For many families, sitting down as a family to watch the Queen’s Speech on the BBC is as much of a Christmas day ritual as heading to church, exchanging presents, or gorging on turkey and all the trimmings. As is traditional, the content of the monarch’s festive message will be an uncontroversial collage of best wishes and banalities, because, as Buckingham Palace insists, ‘the Sovereign must remain politically neutral.’
Officially, the UK has a Constitutional Monarchy; our unelected head of state is supposed to be an entirely neutral figurehead, without any influence over public policy and above the petty squabbles and daily battles of party politics. We are, it is said – by journalists, politicians and royal spin-doctors alike – an exemplary, modern democracy with a constitutional framework which limits the role and power of the monarch. But does this uncontested axiom of British public life stand up to scrutiny?
Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that senior Whitehall officials, fearing that Scotland was on the verge of voting Yes to self-governance, had successfully implored the Queen to intervene publicly for the first time in the Scottish independence referendum campaign. Downing Street, in panic mode after a last-minute poll suggested Scotland was narrowly intending to end the Union, sought to use the Queen as a pawn in a larger geopolitical game.
Just four days before Scots went to the polls on September 18th, the Queen attended church near her Balmoral estate, as she always does when in rural Aberdeenshire. However, in an unprecedented move, the Queen’s security and local police allowed journalists to get up close and personal with the monarch and the small crowd of well-wishers, rather than being forced to observe from a distance. The Queen, in another unprecedented move, approached the public instead of merely waving to them. As if on cue to this orchestrated set-up, one of her subjects unsurprisingly mentioned the imminent referendum, to which she replied pointedly: “Well, I hope people think very carefully about the future.” No translation was needed. The Queen had suggested to her Scottish subjects to vote No.
It was immediately obvious to the press that this had been planned. The Queen and her minders were well aware that she would inevitably be asked some kind of question about the referendum, to which she could respond with a statement tame enough to enable royal spokespersons to dismiss claims of political interference, but filled with enough foreboding and concern to hint heavily that the Queen was, as to be expected, a staunch Unionist. Even the resolutely pro-monarchy, anti-independence Telegraph admitted that her comments had finally ended the ‘charade of impartiality’ which surrounds her.
We will never know whether the Queen’s very public intervention was decisive in the determining the outcome of the referendum. In all likelihood, it was not. The apocalyptic warnings of economic collapse emanating from big businesses, also orchestrated by Downing Street, which reached a fever pitch in that final week of campaigning and had been sustained for almost the entirety of the two year campaign, had a much greater effect on the psyche of the average No voter. Nevertheless, what her comments did demonstrate does was that the Queen is a significant political player both capable and willing to dabble in the muddy waters of British politics. She is not the squeaky-clean, scrupulously impartial, constitutional monarch of school textbook folklore. Given several long-forgotten but highly significant events throughout her reign, it is somewhat baffling that our media and political class continue to regurgitate the myth that the Queen has impeccably observed her democratic and constitutional duty to political neutrality.
In May 1977, the Queen addressed both Houses of Parliament on the occasion of her Silver Jubilee. With demand rising in both Scotland and Wales for devolution, which would eventually come in the late 1990s, she infamously 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.” It was an unequivocal statement of her anti-independence, anti-devolution British nationalism.
In 1957, after the resignation of the Conservative Anthony Eden as Prime Minister, it was the Queen who decided that the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister would be Harold Macmillan. In 1963, after Macmillan himself resigned, it was again the Queen who chose the next head of government, appointing her childhood friend and unelected Tory peer Alec Douglas-Home. Remarkably, until the late 1960s, the leader of the Conservative Party and the country was the choice of our supposedly apolitical monarch. In 1974, after a hung parliament was the outcome of that year’s General Election, the Queen played a significant role in the negotiations between the parties, and her then preferences are often seen as having determined their outcome.
Since then, her influence may have been less direct and less brazen, but her weekly meetings with the Prime Minister are still an integral fixture of the rhythm of life at the summit of British politics and give her unparalleled, regular access to the most powerful person in the country. Both David Cameron and Tony Blair have both remarked how useful their found her ‘advice’. Notably, no Prime Minister, no matter how progressive their starting principles, large their parliamentary majority or cash-strapped their government, has moved against the royal family’s financial interests.
The Queen’s son, Prince Charles, despite not yet ascending to the throne, is even more meddlesome than his mother. The UK government and Buckingham Palace are currently fighting to keep secret dozens of letters – the so-called ‘black spider memos’ – written by the king-in-waiting to ministers. The Prince of Wales has been successfully imploring successive governments to change public policy on everything from architecture to genetically-modified crops for decades. This profoundly undemocratic behind-the-scenes lobbying by senior royals makes a mockery of their public commitment to political neutrality.
Make no mistake: the royal family is an immensely powerful, immensely political institution at the heart of British public life. Its presence and influence is deeply entrenched in Whitehall and Westminster. The political power which the monarchy has exercised, as detailed above, is simply the tip of the iceberg. What goes on behind closed doors, that which hasn’t been leaked into the public domain, is another matter entirely. Only recently the UK government granted the royal family a new, more extensive right to secrecy in its activities, finances and correspondence.
Every major political party, except the Greens, will go into the upcoming general election supporting the monarchy and leaving their vast inherited wealth and secret political power uncontested. They will continue to regurgitate, like our embarrassingly sycophantic media, the same tired old lie that ours is a constitutional monarchy fit for the 21st century. For all those who believe in transparency, meritocracy and democracy, that is deeply troubling.
By David Kelly