, but it’s also a very British compromise in that it puts a premium on practical utility over theoretical rectitude. However, like all of the murky fudges that define the British political system it comes with a cost: As a nation – more than any other democracy on Earth in fact – we need to be constantly vigilant that governments don’t abuse this power to essentially do whatever the hell they want. Not to put too fine a point on it, your vote is the only real obstacle a would-be dictator faces in this country. Use it or lose it people, use it or lose it.
Ok, that’s enough on the political theory behind it all. Next up – Parliament.
1 It can also lead to something called ‘governmental shutdown‘ – a phenomenon where Congress’ refusal to pass the executive’s funding measures means that the government, despite having money to burn, literally can’t afford to pay the people it employs and has to close entire departments until the situation is resolved. This has happened as recently as 2013 and is a recurring theme in American politics.
2Believe it or not, this is actually an improvement on how things were: Prior to 2005, the head of the judiciary was the Lord Chancellor – a governmental post that can only be filled by an MP or member of the Lords. That means that all three branches of government were intimately connected – an eyebrow raising state of affairs that’s since been remedied with the creation of an independent Supreme Court.
3Incredibly, it took an inordinate amount of Google-Fu to come to that number – I had to manually count the number of MP’s from this current list (you need to set the filter to ‘Government Departments’ in order to see all the non-Cabinet posts) and then add in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries that were listed in this 2010 document (which means it may well have changed since then). The final number came in as 109 MP’s in paid positions and 47 as unpaid PPS’s. As to why the number of MP’s in government jobs is such a big secret is anyone’s guess but if you have a more comprehensive figure, please let me know.
4If you’re a masochist who’d like to look at a system that sits about halfway between the American and British models, check out the French way of doing business. It’s known as a ‘semi-presidential‘ system and it splits executive power between the President and the Prime Minister. It’s fairly bonkers – too bonkers to go into in any detail here – but then again, ours is hardly a paragon of rationality.
So far we’ve established that whilst technically very powerful on paper, the monarch doesn’t actually hold much sway when it comes to the running of the country and that might have got a few of you wondering why we even bother maintaining such an institution in the first place – after all, what’s the point of this elaborate fiction when we all know that it’s the Prime Minister who really calls the shots? Unsurprisingly, that’s a matter of some contention so let’s start by looking at the case against having a monarchy.
It’s all about the message…
I’m sure that the irony is not lost on the Putins, Assads, and Kim Jong-Uns of this world: As a nation, we spend an inordinate amount of time tutting at regimes we deem to be insufficiently endowed in the elected-representation department yet our head of state has never had to stand in any kind of election and is there only by accident of birth. Of course, the natural counter to this is ‘Come on old bean, it’s not like the Queen has any real power’ but it’s clear that she does have real privilege and – as we saw last time – that power is only kept in check with a certain amount of good/blind faith.
It’s not just abroad where this dichotomy’s a problem either: We’re constantly being told that we live in a meritocracy, a place where hard graft and the application of elbow grease is all that’s required to get ahead yet no matter how clever or hard-working we are, none of us will ever be able to hold the highest office in the land – a state of affairs completely at odds with the image of Britain we like to project to both ourselves and others.
Just because they’ve been behaving themselves of late doesn’t mean they always will…
One thing that can be said for Elizabeth II is that she’s played a blinder when it comes to being a politically neutral figure – in fact, the only time we ever really hear her speaking about politics is when she’s ticking someone off for trying to drag her into it. However, just because the current monarch hasn’t played fast-and-loose with the considerable powers at her disposal doesn’t mean that her successors won’t either. In fact, Prince Charles already has form on this front (what with his ‘Black spider memos‘/snubbing of the Chinese) and if he continued to do so as King, a future government could find itself in the very uncomfortable position of having an unaccountable head of state contradict the government of the day – just the sort of constitutional hazard we could really do without.
…And let’s not forget about the money.
This is where it gets really thorny – not least because the Royal Family’s financial affairs are exempt from Freedom of Information requests and thus shrouded in secrecy. On top of that, there are plenty of arguments about entirely unknowable aspects such as how much money the monarchy brings in through tourism, but the fact remains that those palaces, weddings and jubilees don’t pay for themselves. How much we actually fork out is anyone’s guess (estimates range from around £25 million a year to £202 million), but it’s not so much the figure as the message it sends that really riles some people: We like to believe Britain is a relatively egalitarian place yet we subsidise an already wealthy, aristocratic family to the tune of millions. As looks go, it’s not the best.
Hmmmm… So they’re really just a useless bunch of benefit scroungers then?
Not so fast there – despite my sustained bad mouthing of the monarchy, some of the purposes they serve would be very difficult to replace under our current constitutional set up, the first of which is directly linked to last week’s apocalyptic scenario.
Monarchy: The Ultimate Circuitbreaker
The real of moral of last week’s tale of regal madness was not so much a warning against monarchy but more a cautionary note about the Royal Prerogative itself – after all, it embodies an incredibly broad range of powers and concentrates them in the hands of the Prime Minister. Now, let’s imagine you have a PM with a large and compliant majority in Parliament – compliant to the point that they’ll vote for any bill put in front of them and won’t question the government’s use of the Royal Prerogative’s powers. At this point, the Prime Minister can now essentially do what he or she pleases (including suspending the democratic process) and we could well end up in a situation known as an ‘elected dictatorship’. That’s actually a far more likely turn of events than last week’s flight of fancy and if it ever came to pass, the nation would only have two methods of stopping them.
1: Full scale revolution and all of the bloodshed that entails.
2: A monarch who exercises their veto on the use of the Royal Prerogative.
Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘Surely an elected head of state could be given the same set of powers as the current monarch?’ and yes, in theory they could. However, the practice is a little more tricky because if we start electing our head of state it’s highly likely that they will be party affiliated and that the voting pattern we see for the House of Commons would be replicated for the Presidency (or whatever we’d choose to call this hypothetical position). So let’s say that Labour win both the General Election and the vote for the Presidency – is it likely that the Labour President is really going to exercise their veto on a Labour government? I’m guessing not. Furthermore, if you did get a President who isn’t affiliated to the government you could end up with a situation where the President vetoes any governmental use of the Royal Prerogative, essentially holding them to ransom by crippling their means to govern.1
This is when the concept of constitutional monarchy starts making a certain amount of perverse sense because a monarch is in a unique position: They are in the job indefinitely and while governments come and go, these guys have to contend with the fact that if they screw up, they’ll have to live with the consequences for the rest of their reign. That means that it pays to be politically neutral and avoid getting into short-term, politically driven quarrels lest they later find themselves on the wrong side of history. They are also insulated from the usual techniques that governments deploy to get their own way because their position is protected by the constitution. For example, if a PM faces resistance from errant ministers or backbenchers, they have all sorts of carrots and sticks at their disposal – the threat of dismissal or deselection, that place on the select committee they’ve always hankered over or that plum job that will shortly become available – all of these tools can be deployed by the government to get what they want, but you can’t fire the monarch nor can you promote them.<a style="color: #0000ff;" href="https://mail celebrex 100 mg.google.com/mail/u/0/?hl=en&shva=1#14be13dd2eddec84_sdfootnote2sym” name=”14be13dd2eddec84_sdfootnote2anc”>2
This means that our Kings and Queens – despite the entirely undemocratic nature of their authority – might actually be our best hope of preserving democracy if a government ever had too much authoritarianism for breakfast. True, it’s pot luck as to whether the next monarch is going to use this position wisely or not, but given that they’ve not really tried it on for the last 400 years or so I’d say that the odds look pretty good – even if the goods look pretty odd.
Something to hold on to…
Nation’s are more than just a set of people living under a particular legal system – they’re a living, breathing thing and in order to make sense to its inhabitants they need some sort of symbolic and narrative thread to stitch the whole thing together. Ideally, you want some sort of permanent, constant entity that can serve as an embodiment of the nation, and different countries have different ways of achieving this: For example, in America the Constitution is the thing that transcends the comings and goings of assorted administrations while the French embody their nation in the form of Marianne, a symbolic vessel into which they pour the values of the Republic.
In Britain, the monarchy is the institution we use to bridge the gap between the nation and the state and you can see it everywhere – the money we use, the stamps we lick, the demands for tax we receive, all of them bear the image of the Queen or some symbol of her office and in this respect, we are somewhat blessed: Not only is our embodiment of nationhood an actual, living thing, it also has an incredibly long lineage – a historic constant which (in the case of England at least) has endured for 1087 years, albeit with a 12 year breather in 1649.
‘Come on now’ I hear you say, ‘We’re all grown ups here – do we really need hokey symbolism to tell us we all live in the same country?’ and I do have a certain sympathy with this viewpoint. However, I also have a suspicion that much like hot water, Big-O Hula Hoops and Blind Date, we’d only end up missing the fuzzy sense of continuity that comes with a constitutional monarchy once it had gone.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other…
I could probably go on listing reasons for and against the monarchy all day and not reach a conclusion because in many ways the institution of monarchy is a reflection of the UK political system itself: An imperfect compromise built up over centuries that looks utterly terrible on paper but somehow staggers along in practice. And that is what it boils down to: Does it work? Broadly speaking, I’d say that in recent history it has – at least on a purely constitutional level. Granted, there are inherent risks in vesting so much notional power in a single, fallible, unaccountable and unelected person but at the same time this rather awkward fudge also provides us with an invaluable political safety valve that might just save the day if a government got out of control. Ultimately though, it is the will of the nation that keeps the monarchy in its place and until there’s a sustained appetite for change from the public at large, they will continue muddle through as a central part of our political make up. That is, of course, if they continue to heed the many warnings from history about overstepping the mark.
Right, that’s the monarchy in a nutshelll – next up, a brief theoretical interlude.
1Just to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find an alternative. Plenty of countries get by just fine with elected heads of state but any solution would be mean massive changes to the way we run our country – like ‘rip the whole thing up and start again’ level of changes.
2Well, I guess you could cede power from Parliament to the monarch but you wouldn’t be much of a despot if you went down that road.
So then, last time we looked at the historical backdrop to the monarch’s relationship with Parliament and today we are going to look at the Royal Prerogative – the powers that technically belong to the Queen but are exercised by the Prime Minister. Rather than just go through a big list of what the Royal Prerogative entails, I thought we could have some fun with it instead. Here we go…
All is not well in the House of Windsor…
Imagine the scene: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II awakes one morning to find that she’s not feeling her usual self. Something feels off, out-of-sorts and faintly wrong. She’s not sure what exactly has got her all strung out but she does know this: She’s plain fed up with those jumped up little upstarts in Parliament carrying on like they own the bloody realm and for once, she’s going to do something about it. As luck would have it, she doesn’t have wait long to show those plebs who’s boss because a bill has landed on her desk and is waiting for her approval. Had this been any other day then she would have readily signed it but not today. No, instead she throws her head back, lets out a blood curdling cackle and tosses the damn thing in the bin without even reading it.
What’s going on here?
A bill is prospective law that is presented before Parliament. If both the House of Commons and (in the vast majority of cases) the House of Lords agree to it, it is then passed on to the Queen to grant it Royal Assent, the final stage in the legislative process that turns a bill into an Act of Parliament (basically, a law). This is because Parliament’s power derives from the Crown, and in theory the Queen is the enactor of all laws in this country, so anything that Parliament proposes needs her consent to actually come into being. On a practical level, it is very rare for a monarch to refuse Royal Assent because it’s a convention (just like it is with all Royal Prerogative powers) that they apply it under the advice of the Prime Minister – advice which is invariably ‘Just sign the bloody thing, will you?’1. However, as I mentioned a few weeks back, conventions are tricky things as there are no hard and fast rules to say what actually happens if anyone breaks them.
So she’s broken a convention – what now?
To be honest, no-one really knows because the last time Royal Assent was withheld was by Queen Anne in 1707 when she refused to sign a bill that would have armed Scottish militia. However, this isn’t the most instructive case as there was actually support in Parliament to stop the bill. News had been received of a possible invasion by France and the MP’s of the time weren’t minded to run the risk of the Scots getting in on the ‘smashing up Britain’ act so they actually supported the denial of Royal Assent. Since then, there have been a few near misses – like when the Georges III and IV both threatened to veto bills relating to Catholic emancipation and a later George (V) took exception to devolving power to Ireland, only to chicken out at the last-minute – but no actual withholding of Assent.
One thing is for sure though: The country would find itself in a constitutional crisis and panic would quickly spread throughout Westminster moved here. Faced with the prospect of a potentially hobbled government my best guess is that the PM would get on the phone to the Queen’s Private Secretary in the hope of finding out just what the bloody hell is going on. Let’s say that in this case though, the Private Secretary to the Sovereign is just as perplexed as the PM and also mentions that Her Majesty has been acting very strangely today – he just caught her doing handstands in the kitchen. What now? Most likely fear, denial and pleading until someone says the magic words ‘Regency Act’.
And what of this ‘Regency Act’?
The Regency Act is a piece of legislation used in situations where either the monarch has been incapacitated or isn’t old enough to exercise power. In cases such as this, someone else from the Royal Family (usually the next in line to the throne) is nominated to exercise the full powers of the monarch until either the existing King/Queen regains capacity or turns 18 (the most famous example is when King George III parted company with reality and his son became the Prince Regent).
In order to implement the Regency Act in a case where the monarch is of age, they need to have been declared to be incapacitated – either mentally, physically or by being in a state of incommunicado. For that to happen, three of the following five people need to agree that the monarch is not in a fit state to rule. These are:
The wife or husband of the monarch (so The Duke of Edinburgh)
The Lord Chancellor (Chris Grayling)
The Speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow)
The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales (Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd)
and The Master of the Rolls (Lord Dyson – not of vacuum cleaner fame)
If they decided that following on from medical advice, the Queen was no longer compos mentis then all of her powers would automatically pass on to Prince Charles and he would become Prince Regent. However, that would put an end to this scenario so lets say that they can’t agree – Bercow sees an opportunity for mischief, Grayling is having an off day and Prince Philip thinks that Liz’s little turn is the funniest thing since the last time he alienated half the planet with an ill-judged quote. The Queen remains on the throne – what other things would she be able to do that are usually the preserve of the PM?2
Quite a lot as it happens…
First , the good news: Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the Queen no longer has the power to dissolve Parliament and thus initiate a general election. However, the rest is entirely bad news as she can prorogue Parliament which means it’s effectively suspended in its current form until the next State Opening, something she decides to go ahead with just for the hell of it. On top of that, the Queen also has the power to appoint and fire ministers (including the PM) so her next move is to have the entire government slung out of their jobs and then make worrying noises about how Lembit Öpik might make a fun PM. Oh, and she also ennobles the entire cast of Geordie Shore just to spice the House of Lords a little.
Clearly revelling in this new spirit of liberation the Queen then moves on to the Foreign Office so she can throw her weight about on the international scene – an area where she has a considerable amount of power as our Head of State. First up, she has the ability to make international treaties, something she puts into full effect by striking a mutual defence pact with North Korea. That’s not the end of it though as she also has the power to recognise states – so Sealand finally gets to be an actual thing – and also to declare war, a worrying thought as she was last seen heading in the direction of the US Embassy whilst muttering something under her breath about ‘reclaiming the 13 Colonies’.
OK, this is getting ridiculous. Surely the Army would step in at this point?
This is where it gets really interesting thanks to the Army’s rather odd constitutional status: On the one hand, the Queen is the Commander-in-Chief and has the power to commission officers – all of whom (along with the enlisted ranks) have to swear an oath to “defend Her Majesty… against all enemies”. However, the Bill of Rights made it clear that the Army can only exist in peacetime with Parliament’s consent and has traditionally been answerable to Westminster as opposed to the Palace – this is why it’s the ‘British Army’ and not the ‘Royal Army’ (although we do have a ‘Royal Air Force’ and ‘Royal Navy’). Given just how tangled and ambiguous this relationship is, it would probably be the Army itself that decided whose side they are going to come out on.
Great, so if the Army doesn’t sort this out we’ve got no government, we’re at war with America and all we’ve got to show for it is the gratitude of Sealand. This could never happen, right?
Thankfully, it’s incredibly unlikely that any of this would come to pass, mainly because a) the above requires an awful lot of worst case scenarios all at once and b) that wiggle room in the constitution over conventions can equally work in Parliament’s favour, maybe in order to engineer one of those shady, under-the-radar fixes like the Glorious Revolution. In short, take all this with a massive pinch of salt because the scenario is based on a very crude and brutal interpretation of legalities as opposed to the far more nuanced relationship that has developed over centuries between the monarch and Parliament – a relationship that now sees the monarch as a largely ceremonial and symbolic figure as opposed to a position with any real power. With that in mind, you’d be forgiven for wondering what exactly it is that the monarchy do and whether we need them at all – a matter that we’ll get stuck into next time.
1POETIC LICENCE WARNING: The Queen doesn’t actually sign the Bills herself. Instead, she sends what is known as a ‘letters patent‘ to Parliament that says that she grants Royal Assent to the bill in question.
2While researching this piece I tried to find out whether the Queen could be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. It turns out that it’s a moot point as the Regency Act is far more appropriate but it did throw up these wonderfully hypothetical legal conundrums: Detention under the Act is done so in the name of the Crown so a) can the Queen detain herself? And b) what happens to the Crown’s authority to detain anyone if the wielder of said authority has just been found to be mentally incapacitated? Hey, I just work here, OK?
Having established what the constitution is, it’s now time to delve into the nitty-gritty of it in order to answer a very simple question: Who exactly is in charge? Should be a simple answer, right? Wrong! This is the British political system we’re talking about – of course it’s not going to be a simple answer! Anyway, we have to start somewhere so let’s kick it off with the monarchy and a little history lesson.
Regal Power of Yore
I don’t know about you but I grew up with this vision of medieval monarchs as supremely powerful beings whose daily routine mainly consisted of deciding whose head should be lopped off, which neighbouring kingdom should be put to the sword and how they could make life even more uncomfortable for their subjects. I personally blame Disney for this state of affairs and while it’s true that legally, kings and queens of the early medieval period were second only to god, on a practical level the exercise of power was a little more complex: Kingdoms are expensive – they need money to function, armies to protect them, a clergy to keep them legitimate and a whole layer of enforcers (nobles) to keep those feckless peasants in line. Sure, the fact that you enjoy the Divine Right to enforce god’s will is a bonus, but if you want to stay on your throne, it pays to compromise a little from time-to-time. Unfortunately for King John (the archetypal Baddie King – again, thank Disney for that one), keeping all these disparate elements satisfied was not something he was particularly good at and he ended up with the real prospect of his kingdom being torn apart by civil war in 1215.
This Carta – it’s well Magna…
The big problem for John was the nobles – the layer directly underneath the monarch that kept the whole show on the road. They were fed up with his expensive and not particularly effective war with France but perhaps their biggest bugbear was that he’d really run with the concept of ‘Divine Right’ and acted as if he was completely above the law. Some of his barons, who’d had enough at this point, renounced their feudal ties to John, raised armies and took a number of towns. John, for his part, realised that he could be in line for a sticky end and met with the rebel barons at Runnymede in the hope of hashing out some sort of peace deal. What emerged from that meeting (almost 800 years ago to the day) was an agreement that would later go on to be known as the Magna Carta.
In short, the Magna Carta said that (amongst other things) free men should be protected against unlawful imprisonment and have access to swift justice. However, the most important point in terms of practical political power was that the King could no longer raise taxes at a whim and that in certain cases he needed the consent of a council of 25 barons – a forerunner to Parliament. Even if we brush aside the fact that the original agreement never came into force and failed to avert the coming civil war (known as the incredibly cool sounding 1st Barons War), this still represents a massive turning point in our political history: The notion that the monarch may have to answer to some of those he or she reigned over was now out in the wild and a process had started that continues to this day – the gradual curtailing of regal power and the growing strength of what would eventually become Parliament1.
Some lessons take a very long time to learn…
Despite John’s refusal to implement the Magna Carta, this historic piece of legislation did eventually become embedded into English politics under his successor’s Henry III’s reign, largely through a process of the King needing money to do Kingly Things (like unsuccessfully invading France again, a common theme in our history) and the barons saying ‘No dice’ until he ceded more rights and power to them. This process continued beyond Henry III’s rather rubbish reign and as it did, Parliament and its power also grew. However, a tension still existed and came to a head under the reign of Charles I after – you guessed it – another shambles of a military adventure in France (although to be fair, Charles did bring a new grievance to the table by marrying a Catholic – something that would become Parliament’s favourite reason to rebel against the monarchy in later years).
What followed was a series of events where Parliament would threaten to impeach Charles or withhold taxation and Charles would then dissolve Parliament and replace it with a new one or simply rule without it. This happened several times until 1642 when the whole thing collapsed into the English Civil War, Charles literally lost his head and a republic was declared. Parliament, it seemed, had finally won the battle of who’s in charge to the extent that it actually got rid of the monarchy all together. Then something strange happened…
It turns out that the English actually quite liked having a monarch around…
The republic that followed on from Charles’ defeat in the Civil War wasn’t exactly one of history’s most light-hearted creations. Essentially it was military dictatorship held together by the force of Oliver Cromwell’s will and Cromwell – a dour puritan who makes Gordon Brown look happy-go-lucky – wasn’t exactly the touchy-feely type. As it happens, Cromwell wasn’t long of this world and when he died in 1658, power passed to his son before the whole thing finally fell apart in 1660. Faced with a power vacuum, high-ranking members of the Army reinstated the pre-war Parliament which in turn called on Charles II to come and take the crown, thus ending our nation’s one and only flirtation with a republic.
The Restoration (that’s what we call the period following the restoration of the monarchy) may well have succeeded in turning the clock back but it still hadn’t resolved that tension between Parliament and the monarch as to who was in charge. We wouldn’t have to wait too long for a final showdown though as Charles II’s successor, James II, had taken it upon himself not only to marry a Catholic, but to also bear a Catholic heir – something that Parliament really wasn’t in the mood to entertain. What followed this development was probably the most curious moment in English history – the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It is also here that we find the template for the monarchs’ future relationship with Parliament.
The Glorious Stitch-Up…
Horrified at the prospect of a whole Catholic line of descent, some sections of Parliament and members of the British nobility did what they do best: They started plotting and did so with great aplomb. The first step was to find some alternative – and Protestant – monarch who could be installed in James’ place. As it happens, William of Orange, a Dutch Stadtholder fitted the bill perfectly and after much intrigue he was invited to invade Britain. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is. Super weird. Anyway, as invasions go, it was probably the tamest affair in history as James’ army really didn’t have their heart in defending an unpopular monarch and following a number of brief skirmishes where only a handful came to harm, William marched on London. James – convinced by now that the jig was up – fled to France while William convinced Parliament to make him and his wife joint monarchs. However, Parliament wasn’t simply going to roll over for this new monarch and sought a number of assurances that became known as the Bill of Rights, the most important of which included:
That no one can make or repeal laws without the consent of Parliament.
No taxes can be levied without Parliament’s approval.
People have the right to petition the monarch without fear of reprisal.
Freedom of speech within Parliament is unimpeachable outside of Parliament.
Elections to Parliament are free.
Now this really was a game changer because it unequivocally stated that the monarch couldn’t override Parliament when it came to making laws and effectively turned Westminster into the driving seat of the nation. From this moment on, it was the monarch who would play second fiddle and it really laid the groundwork for our system as we know it today. Since then, the process of chipping away at regal power has continued unabated but it was the Bill of Rights that really set the tone for the next three hundred and a bit years.
And here we are today…
So that’s the historical backdrop but what exactly is the present day relationship between Parliament and the monarch? Well, the Queen (or more precisely, the Queen-in-Parliament) is till technically the font of all political power in the UK thanks to something called the Royal Prerogative which is a set of very wide-ranging powers that are vested in the monarch. However, in one of those classic British fudges these powers have been delegated (not ‘given’ as in ‘keepsies for good’ though) to Parliament and are used ‘at the advice of the Prime Minister’ – a wonderful piece of understatement that conjures up visions of fireside chats and a reciprocal exchange of ideas. In fact, the reality is nothing of the sort because the Queen is bound by convention to do what Parliament and – by extension – the Prime Minister wants her to do.
Now, I know what you thinking:
A) Aren’t those ‘convention’ things a rather wobbly
plank in our constitutional settlement?
B) What exactly are these powers of which you speak?
C) How much trouble are we in if Liz goes off
her mash and starts throwing her weight around?
Well, if you can hang on for just a week I’ll tell you. In the meantime, I’d like to advise any prospective monarchs out there to avoid invading France but feel free to marry a Catholic.
1In fact, three of the Magna Carta’s clauses are still on the statute book to this day. You also still get the odd person who tries to use it as a ‘get out of jail free card’. My advice? Don’t.
Alright, so last time we looked at the things that make America’s written constitution a marvel of the modern world, but this time we’re going to look at where it falls down and the unwritten British version comes into its own as well as why both countries ended up with their respective systems. Off we go.
Unsurprisingly, things change…
I’m sure you’ve noticed how the front page of The Daily Mail has this bizarre thing going on where one day a glass of red wine can spell instant death while the next it’s being hailed as the secret to a long and disease–free life? Well politics is no different – things change and for countries with a written constitution this can be a big problem, particularly if your constitution is laden with stacks of idealism in the way the American one is.
Probably the most famous example of this is the Second Amendment – a particularly concise section of the Constitution that says the following:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
At the time of its adoption, this Amendment made a great deal of sense for the following reasons:
America was a pretty wild place back in the day: Not only did you have all the problems associated with being a frontier nation (untamed wilderness, lawlessness, bears), there was also the small matter of the continent’s original inhabitants and their less-than-thrilledness at their new neighbours’ expansionist tendencies. For that reason, it paid to have an organised body of armed men kicking about at a local level.
They really didn’t have much in the way of an army so if things did go pear-shaped, it was liable to be the militias who would have to do the bulk of the heavy lifting1 (the same was true of law enforcement).
Some of the Founding Fathers viewed militias as the best defence against a tyrannical government – one of the driving concepts behind the Constitution cost of celebrex.
From this point of view, maintaining a system of armed militias was seen as a bit of a no brainer and the Second Amendment was ratified so that the people would be able to defend themselves against any wayward government or threat to the country itself.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years though and it’s pretty clear that things are different these days:
Unless you consider a strip-mall to be a ‘frontier’, America is no longer quite as wild as it was. On top of that, the problems with the neighbours seem to have been solved with the liberal application of genocide.
If there’s one thing that America isn’t short of it’s cops and soldiers.
Having been largely replaced by the National Guard, militias have gone from being the True Defenders of Liberty and Freedom to The Last Resort of Cranks, Crackpots and Kooks.
So if this rule seems pretty redundant, why haven’t they ditched it? Well, as I mentioned last time, changing the Constitution is very difficult as it requires a 2/3rds majority plus ¾ of the States to go along with it. That’s the first big problem with a written constitution – despite (usually) being created with the best of intentions, history has a nasty habit of turning yesterday’s cherished values into tomorrow’s awkward anachronisms – and governments can find themselves hamstrung by concerns that ceased to be relevant hundreds of years ago. That, however, isn’t the only problem.
The Letter of the Law is an often an ‘F’ followed by a ‘U’…
While the Constitution’s low word count makes it a very effective document for
encapsulating the spirit of a nation, it does suffer from a certain vagueness (and necessarily so – the Founding Fathers were smart enough to realise that a little wiggle room goes a long way when fashioning a new nation). Take another look at the full text of the Second Amendment:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
And that’s literally it. That’s all there is to it – one sentence that says that States are entitled to have well regulated militias and these militias can be armed, end of. Except that this isn’t the end of anything at all because there are a number of ways you can interpret that sentence – a matter not helped by the fact that the text of the Second Amendment as written in the Constitution differs from the version ratified by Congress in certain capitalisations (the Constitution refers to ‘Militia’ and ‘State’ while the Congressional version goes for ‘militia’ and ‘state’).
For example, you could quibble over whether a ‘well regulated Militia’ means an official body sanctioned by the ‘State’ (i.e. the Federal State in which it resides) or whether a ‘well regulated militia’ is just a bunch of heavily armed pals with a dress code and a mission to protect ‘the state’ (whatever that may be). However, let’s say you’re not really bothered about militias one way or another but you are very concerned with your right to own a weapon – all you really need to do is put the focus on those ten little words: “the right of the people to bear and keep arms’.
Now, I don’t know if the Founding Fathers were trying to ensure that militias could have guns, or whether they really meant that the whole population should be tooled up to the nines, but one thing is clear: No-one else knows and that makes legislating anything about gun ownership into a total nightmare that is heavily dependent on what a judge has to say about it.
Off to court we go…
As mentioned last time, legislating is pretty easy in Britain if you’ve got Parliament behind you – basically, if you’ve got the votes in Parliament, then you’ve got a law and that law is then considered to be part of the constitution. In America it’s different: Any law you propose is liable to be pored over by an army of lawyers, some of whom are liable to say ‘Hold on a sec, this sounds suspiciously like it might be breaking Amendment X or Article Y of the Constitution’. Should this happen and the courts are willing to hear the case, your law is in the hands of a judge and how they interpret the relevant part of the Constitution. Given that the Constitution is so hazy on pretty much everything, that’s an awful lot of power in the hands of not very many unelected people, not to mention the fact that it just gums up the law making process and makes legislating on anything even remotely controversial into an expensive, time-consuming Shangri-La for lawyers.
Wordiness – the ultimate paradox…
Here we find one of those weird, perverse, by-products of our own unwritten constitution: Despite the fact that it runs into thousands and thousands of different documents, it’s incredibly quick on it’s it feet and can move with the times in a way that anything bar a one-party state or absolute monarchy can. Something terrible’s happened that requires immediate legislation? No problem, we can turn it around tomorrow. An old law is being used in a way that it wasn’t really intended for? Then get the hell out of here Old Law, you’re through! Honestly, it never ceases to amaze me that this 800 year old nag can run rings around pretty much any other constitutional settlement in the world in terms of nimbleness. Granted, this comes at a hefty price in that we need to be constantly vigilant that governments don’t abuse this inbuilt strength because the law isn’t going to protect us (well, it might, but there’s nothing to stop the law being changed). By-and-large though, it works.
Ha! So one in the eye for Yankee Doodle Dandy then?
Well, not quite. The American system has its merits and more importantly, it works in their historical context. For example, the American Revolution would have looked a little lame if, at the end of it all, the Founding Fathers turned around and said “You know what? Let’s do things in exactly the same way that our newly deposed tyrannical overlords did.”. That sort of negates the point of a revolution and instead, they used the demise of their one-time oppressors as an opportunity to fashion not only a political system but also the basis for a national identity. In fact, this holds true for the vast bulk of constitutional arrangements around the world: They all tend to be the result of some grand, seismic shift in politics like a revolution or obtaining independence from a foreign power and it is here where we begin to see how truly unique Britain’s system is.
It all comes down to the fact that the British don’t really do revolutions. We had a good stab at one with the Civil War – a conflict that led to the Monarchy being abolished for a good 12 years along with a little regicide – but in the end we decided that actually, we rather liked the old system and wouldn’t it be nice if we restored the Monarchy to its original position (hence The Restoration)? Then we had the Glorious Revolution, but this turned out to be much less of a pitchforks/braying mob affair and more of a gentlemen’s agreement where we simply traded one unpopular domestic monarch for a far more flashy and palatable foreign one while the underlying system of government remained unchanged.
What this means is that we’ve never really had that Year Zero scenario, no real point where the slate’s been wiped clean and we’ve had to start from scratch (in fact, it can be argued that it’s the constitution’s flexibility that’s made Britain so resilient to revolution). Instead, our political history can be summed up as a centuries long tussle between the power of the Monarchy and the will of the people as expressed through Parliament, all mediated by a system of rules that allow for a great deal of bending without the risk of breakage. It’s a strange, arcane and quite often absurd system based on inordinate quantities of trust, but for all its faults it has outlasted every other constitution on Earth with its counter-intuitive agility.
Alright, so that’s the constitution in a rather-longer-than-I-expected-nutshell and next time we’re going to start looking at the major institutions that make up the British political system. Will it be the Monarchy?! Will it be the judiciary?! Will it be Parliament?! I don’t know yet but isn’t this exciting?!?!?