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Constitutional Matters

( This article was published in 1995 )

Recent public debate on constitutional issues has covered a wider range of topics than perhaps ever in the history of the British Isles. Many of the points discussed are too complex for the type of quick analysis favoured by the news media, and lose clarity and understanding when explained in short soundbites, yet some of these are claimed to have been resolved by a general election that awarded the government of the United Kingdom to one of two parties offering only misleadingly oversimplified answers to the most serious questions asked by the public this century.

These serious questions included that of the role of the monarchy in the next century. This is not a simple issue to be dismissed quickly, for it impinges on the transfer of British sovereignty to Brussels, on the legislative power of the British Parliament, and on the irrevocable dissolution of the United Kingdom sought by some parliamentarians.

For the first View from Westminster column to be published in this electronic magazine format we dug into the files for an article written some years ago when the idea that Brussels might govern Britain was emerging as a potential threat, and when it seemed that many Britons might not understand fully just how their constitution works. We believe it worth reproducing because it explains how vital the monarchy is to the preservation of civil liberty, and how the British monarch protects the sovereignty of the British people.

AView from Westminster

The British Monarchy within a Federal Europe

1 ~ The system of government within the United Kingdom is normally described as Constitutional Monarchy. While technically accurate, this term ought perhaps to be replaced by the more precise and more readily understood Representative Monarchy.

The United Kingdom as a Sovereign State

2 ~ The basis of the British system of government is a closed loop:

  • the People are sovereign;
  • their sovereignty is represented by the Monarch whom they, the People, choose;
  • the Monarch, as head of the Government, oversees the work of the Government;
  • the Government governs the People.

(The Government thus governs the People with the consent of the People.)

3 ~ In addition to representing the People's sovereignty, the Monarch has other roles of a representative nature. The Monarch is:
  • the symbol of the nation's unity;
  • the commander in chief of the armed forces;
  • the leader of society;
  • the nation's host (to foreign heads of state and to Parliament);
  • the senior mortal in the established church (in England);
  • the source of justice;
  • the Fount of Honour;
  • and the nation's chief executive.

4 ~ The Monarch, as head of the Government, is responsible for the effective coordination of a triad: the legislature; the judiciary; the executive. The Monarch calls and dissolves Parliament, appoints and dismisses prime ministers - and in these four actions retains the freedom of choice necessary to protect the people the Monarch represents.
  • Legislation is thus the power of the Sovereign in Parliament.
  • The Monarch appoints the judges: and thus justice is the power of the Sovereign on the Bench.
  • All executive orders, whether civil or military, are given on behalf of the Monarch: thus executive power is the power delegated by the Sovereign in Council.
5 ~ The Monarch's office is authorised by the Act of Settlement 1701, which gave the descent of the Crown to the Protestant heirs general of Sophia, and the Monarch succeeds to the Crown at the moment the predecessor dies. However, the ratification of that succession which the Monarch's subsequent coronation signifies is not owed to the Act: it is the gift of the people the Monarch is to represent until death. At the coronation, the Sovereign is acclaimed as the choice of Parliament acting for the People, and the coronation oath, whose continuous history can be traced to the time of the Confessor, and whose development embraces the Magna Carta, confirms that the Sovereign's authority is itself subject to the Law (and thus all authority delegated from the Sovereign is subject to the Law).
6 ~ Without the Monarch, Parliament cannot legislate, for although the Royal Assent is given by the three Lords Commissioners for the Monarch, that Assent has first to be authorised by the Monarch. While it is true that the full authority of the Monarch as Sovereign may be attained only with the Three Estates of the Realm assembled in full Parliament, the Monarch will always retain the Royal Prerogatives: to dismiss the prime minister; and to dissolve the Parliament. We have a balance; we have a closed loop; we have a sovereign people. That is the situation today.

The United Kingdom within a United Europe

7 ~ That summation of the Monarch's role in British government highlights the difficulties of the United Kingdom attempting to enter a United States of Europe. It also identifies the key factor: the People. The Monarch is the manifestation of the People's sovereignty. If that sovereignty is surrendered, the Monarch's role as Sovereign is extinguished.

8 ~ It may be argued that no nation, no people, can retain full sovereignty in this modern world, for trade pacts and military alliances and international organisations whittle it away. To some extent that is true, but the liability for obligations created by trade and war and peace have always existed, and a sovereign people has always, at the last resort, been able to dishonour its obligations* or negotiate alternatives. But the total surrender of sovereignty is irreversible: a grant of independence later will not restore the status quo ante. In consequence, it is difficult to accept the full membership of the United Kingdom within a federal Europe as compatible with the maintenance of a Representative Monarchy.
9 ~ There are possibilities short of full political integration which will have to be examined. The Monarch may be retained by the British people to manifest the sovereignty the nation has retained, the remains of its independence - but in what way? The closed loop of People to Monarch to Government to People cannot be cut without damaging its logic; the balance of Sovereign and Parliament cannot be upset without the loss of the essential and treasured constitutional protection.

10 ~ And what possibilities are there which may fall just short of full political integration, and be viable? The triad of Parliament, the Executive and the Law cannot operate on margins. Parliament may accept some centralised rulings and pass them into law in the form of Acts after debate; the Executive may conform to centralised agreements consequent on the harmonisation negotiations; and the Law will enforce, according to its independent judgement, what Parliament has approved - but will the people of the United Kingdom accept the abolition of their distinctive English and Scottish legal systems, which full membership of a federal Europe will entail, and the substitution of a cocktail devised by committees whose majorities bow to laws and traditions whose origins are usually alien, occasionally incomprehensible?

11 ~ If the sovereign People decides, through the representatives in Parliament, that British Law is to be retained, the role of the Monarch as the Supreme Justice within the United Kingdom will become recognised as the greatest hurdle the federalists have to surmount. The relationships shared

  • by People and Monarch (Sovereignty),
  • by Monarch and Law (Justice), and
  • by Law and People (Liberty),

are not just a redundant element in the nation's ancient history: they have a continuing vitality which may prove incompatible with surrender.

* Reges pacem servant quando volunt - Princes observe treaties while they will. (John Major iii.6. ~ John Major the philosopher, of course, not John Major the recent British Prime Minister)

A View from Maastricht
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