Richard Lambert charts the evolving relationship between the Queen, politicians and her prime ministers during her reign
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Richard Lambert, who was Chair of the British Museum and editor of the Financial Times from 1991 to 2001 reflects on her 70-year reign and the ways in which society changed under her rule.
To all outward appearances, the role of head of state in the United Kingdom changed very little during the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The red boxes of confidential government papers continued to arrive at her desk every day, and her weekly audiences with the prime minister remained a permanent fixture.
The Privy Council of government ministers went on meeting in her presence with its archaic practices intact, and the State Opening of Parliament – with its even more eccentric traditions – stood as a focal point in the annual political calendar.
But behind this apparently unchanging façade lay a real shift in power from the Palace to Downing Street over the decades of her reign. This was probably inevitable. As the fate of the House of Lords had shown, political power based purely on an accident of birth was no longer deemed acceptable. And unlike some of her predecessors, the Queen was always inclined to shrink away from confrontation. Whenever possible, she tended to take the line of least resistance when dealing with her prime ministers.
But closer to the end of her reign, she was confronted with Boris Johnson, her 14th prime minister. Apparently untroubled by precedent or political norms of behaviour, he was unlike any she’d had to deal with before. And this raised an awkward question, and one with no obvious answer.
If the head of state did not feel able to constrain a rogue prime minister, who would?
The Queen started her reign with two royal prerogatives that were then generally accepted, at least in theory. One was the power to appoint a prime minister, and the other was the authority to dissolve parliament. On top of that came the guidelines that were more or less invented as rules of the constitution by Walter Bagehot, the 19th-century writer and author of the seminal text The English Constitution. He wrote: “the Crown possesses, first the right to be consulted, second the right to encourage, and third the right to warn.”
Her predecessors on the throne were prepared to push these rights quite a long way. Her grandfather, George V, all but ordered Ramsay MacDonald to stay on as prime minister after he had lost the support of his own party, thereby leading to the formation of the National Government in 1931.
In 1945, her father George VI told Prime Minister Attlee to appoint Ernest Bevin, a great palace favourite, as foreign secretary rather than Hugh Dalton – Attlee’s first choice. That was probably going to happen anyway. But the King had strong views on other matters too, such as prescription charges on false teeth and spectacles, and he had a short temper if he felt he wasn’t being properly consulted.
This wasn’t Queen Elizabeth’s way of doing things.
The first test came in April 1955, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill – visibly slowing down both physically and mentally – at last came to the Palace to offer his resignation. She asked him whether he would recommend a successor. Churchill, an ardent monarchist who doted on the young queen, said that it was up to her to decide – safe in the knowledge that Anthony Eden was really the only possible option.
That was to be the last time she was offered what was at least notionally, a free choice.
The big challenge for her role as head of state came in October 1963, when Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, suffering an acute prostate problem and worn out by political upheavals, suddenly resigned. Unlike Churchill, Macmillan was more than willing to offer his advice, heavily slanted in the improbable direction of Alec Douglas Home, the 14th Earl of Home – and away from the more obvious candidate, Rab Butler, who Macmillan was determined to keep out of office.
A student at the time, I wasn’t much interested in politics. But even to me, this outcome seemed completely bonkers.
Should she have accepted Macmillan’s guidance? In theory, she didn’t have to, not least because he had already resigned. But she knew and liked Home, a fellow landowner in Scotland, and as a former palace official told biographer Ben Pimlott many years later: “Rab wasn’t her cup of tea. When she got the advice to call Alec, she thought ‘Thank God’.”
Of course, it would have been difficult for her not to trust her outgoing prime minister and look for advice elsewhere. But the arguments that raged about this decision effectively brought an end to the monarch’s freedom to choose. The main political parties took to electing their own leaders as their prime ministerial candidates.
There were still moments when she might have been called on to act, such as that exciting weekend in February 1974 when it had emerged that Prime Minister Edward Heath had not won the election – but neither had he clearly lost or resigned. Such uncertainties were finally put to bed when a new Civil Service document, the Cabinet Manual, was published in 2010.
This reported coyly that the scope of the Royal Prerogative power, which is the residual power inherent in the Sovereign, has evolved over time. Originally the Royal Prerogative would only have been exercised by the reigning Sovereign. However, ministers now exercise the bulk of the prerogative powers, either in their own right or through the advice that they provide to the Sovereign, which he or she is constitutionally bound to follow. From then on there could be no doubt about who did, and did not, call the shots.
The second remaining prerogative power, to dissolve parliament, was shot down at around the same time. David Cameron’s coalition government introduced a new Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which, subject to certain conditions, made an election automatic every five years. The legislation went through with scarcely a mention of the monarch, only to be repealed in 2021. When it came to the new legislation, it was agreed after some discussion that the prime minister of the day could only request – rather than advise – the monarch to grant a dissolution. But it’s just about impossible to imagine any circumstance in which that request might be turned down.
So now these prerogatives have gone – what’s left? Apart from purely ceremonial duties as head of state, Head of the Armed Forces and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, how can the monarch influence the affairs of the United Kingdom? Bagehot’s rights to consult, encourage and to warn are still there, but their practical results must depend very much on the relationship with the prime minister of the day. And as it turned out, this was one of the big successes of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
No one else is present at the weekly meetings between the Crown and the prime minister. No minutes are taken, and the talk is confidential. But the consensus is that most of her prime ministers enjoyed their weekly discussions, and got something out of them.
There were some exceptions. Ted Heath had no small talk and could be abrupt to the point of rudeness. Her audiences with Margaret Thatcher were seldom productive, but not for the reasons you might think. According to biographer Charles Moore, Mrs. Thatcher was always nervous on these occasions. She sat on the edge of her chair and produced an agenda from her bag from which she launched forth. The audience finished, she would emerge from the meeting panting for a whisky and soda.
“I wasn’t given much encouragement to comment on what was said,” the Queen reported later.
Other prime ministers found the sessions more useful. Harold Wilson, an ardent monarchist, liked to use her as a sounding board. Jim Callaghan was one of several who found the weekly meetings a useful discipline and an opportunity to gather his thoughts together. David Cameron was especially enthusiastic. “She made me a better prime minister”, he said.
Two things mattered in this respect. One was that she really did do her homework with all those red boxes. Alistair Darling, who presented his budget to her as Gordon Brown’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, said he wished his fellow cabinet ministers read their briefing papers half as closely as she did.
And ministers could pour their hearts out to her, confident in her absolute discretion. Harold Wilson told her well in advance about his intention to resign. Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote in his memoir “I recall telling the Queen, the one person to whom I could unburden myself in complete confidence… that I thought the 1988 budget would be my last, because the prime minister was making the conduct of policy impossible.”
Rather than confrontation, her style seems more have been to nudge. Historian Peter Hennessy reports her reaction to one of Harold Wilson’s honours lists. She told her private secretary: “Please remind the prime minister there is always time to think again”.
She took care to keep her personal interests separate from her role as head of state. So, for instance, she didn’t lobby hard to preserve the Royal Yacht Britannia, which she loved, or to support the military which again was one of her passions. But she did manage to let the Cameron government know how sad she would be if the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming fell victim to its austerity drive. It didn’t.
And she was good at asking difficult questions in an innocent manner. Meeting a group of academics at the London School of Economics in 2008, she inquired: “Why did no one see the financial crisis coming?” It took the academics eight months to come up with a reply that even they couldn’t have found very convincing.
Perhaps the best example of her style is to be found in the diaries of Tony Benn, one of the few republicans to make it to the top ranks of British politics since the war. Appointed to the cabinet for the first time in 1964 as Postmaster General, he decided his mission was to take the Queen’s head off the postage stamp, and replace it with an attractive design and some neutral form of wording – perhaps United Kingdom Postage. Fired with enthusiasm he commissioned possible examples, took them round the Palace and spread them out on the floor for the Queen to admire. In his words, Benn used all the charm he could muster, and the Queen responded in kind.
He came away feeling, as he put it, “absolutely on top of the world. The fact is the Palace is determined not to get into any controversy in which they might be seen to be holding back popular clamour for change”.
But for reasons that were never clear to him, things didn’t seem quite to work out. Civil servants appeared reluctant to act. The prime minister was not enthusiastic. Geoffrey Fisher, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to say that since he had had the honour of placing the crown on the Queen’s head, he thought it inconceivable that anyone would think of removing it from the stamps.
Benn came up with all kinds of cunning wheezes in response. One was to commission a series of stamps featuring horses, which he knew the Queen loved. But by July 1966 he had to admit defeat. Promoted to minister of technology, he went to the Privy Council to kiss the Queen’s hand.
“I’m sure you’ll miss your stamps”, she said.
More serious challenges for the head of state lay ahead, and she dealt with them in different ways. One was the growing pressure on the make-up of the United Kingdom. In her Silver Jubilee address to both Houses of Parliament in 1977, she declared:
“I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom”.
She could never have uttered these words later in her reign: they would have been seen as far too politically loaded. The Scottish independence referendum came in 2014, and the outcome was very much in the balance. Coming out of church near Balmoral just ahead of the vote, the Queen spoke to a group of fellow worshippers. She said she hoped the Scottish people would think “very carefully” about the future.
David Cameron later claimed that he had prompted this gentle intervention. He hadn’t asked her to do anything “that would be in any way improper or unconstitutional, but just a raising of the eyebrow even, you know, a quarter of an inch”. That revelation was indiscreet, and so was the careless way in which Cameron had allowed himself shortly after the poll to be heard talking to a friend on the phone. When he had broken the good news to her, he had reported, the Queen had “purred” with delight.
But the future of Scotland within the United Kingdom remained uncertain at the time of her death. So did that of Northern Ireland, and here the Queen took a more active role.
She had taken a real interest in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, making phone calls to Prime Minister Tony Blair through the negotiations, and in 2012 on a visit to Belfast she famously shook hands with Martin McGuinness, a former commander in the Irish Republican Army. McGuinness himself said later that the meeting had the potential to define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”.
But in 2022, the republican party Sinn Fein emerged from elections with the largest number of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. No changes in the relationship with Britain seemed imminent: still, there is now some kind of a question mark over the long-term future of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.
Brexit was the most politically divisive event of the reign. This time the Queen remained resolutely silent, despite the claims of sections of the media to have knowledge of her views. In such a heated atmosphere, there was no scope for an eyebrow to be raised, even by just a quarter of an inch.
In August 2019, she was informed that three Privy Counsellors were on their way to see her at her Balmoral summer retreat. They were led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, then leader of the Commons and they were coming to convene a Privy Council meeting in order to secure a suspension of parliament – a prorogation – for five weeks.
This was a very big deal, and way out of the normal run of government dealings with the head of state. Rees-Mogg was asking her to approve action specifically to cut short parliamentary debate in a manner that was bound to be highly controversial.
Officials sought legal advice on how to respond, and were assured that she would be acting properly in granting the prorogation. But the Supreme Court decided that she should not have been asked to take this step. Its ruling stated that:
“It is impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason – let alone a good reason – to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks . . . We cannot speculate, in the absence of further evidence, upon what such reasons might have been. It follows that the decision was unlawful”.
It’s very doubtful she could have done otherwise, given the Privy Council’s advice. But should it be for the courts, rather than the head of state, to check such behaviour?
Other constitutional stresses and strains were also becoming apparent towards the end of her reign. The consequences of Brexit. The impact of the pandemic, which had allowed government to assume powers that would have been unthinkable in peacetime. The weakening of the bonds that held the United Kingdom together.
Throughout her reign, the Queen went with the flow and accepted the advice of her prime ministers. In the modern world, it would have been all but impossible for a hereditary head of state to do otherwise.
But what happens if that advice can’t be trusted? As that grand old man William Gladstone had observed back in 1879, the British constitution “presumes more than any other the good sense and the good faith of those who work it”. The prorogation showed what can happen when those qualities are missing.
This episode was written by Richard Lambert, produced and sound designed by Oliver Sanders, and the executive producer was Jasper Corbett.
Photographs Getty Images, Shutterstock