A powerful drama that must not become reality

 

Many of you will have seem the recent television adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s play, King Charles III.

Beautifully and movingly written, in Shakespearean style blank verse, the play is set in the near future, when “King Charles III” has just inherited the throne.

Charles is asked to sign a piece of legislation that would severely limit the freedom of the press. He refuses to do so. He is portrayed as principled and conflicted. He has no wish to cause a constitutional crisis. His conscience just will not allow him to sign.

When Parliament plan to proceed with the legislation anyway, Charles uses his legal right to dissolve Parliament.

I will not give away any “spoilers” about how this fictional situation is resolved. But the play made me wonder how likely it is that such a situation could occur in real life. The worrying fact is that it is quite possible. I am not suggesting that Prince Charles, when he becomes king, would ever behave like his fictional counterpart in this play. But unless the rules are changed, some future monarch could easily do so.

Most people probably assume that these days the monarch has no real political power. But the reality is that legally, they still have great power. The monarch does still have to give consent before any legislation can become law, and does have the legal right to dissolve Parliament. In practice, there is an understanding that the monarch never uses this power. Consent is given automatically to all legislation, and the monarch only dissolves Parliament at the request of the Prime Minister. But this situation depends on an agreement, which all recent monarchs have kept, but which could not be legally enforced if a future monarch decided to rebel.

The fictional “King Charles III” is objecting to a piece of legislation that most liberals would also strongly object to. But I am sure most liberals would agree that it would be unacceptable for legislation that has been passed by Parliament, to be blocked by someone who is unelected, and whose power is hereditary. So long as such a veto potentially exists, we do not have a true democracy.

Such a situation arose in Belgium in 1990, when the King said that he felt that, as a Catholic, he could not sign legislation legalising abortion. Parliament declared him “unable to rule”, and took over his powers for one day – something that the Belgian constitution allows, although it was originally intended for situations such as the monarch being unable to rule due to illness. Once the legislation was signed, his powers were returned.

Perhaps the British Parliament could be given a similar right to temporarily take over the power of the monarch in such a case. But it would surely be better if legislation no longer required the royal assent, and if the monarch no longer had any role, even a ceremonial one, in dissolving Parliament.

The present queen must have often signed legislation with which she has strongly disagreed. She would, of course, whatever her own personal view, agree to sign legislation that would mean that she and her heirs would never be required to do so again. She would know that it was nothing personal, as she has always behaved impeccably. Let us not delay change until we have a monarch who might refuse.

* Catherine Crosland is a member in Calderdale and joined the party in 2014

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35 Comments

  • Ciaran Goggins 17th Jul '17 - 3:03pm

    Might be an idea to get a Constitution before attempting the hurdle of what is, in essence, a toothless institution such as the monarchy.

  • This hypothetical is far less concerning than Parliament’s ability — used several times in the past — to cancel elections and unilaterally extend the terms of MPs.

  • Tristan Ward 17th Jul '17 - 4:14pm

    In the scenario given, I would be in King Charles’ corner, supporting him in upholding the freedom of the press, which after all is far more important than “democracy” in ensuring that power is exposed and kept accountable.

    If there were a written constitution someone or something would have to be responsible for upholding it. There will always be a problem when that person or thing either becomes corrupt or decides that (its view of) the constitution diverges from what the majority wants.

  • Laurence Cox 17th Jul '17 - 5:11pm

    The last time that a British monarch refused to give the Royal Assent to a Bill in the Houses of Parliament was in 1708 (Queen Anne refused to assent to the Scottish Militia Bill).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Militia_Bill

    @Tristran Ward
    The US constitution allows impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanours”. Presumably, if we had a written constitution it would contain a similar clause.

  • Bill le Breton 17th Jul '17 - 5:25pm

    This play was a mystery to me.

    A Prime Minister brought forward a Bill to gag the press. The Monarch resisted and was driven eventually to dissolve Parliament. Throughout, the Press sided with the PM against freedom of the press.

    Perhaps the use of blank verse was so effective that this inconsistency went unnoticed.

  • One excellent way to allienate the majority of the British Public is to be perceived as anti-Monarchy. Whatever the intentions it will be counterproductive.

    It would also be a little hypocritical as unelected Lib Dem Lords will, no doubt, be trying to thwart the will of the elected House during this Parliament (on issues I suspect I will agree with entirely).

    I’m a Monarchist, I accept the institution is a throw back but I prefer it to either powerful elected Presidents (Trump!!) or toothless figureheads such as the Irish system. Any Monarch taking the course of action as portrayed in the play would be sealing the end of the institution so I believe that the argument is to worth having especially at a time when the Party has such a weak following…

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 18th Jul '17 - 7:55am

    Tristan Ward, It is true that most liberals would agree with “King Charles III” in being strongly opposed to the legislation that is being proposed in the play, that would severely limit the power of the press. But that does not mean that the fictional King Charles is right to behave in the way that he does.
    I think most of us would be able to sympathise with the situation of a monarch who felt that their conscience would not allow them to sign a particular piece of legislation. But surely the only honourable course of action for a monarch in such a situation would be to abdicate. “King Charles III” surely loses the sympathy of most of the audience when he instead dissolves Parliament. His actions thereby become a greater threat to democracy and freedom than the legislation he is trying to prevent. After all, if Charles had just signed the legislation, the electorate could, at the next election, have voted for a different government, which would have reversed the legislation.
    It cannot be acceptable in a democracy for one unelected individual to have the power to prevent legislation that has been passed by a democratically elected Parliament.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 18th Jul '17 - 8:16am

    Bill Le Breton, You raise an interesting question. In real life, I expect the more conservative sections of the press might well support “King Charles III”‘s actions. The more progressive sections of the press would be in a dilemma. They would of course be strongly opposed to the legislation. But would they really support a hereditary monarch having the power to block legislation and dissolve Parliament?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 18th Jul '17 - 8:29am

    Steve Way, It is true that a majority of the population at present wish to keep the monarchy. But they want to keep the monarchy the way it has, in practice, been for more than two centuries – a monarchy with a merely ceremonial role, and no real power. My article is not intended to attack the monarchy, but merely to point out that the monarchy does, legally, still have a great deal of legal power, even though recent monarchs have chosen not to use it. This is a constitutional crisis waiting to happen, and we should not be afraid of discussing reforms that would make such a crisis impossible.

  • Throughout, the Press sided with the PM against freedom of the press

    That’s not implausible: certainly some newspapers have consistently agitated against freedom of the press during the drawn-out Leveson process.

    There would likely be some holdouts, but it’s clear that certain sections of the press are all for restrictions on the freedom of the press (perhaps they think that such restrictions would only ever be used against the ‘bad’ press, not them?).

  • I think we can all agree that having a hereditary monarch with real power is a bad thing, but I don’t subscribe to the recent fashion to laud direct democracy. I believe that in order to make good and fair decisions it is necessary to talk to all parties involved in that decision. Democracy allows people to have a say on issues that don’t affect them and that they know absolutely nothing about.

    I wouldn’t mind reforming the monarchy so that they become members of the Lords with the head of state elected by the Lords.

  • Simon McGrath 18th Jul '17 - 1:37pm

    @dav “That’s not implausible: certainly some newspapers have consistently agitated against freedom of the press during the drawn-out Leveson process.”
    Which ones – the ones I saw were all against the Leveson proposals for a state apointed body to licence the press

  • Tristan Ward 18th Jul '17 - 3:04pm

    @Catherine,

    I applaud your sense of logic and principle, but personally I would rather live in a society where the press is free (with the exception of the Daily Mail’s hypocracy) than have one where there is no check on a legislature bringing in illiberal laws. The problem your argument does not acknowledge is that the principles of democracy and liberalism can collide such that the democratic imperative is not the democratic one.

    The major point I was making is that there is no fail-safe solution to this problem. The constitution (which I agree is better written than unwritten) has to be interpreted by someone, and protected by someone. The protectors (and liberalism) are always vulnerable to the argument that you are making, which is – the people have said so – they must be right. That is the cry of the Bandar-log.(*)

    Let’s change the scenario. Would you support Charles III vetoing a parliament that (say) :

    I) makes it illegal to practise homosexuality;
    ii) abolished the law that makes it mandatory to hold an election at least once every 5 years;
    iii) makes it a criminal offence for individuals to criticise the government?

    (*) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bandar-log

    http://www.bartleby.com/364/303.html

  • @Catherine
    Which is why I said “perceived”. Any perceived attack on the Monarchy will further harm the chance of getting a Liberal voice in Government. And the right wing press and Tory party would jump on this to feed that perception…

  • David Allen 18th Jul '17 - 4:43pm

    The play is perhaps an unhelpful dramatic contrivance. Obviously it creates a more intriguing dilemma if the power-grabbing monarch appears to be acting from good motives, such as defending press freedom, rather than bad motives, such as dictating architectural styles and much else. However, what we do know is that our Queen keeps strictly out of power-grabbing, but her designated successor does not. I don’t agree that it would be unpopular to introduce reforms which ensured that future monarchs behaved as well as the Queen does, and kept out of power-grabbing.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 18th Jul '17 - 5:20pm

    Steve Way, I think most people would realise that the sort of reforms I suggest in the article are not an attack on the monarchy.
    Actually I feel that the British people are far less pro monarchy than they were say, forty years ago at the time of the queen’s silver jubilee. Criticism of individual members of the royal family, and of the institution itself, is seen as acceptable in a way that would not have been the case a generation ago.
    It is true that many people – almost certainly a majority – want to keep the monarchy, but that is usually just because they see it as a link with our history and traditions that it would be a pity to lose altogether. Very few people would wish the monarch to have any real power. I think most people would accept that it is not necessary or desirable for the monarch to have to give assent to legislation.
    I don’t think we should be afraid to debate reforms to the monarchy, and indeed whether the monarchy can have any place in a modern democracy.

  • Tristan Ward 18th Jul '17 - 6:56pm

    The problem is nicely summed up in the following extract form the Party’s constitution:

    “We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely. We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people.”

    Since Liberal Democrats will at all times defend the right to speak/write freely, it seems odd to cave in to an attack on that freedom without a fight – even where the agent defending the right to speak/write freely is archaic.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 18th Jul '17 - 8:53pm

    Tristan Ward, Mike Bartlett shows his “King Charles III” trying to block legislation that would limit the freedom of the press, because this is an issue on which the audience will be likely to sympathise with Charles’ view. But in reality, a future monarch could just as easily try to block progressive legislation that liberals would support.

  • Tristan Ward 18th Jul '17 - 11:23pm

    Catherine

    I think Bartley shows the monarch protecting freedom of the press because this is an important principle that needs to be defended on a liberal democracy where it is generally accepted that parliament’s exercise of its power needs to be examined and challenged.

    I would also please be interested to see your thoughts on the three scenarios posited in my post at 3.04pm. At the moment I think your view is that as things stand today, such legislation should be waved through both by the monarch and the House of Lords just because the elected house has proposed the legislation. In other words there would be no check on elected power.

    I should be clear: I do not think that monarchy is a sufficient check on the executive/legislature and should a monarch exercise his or her powers in a regressive way I will be in your corner objecting like mad. But in the absence of anything better I think it would be pretty silly not to support a monarch exercising his/her power to protect liberal principles merely because s/he is hereditary. We have to make do with what we have.

    I am also suspicious of “democracy” as a justification. It’s a motherhood and apple pie concept, hard to object to. But the tyranny of the majority is just as bad as any other kind of tyranny if you are one of the minority, and exactly the kind of oppression by conformity our party exists to prevent.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 19th Jul '17 - 7:18am

    Tristan Ward, Actually I find it very hard to imagine that Parliament ever would pass the sort of legislation that you mention in your post at 3.04 pm yesterday. But if it did so, then of course I would sympathise if “King Charles III” refused to sign such legislation. But I feel that the more honourable course for him to take would be to abdicate, and make a powerful and passionate speech explaining why.
    There do need to be “checks and balances” on Parliament. But it cannot be democratic for the main “check” on Parliament to be an unelected, hereditary monarch.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 19th Jul '17 - 7:26am

    Tristan Ward, A better check on Parliament would be from a reformed, elected Second Chamber, and we should campaign for this. But there cannot be any political role for an unelected, hereditary monarch in a modern democracy.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Jul '17 - 8:50am

    You’re wrong on one point: the monarch lost the right to dissolve parliament when the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was passed.

  • Could somebody please explain why our Majestic and most elevated public sector worker got a £ 6 million pay rise last year when there was a 1% cap in place ?

    Was it because her mother left behind £ 7 million of debt on her demise some years ago ?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jul '17 - 9:51am

    This is , as we have come to expect, common sense and conviction from Catherine Jane .

    I have over the years moved from tremendous respect for the Queen, but a feeling in my youth that the monarchy is an institution that should possibly be phased out. To a view in favour of a Constitutional Monarchy , no , in favour of ours , for there is the reason. I think the actual individuals at the head and , in waiting, are excellent, and it’s whole set up designed for it to be , training since birth.

    I once came up with the idea of a presidency that would begin with Charles , being elected unopposed, once the Queen passed on, and ending one system , beginning another, with subsequent elections after his retirement, being contested.

    I went off the , rather original idea, because by the time Thatcher had consolidated her divisive period and style, I came to see the entire Royal panoply as a delight of moderation and public service.

    The current generation of younger members, are outstanding people, serving in military and charity, in times with the exposure and glare pretty awful.

    But reform of the seemingly political and potentially controversial aspects of the role might be good, making it a functional monarchy totally ceremonial, not other than this.

    But the scenario n in the play would not cause the problems feared, the abdication of Edward vii showed the powers that be and monarchy would more than muddle through, they would do the right thing.

    As far as David Raw, amidst the sarcasm, has made a point , not against the increased funding of the institution, rather against austerity continuing. Our Head of State , not the individual only but the whole package , is one of the least expensive on earth .

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jul '17 - 5:13pm

    I meant Edward V111 !

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 19th Jul '17 - 6:29pm

    Lorenzo, Thank you for your comments. Although this goes rather beyond the scope of my article, my own feeling is that it would not be appropriate for the monarchy to continue much longer. Even with the reforms that I suggest in the article, a hereditary head of state just doesn’t seem compatible with democracy.
    We cannot continue with the monarchy just because the particular individuals are likable people who do a good job. Indeed, wouldn’t it be better to end the monarchy amicably, while it is still popular, rather than waiting for some point in the future when there is an unpopular monarch, and it all ends with acrimony and bitterness? As with many things, perhaps it would be good to stop when we feel that we would quite like more!
    Like you, I have given some thought to how there could be a phased in abolition of the monarchy. I’m sure very few people would wish to see the queen turned off the throne now, in her nineties. And it wouldn’t seem quite fair for Prince Charles not to have his turn at being king, when he has spent a lifetime preparing for the role. My own feeling is that the ideal plan would be for it to be amicably agreed now that the monarchy will continue for the lifetimes of the Queen and Prince Charles, but that after Charles, the monarchy will end. After all, Prince Harry recently said that none of the younger members of the family actually want the job of monarch. Prince William has not spent his life preparing for the role in the way his father did. He has a career of his own. If this was agreed now, then Prince George would never have any expectation of being king, and would be able to prepare from the start for an “ordinary” life.
    All members of the royal family now living could be given pensions for life as compensation, and could even keep their titles, although they could not pass them on.
    But of course all this could only happen if the public agreed to the plan – probably through a referendum.

  • @ Lorenzo “As far as David Raw, amidst the sarcasm, has made a point”.

    What’s sarcastic about it ? It’s a perfectly valid point of view about a constitutional situation I was never asked to vote for and is not ‘enjoyed’ in most parts of Europe these days. Whatever happened to the King of Italy ? Do you want him back ? The Germans certainly don’t want the Hohenzollern relatives of the Windsors back and I’m sure Macron would be peeved if the Bourbons attempted a come back.

    It’s also a comment well in line with much Liberal opinion when the party was in power back in CB and Sqiff’s days. Don’t you remember Lloyd George saying a fully equipped Duke cost more to run than a Dreadnought – much to the displeasure of King Edward V11 of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha ?

    It’s not just that, Lorenzo, it’s all the Lord Lieutenants etc., and the brown nosing that goes on to get a gong. Sounds like Prince Harry isn’t too keen to carry on either. One thing I will admit………….. unlikely we’ll ever get rid of them unless they decide to walk – and of course the press have a vested interest in hanging on to them.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jul '17 - 8:06pm

    Catherine , David
    I respect your view though don’t agree .

    Catherine expresses the same view as David, yet with different manner and attitude. Sorry ,but my idea of sarcasm is to describe the Queen as David regularly does, until the horrors recently , where he praised her , there was always something about her being ninety, or irrelevant , admitedly as is his style, it was humorous. Admit that and I shall not continue thinking of the tone as that, inconsistent in the same subject , Sir Vince ‘s age , is always brought up as an outrageous ageism against him.

    On both expressed views, again Catherine has the advantage. It is precisely the example of Italy and the history David refers to, confirms me in this country as a moderate Constitutional Monarchist, not a Royalist, the difference is important.Italy ‘s greatest cultural hero , Verdi, a Liberal, and republican at heart, accepted the constitutional monarchy as a model.

    And who destroyed the monarchy, got rid of it ? The Duce , who my father, who wasnamed after the King, Umberto, was forced to salute ! Italy replaced it only for dictatorship. Spain did the reverse . Only the acceptance of Juan Carlos put a complete end to the wretched Franco’s ilk. See the support for the present king too.

    I would have been no Royalist in the Civil War, but to keep freedom of any type whatsoever , then, even merely lifestyle ones, music, theatre and dance, would have supported Charles 1 before Cromwell who ended all of them and destroyed our cultural heritage and would know fun if it appeared as Falstaff ! That has nothing much to do with now , other than , notice after the Great Dictator, sorry, Lord Protector, Cromwell, Charles 11 was a breath of fresh air and the choice most favoured .

    Constitutional Monarchism is a support for a system, of checks and balances , based on a one off acceptance of an odd notion that works, we as a nation like and continue with.
    Royalism is fandom.

    Think of it as with my best analogy.

    The local dairy farm provides the products we like . Well respected for generations in the same family. Good value, friendly , old fashioned but up to date, even organic products with a percentage to charity. They do good work in the community. Try as they may, no other gets the job done with the level of support of the family firm. Why force a change?

  • No Malcolm Todd you are wrong. The dissolution of parliament is still a matter for the monarch. What changed was the Prime Minister’s ability to ask for an election at a time which suited him/her best. Now the election called by the monarch every five years unless the HoC votes by a two thirds majority to have the election earlier – as happened in 2017. I am not at all sure what the position would be if the monarch dissolved parliament at another time. I don’t believe the act covered that.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 20th Jul '17 - 8:19am

    David Raw, In response to your comment about the Queen’s “pay rise” – I think, if we do continue to have a monarchy, we need to move towards the royal family having a much more “ordinary” lifestyle, as seems to be the case with the Scandinavian royal families.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 20th Jul '17 - 8:32am

    Lorenzo, I’m sure no-one would want to force the local “dairy farm” to change. But then, the people of the area could choose whether or not they wanted to buy dairy products from the farm. They would not be paying for the dairy farm from their taxes. They would not be expected to call the dairy farmer and their family “sir” or “Mam”, or bow or curtsy when they met them. The dairy farmer probably would not have a much more privileged lifestyle than most of the other people of the area.
    And the eldest child of the dairy farmer presumably would not be told from childhood that it was their destiny to be a dairy farmer, and they had no choice in the matter – We do need to ask ourselves if it is quite fair that Prince George should be the only child in Britain not to be given a choice in what he wants to do when he grows up.

  • The poor child should also have a choice of clothing too instead of being dressed like a 1920’s Christopher Robin in short trousers.

    Whether he’ll ever get to Hetton-le-Hole to meet his distant Middleton cousin who owns a fish and chip shop remains to be seen. It would do him good to get to the Stadium of Light in a pair of jeans to watch the Mackems try to get back in the Premier League.

  • jayne Mansfield 20th Jul '17 - 9:44am

    I am unsure why if one wants a Monarchy one needs to have a ‘royal family’.

    I am increasingly uncertain that the popularity of the monarchy and personal respect for the Queen, translates into respect for her large family, or popular support for them to have any access to public funding.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Jul '17 - 10:05am

    Mick Taylor.

    Nope, I’m right. I don’t know what you’re basing your claim on, but the wording of the FTPA is quite clear. Of particular relevance is section 3:

    “3Dissolution of Parliament

    (1) The Parliament then in existence dissolves at the beginning of the 17th working day before the polling day for the next parliamentary general election as determined under section 1 or appointed under section 2(7).

    (2) Parliament cannot otherwise be dissolved.

    From this it is clear that the monarch no longer has the power to dissolve parliament.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Jul '17 - 10:07am

    @ Catherine Jane Crossland

    “And it wouldn’t seem quite fair for Prince Charles not to have his turn at being king, when he has spent a lifetime preparing for the role.”

    Poor dear! My heart bleeds for him! Given his tendency to interfere in political matters I do wonder if that is a reaon why Brenda hasn’t abdicated….

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