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LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 09: King Charles III during his first audience with Prime Minister Liz Truss at Buckingham Palace, London, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday 8th September in Balmoral, on September 9, 2022 in London, England. (Photo Yui Mok – WPA Pool/Getty Images)
It is not the King who threatens constitutional order

It is not the King who threatens constitutional order

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 09: King Charles III during his first audience with Prime Minister Liz Truss at Buckingham Palace, London, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday 8th September in Balmoral, on September 9, 2022 in London, England. (Photo Yui Mok – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In the populist era, we have more to fear from reckless government than meddling monarchy

Do not mistake all the ceremony for mere spectacle and pageantry: these rituals marking reverent grief, gratitude for HM Queen Elizabeth II’s seven decades of service, and the new monarch’s accession are much more than long-planned formalities. 

They are drenched with meaning, and weighed down by the heft, the power, the history of the state – and by intimations of its future. If you think this is essentially a protracted exercise in national escapism – an indulgent distraction from, say, the war in Ukraine or the cost-of-living crisis – look harder. The dichotomy is false.

The sheer impact of what has happened in the past week will take a while to absorb fully. Last Monday, Boris Johnson was prime minister and the Queen still performing limited duties in Balmoral, awaiting her final audience with him. Now, Liz Truss has succeeded Johnson; and the newly proclaimed King Charles III embarks upon his first itineration of the realm as its monarch – starting with a procession up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to St Giles’ Cathedral, for a service of reflection and, later, a vigil by members of the royal family.

In the midst of this tectonic change, the government also announced on Thursday what may prove to be the biggest single fiscal intervention in modern British history: a £130 billion package of measures to address the soaring cost of energy bills. And yes, of course, that announcement would probably still be dominating the headlines today, had it not been interrupted by the news of the Queen’s rapidly deteriorating health, and then, at 6:30pm, of her death.

Yet it is a mistake to think that, at that moment, the first flagship policy of the Truss government was swept away by the hurricane of history. Far from it: at that moment, as constitutional monarchy quietly but robustly did its work, and sovereignty passed from the Queen-in-Parliament to the King-in-Parliament, the historic powers that made the prime minister’s radical blueprint possible were being reaffirmed.

Never forget that, more than any other single factor, the public finances have shaped the triangular relationship between Crown, elected government and Parliament. We shall now speak of His Majesty’s Treasury and His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs.

But it has been the case since the Plantagenet era (if not before) that taxation had to be authorised by Parliament. That principle was entrenched in the Petition of Right in 1628, and it was Charles I’s bid to overturn such financial constraints during the Personal Rule of 1629 to 1640 that was the principal cause of the Civil War. At the heart of our (uncodified) constitution is the parliamentary control of the public finances that was established in the seventeenth century; control which Truss is now putting to spectacular, if untested purpose.

As for the war in Ukraine: it is, again, true that the magnificent gains made over Putin’s invading forces in the past few days, notably in the Kharkiv region, would be much higher up the news agenda in this country were it not for the period of national mourning. But it is also true that the momentous process of constitutional transition taking place in the UK is intimately connected to our continued military support for Ukrainian independence and for President Zelensky’s government.

It is the government, in consultation with Parliament, that directs the nation’s security strategy. But the new King is head of the British Armed Forces, and it is to him that the military oath is sworn. At the very moment of his mother’s death, that fundamental national role passed silently from Sovereign to Sovereign.

And that role will define a great many of the new King’s forthcoming duties, as the “ultimate command authority” of the Army, RAF and Royal Navy. The profound symbolic connection between Crown and military support is not lost on the Ukrainians themselves who have been writing tributes to the Queen on their rockets and shells before firing them at the Russian invading forces. Those who are fighting for their very national independence understand better than those who take it for granted the connective tissue that holds a country together, and enables it to act decisively on the world stage.

At home, we are only beginning to take stock of the scale of what has happened, is happening and lies ahead. When the Queen acceded to the throne in 1952, she was 25 and her first prime minister was Winston Churchill. She had served in uniform during the war, in which he had led the nation.

The new King is 73 and has as his first prime minister a politician who – for all her denials – models herself upon Margaret Thatcher rather than Churchill, and has no electoral mandate beyond the support of the 81,326 party members (57.4 per cent) who preferred her to Rishi Sunak in the final round of the Conservative leadership contest (hard to believe that only a week has passed since this result was disclosed by Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee).

During Charles’s long apprenticeship, his own conduct invited perfectly justified speculation that – in sharp contrast to his mother – he would prove a meddlesome monarch. The so-called “black spider memos” that poured from his desk to Whitehall and to public figures of all kinds are legendary. His activism on a whole range of issues – from the environment and the life chances of the young, to architecture and the position of Islam in the modern world – has been relentless and, for the most part, a force for good.

In The English Constitution (1867), Walter Bagehot famously decreed that “the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” But, in a passage less often quoted, he warned darkly of the perils of activist monarchy: “There is in it a secret power which is always eager, which is generally obstinate, which is often wrong, which rules Ministers more than they know themselves, which overpowers them much more than the public believe, which is irresponsible because it is inscrutable, which cannot be prevented because it cannot be seen.”

In the other great foundational text, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885), A.V. Dicey added this gloss: “No one really supposes that there is not a sphere, though a vaguely defined sphere in which the personal will of the King has a very considerable influence. The strangeness of this state of things is, or rather would be to any one who had not been accustomed from his youth to the mystery and formalism of English constitutionalism, that the rules or customs which regulate the personal action of the Crown are utterly vague and undefined.”

Well, things have been tidied up a bit since 1885, albeit in a typically British way: a pseudonymous letter to the Times in 1950 by the King’s private secretary, Sir Tommy Lascelles, for example, described the circumstances in which the monarch may refuse a prime minister’s request for the dissolution of Parliament, while – rather more formally – the Ministry of Justice set out in a 2009 review the limitations upon the monarch’s personal prerogatives.

All the same: much still depends upon the personality of the new King. In the past few months, I have asked a few people with close knowledge of his working methods and intentions whether he would truly be able to curtail his instinct to interfere.

In the words of a former prime minister: “So hard to say. My head says ‘yes’, my heart says ‘no’. The old story springs to mind about the scorpion drowning himself and the frog because it’s ‘in his nature’. We’ll see.” A friend and informal adviser: “He knows the score. He’ll change. He already has”. A senior Whitehall official: “The traffic has definitely got lighter. But what happens when he gets the bloody big car? I hope he sees that he can’t be what he used to be. I’m staying optimistic.” 

The argument that a 73-year-old man cannot change his ways was strengthened in June when Charles let it be known that he found the government’s Rwanda policy “appalling”. And the most obvious potential point of conflict between monarch and PM is climate change: the King has been publicly passionate about the environment since his twenties, long before it was a mainstream political issue, and will certainly fret over the government’s plan to resume fracking and suspend green levies, not to mention her appointment of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has scorned climate “alarmism”, to oversee the UK’s net zero strategy.

Yet the evidence so far suggests, on balance, that he fully understands the transformative constraints that come with his new role. As he said on his 70th birthday: “I’m not that stupid. I do realise that it is a separate exercise being sovereign.”

And in his beautifully judged speech to the nation and Commonwealth on Friday, he made clear not only that he was personally capsized by grief over the loss of his mother, but that he fully intended to honour her by emulating her values and definition of service, setting aside his interests and enthusiasms. 

His fond tribute to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex suggested that – for all his private frustrations – he understands that there is a job of repair to be done. In which context: it was no accident that the Prince of Wales invited his estranged brother and his wife on a walkabout around Windsor Castle on Saturday. 

Father and elder son alike seem to grasp that the rift cannot endure if the King is to maintain the initial surge of public goodwill with which he has been welcomed. It is not lost on Palace officials that, in a YouGov poll last year, 41 per cent of 18-24 year-olds expressed the hope that the UK would become a republic (compared to 26 per cent two years before).

To put it another way: the new King has plenty of work to do in his own home before he even considers weighing in on affairs of state. Indeed, I would go further and say that the true threat to the constitutional balance in this country comes not from the monarchy but from populist government.

In the three disastrous years of Johnson’s premiership, we witnessed a regime that prorogued parliament unlawfully, was content to breach international treaties and flagrantly ignored the Covid regulations that it had imposed upon the rest of the country.

Truss has made her mantra “delivery, delivery, delivery” – which sounds great, until you examine what she has actually said and done, and the extent to which she has used, and is still using the same populist playbook as her predecessor.

True, she lacks Johnson’s swagger and capacity to make base entitlement look like jolly charisma. But the game is the same. In 2017, as Lord Chancellor she conspicuously failed to defend the judiciary after the Daily Mail’s attack upon them as “Enemies of the People” – prompting the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, to take the highly unusual step of rebuking her publicly (“I regret to have to criticise her as severely as I have, but to my mind she was completely and absolutely wrong. And I am very disappointed”).

During the leadership contest, she played the same, dangerous tunes that have been whistled since Johnson became PM in 2019. There was the predictable scorn for the BBC; serious attacks upon the civil service, which she mysteriously accused of embracing a “woke… culture that strays into antisemitism” – followed up by the aggressively political sacking of Sir Tom Scholar as permanent secretary at the Treasury on day one of her administration; the appointment as Home Secretary of Suella Braverman, who takes an even tougher line on migration than Priti Patel and wants the UK to ditch the European Convention on Human Rights, And let us not forget the dangerous game that Truss is playing with the Northern Ireland Protocol – an irresponsible strategy that has already soured relations with the Biden administration. 

In true populist style, she is fast to identify enemies, to attribute blame, to denounce those who supposedly stand in her way. This is not “delivery” but quasi-Trumpism. In these sombre days that will conclude with the arrival of leaders from all over the world for the Queen’s funeral on 19 September, it should be a matter of national shame that we have a prime minister who is unable to say whether the President of France – one of our most important geo-political allies – is “friend or foe”

It is easy to explain away such hustings talk as banter, not policy. But if the post-Brexit, post-Trump era has a lesson, it is that political infantilism of this sort is a clear and present danger to political and institutional stability. 

The shredding of convention, diplomatic etiquette and law itself comes at a terrible cost.

Less than a week into her premiership, we must, of course, give Truss a chance. But – at a moment of national bewilderment, collective upheaval and many converging crises – it is more important than ever to be vigilant. As autumn takes hold, the real danger to our constitutional and social order comes not from Buckingham Palace but Number 10.


The Second Elizabethan Age

Sir Richard Lambert, former Chairman of the British Museum and former editor of the Financial Times, reflects on the 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the ways in which society changed under her rule.

Photograph Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images