Thursday, May 26

Why is parliament still forbidding itself from talking about the monarchy? | martin teapot

WWith Boris Johnson reeling, the House of Commons was a stormy place for questions from the Prime Minister last Wednesday. The impact on the prime minister’s fate was closely scrutinized. As a result, a separate exchange during that session has received less attention than it deserves.

In one of his questions, Keir Starmer started talking about the contrast, widely highlighted in the media beforehand, between the Queen sitting alone, obeying the Covid rules at her husband’s funeral, and the No 10 staff ignoring the rules while partying with colleagues the night before. .

You might think that this is a reasonable point for a parliamentarian. But not. Because at this point the speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, intervened and told parliamentarians:: “Normally we would not mention, and rightly so, the royal family. We don’t get into discussions about the royal family.” Reprimanded, Starmer moved on to his next question.

Why did the Speaker do this? Why don’t “we”, the House of Commons, normally mention the royal family? And why is this moderation, in the opinion of the Speaker, apparently “quite correct”? Here, surely, is a conversation that this country should have. The convention is dubious, absurd, and not a little hypocritical. It is ripe for reform.

We should be clear. What the Speaker told Starmer last week was not an idiosyncratic statement. His intervention was institutional, not personal. He was reaffirming established practice as set forth in the Commons procedural bible, May Erskine. Hoyle was also saying exactly what three former Westminster staffers had told me a few days earlier that he would say if an MP ever tried to ask a question about the monarch or the royal family, or specifically questioned Prince Andrew’s behavior and official position. , the Duke of York.

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Erskine May is an accumulation of evolution and procedural convention, not a law book. It states that using the Queen’s name to influence a decision is “unconstitutional in principle and incompatible with the independence of parliament.” The rule extends to the mention of other members of the royal family as well. If a royal has expressed an opinion, as Prince Charles has often done, then comment is allowed “in the proper terms”, but as the Spokesman showed last week, boundaries are carefully watched.

The ostensible justification for what the Speaker said was that questions to ministers can only refer to matters of ministerial responsibility. Since no ministers answer to parliament for the royal family, the topic is off limits. And yet, it was not always so. In 1809, before Erskine May was codified, the House of Commons carried out an investigation in the conduct of another Duke of York, who resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the Army as a result.

Nor does it mean, even in 2021, that no minister has responsibility for the royal family. Because they do. In reality, the Prime Minister has that role as the Queen’s chief adviser (possibly the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also have responsibilities). The Prime Minister advises the Queen on all sorts of issues, including the royal family itself, and ultimately he or she will advise her on her own conduct.

Examples in fairly recent times range from what remains the most dramatic of all, the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, through Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend in the 1950s, royal divorces in the late 20th century, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and whether Prince Charles should marry Camilla Parker Bowles. Prime ministers have been involved in advising on all of these cases. In one or two cases, they have even given brief statements to the Commons about them.

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Indeed, it’s a fair bet that Johnson has advised the Queen on both the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s retirement from public life in 2020 and handling of Prince Andrew’s position on the Virginia Giuffre case in recent years. weeks. It is strange but true that it is likely that the partying prime minister has given his advice, or that the Palace has sought his advice, on whether the partying prince should be stripped of his honours.

However, why not? Andrew’s conduct risks damaging the reputation of the royal family and the constitutional monarchy, and thus Britain’s position. A prime minister should be worried about that. Then, with the same criteria, should parliamentarians. Therefore, they should be able to ask the prime minister about his role and advice, and express their own views. These are, after all, matters of public interest as well as matters of interest to the public.

All of this raises a much larger question for British democracy. Being a constitutional monarchy -and proud of it, in most cases- how can it be that our parliament is gagged -and gagged- for talking about how that constitutional monarchy really works? The effect is smug self-censorship.

A lot of this is about deference to the 95-year-old queen, who is highly respected. However, once the Queen dies, the same deference may not go smoothly. It can even disappear. The idea that in the “new” monarchy, after the Queen’s death, the public will continue to feel compelled to talk about the royal family in the same way is probably false.

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We should all, including parliament, prepare to have these more open talks. We are adults, entitled to discuss the kind of constitutional monarchy we live under, entitled to discuss what it represents (particularly in terms of established religion), and who is and who is not part of it. This happens in other monarchies, but not in ours. It should start here, too, and now, because decisions about the scaled-down company that Princes Charles and William are reportedly planning will, in many cases, already have been made.

Even if Charles were to announce such changes at the time of his accession, the Speaker would still likely caution that MPs cannot express their views. This is a bullshit. The Speaker is wrong. It is time for parliament to stand up for itself. It is time for party leaders and top MPs, the likes of Peter Bottomley, Harriet Harman, David Davis and Joanna Cherry, to get together and find a way to let in the sunlight.

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