Conference: the right decision even if it’s a regrettable one

I very much share everyone’s upset and frustration about the cancellation of our Autumn Conference. I’m set to lose a great deal of money on my non-refundable, fully-paid in advance hotel booking, and I’ve spent many hours and a great deal of angst on a speech that I’m not going to deliver. And, above all, I very much wanted to attend conference in person for the first time since my re-election in 2019 – now nearly three years ago!

But I fully support the decision. The death of her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II last Thursday isn’t just the death of an individual. We haven’t cancelled conference just out of deference to the feelings of her family, or the many other people up and down the country who feel a personal sense of loss. This is the death of a Head of State, which demands a different level of response. It’s right that as a party, we respond at an institutional level, and pay respects to the long years of service Her Majesty gave to this country.

But more importantly than that, this is a period in which the powers of the Head of State transfer from one person another, and it’s a sensitive constitutional moment. Even more so, because it hasn’t happened in this country in most people’s memory. Of the six former prime ministers present at the Accession Council on Saturday, only one of them – John Major – would have had any memory of the previous accession, and even he was only nine years old at the time.

It is of the utmost importance for the stability of the nation that the handover of power from one Head of State to the next is not disrupted. The strength of the constitutional monarchy under which the United Kingdom is governed is that the succession is clear – we’ve all of us known for all of our lives that the throne would pass to King Charles III when his mother died. Our new king becomes the head of the four nations of the United Kingdom, as well as the Head of State in 15 other countries around the world. He becomes the Head of the Church of England, the Head of the Armed Forces and the person in whose name all legislation is passed and justice is delivered. The transfer of these roles and responsibilities is not just automatic – there are processes and ceremonies to undertake. King Charles III will be travelling to all four nations of the UK this week, for example, and proclamations have had to be made in all parts of the country and the Commonwealth.

These formalities take place within the fixed time frame of the period of mourning, between the death and the funeral. It’s important that nothing is seen to challenge the legitimacy of the new Head of State in that time, so that the process isn’t disrupted. Our system works because we divide up the functions of an elected Head of Government and a non-elected Head of State. The political neutrality of our Head of State is fundamental to ensuring that this works, so the transfer of power between Heads of State cannot be influenced by politics. Any suggestion of political influence during the transfer would undermine the legitimacy of the Head of State. That’s why it’s necessary to suspend political campaigning during this short period.

I’m not arguing that this is an ideal model – I know there are many members who would argue for an alternative to the monarchy (I understand an argument for this was forcefully put during our 1994 conference by a keen Young Liberal!). But, at this very moment, when the transfer needs to take place, this is the model we have.

Cancelling conference isn’t about being sensitive to people’s feelings or worrying about our critics in the press. It’s about taking our constitutional responsibilities as an opposition party seriously, and being seen to visibly and formally accept those responsibilities as part of the national movement to ensure a peaceful transfer between Heads of State. We only need to look at the recent events in the United States to know that we can never take a peaceful transfer of power for granted.

We are tremendously fortunate that we live in a country where a transfer of power is pretty much a formality, but it relies on everyone respecting the role they have to play in it.

* Sarah Olney is the MP for Richmond Park. She joined the Liberal Democrats in 2015 and won a spectacular victory in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. She lost the seat by a heartbreaking 45 votes in the 2017 General Election, but then regained it resoundingly at the 2019 General Election.

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8 Comments

  • Chloe Stephen 12th Sep '22 - 11:01am

    I am concerned by this decision. We live in a country with an unelected House of Lords, an unelected Prime Minister and an unelected Head of State. We should not be cancelling the democratic parts of our society out of deference to the transfer of power from one unelected Head of State to another.

  • Steve Trevethan 12th Sep '22 - 11:36am

    Is it wise, at a time which is a “sensitive constitutional moment”, to remove democratic aspects of our society to accommodate its feudal aspects?

  • Well said, Chloe.

  • George Thomas 12th Sep '22 - 2:54pm

    On the 1st of September Andy Boddington wrote,

    “But the Commons will only sit for 14 days from the end of the summer recess before it takes a month’s break for the party conferences. Some of the conferences. MPs will sit for two days during the Lib Dem conference.

    The summer recess lasted for 53 days. Nearly two months at a time of growing national crisis, around 30 sitting days….

    MPs could sit for 11 additional days in between the party conferences, three more if parliament sits on a Saturday. We should be calling for that.”

    I can’t imagine too much getting done before the 20th if we’re in this extended period of mourning but then we’ll have had 5(?) days of Commons activity since 7th of July all while things become more and more desperate. The House isn’t due to return until 17th of October by which points things could look even more desperate again.

    I am understanding of need to explain decision regarding conference but what’s going on with push to ensure Commons sits between conference dates rather than breaks up fully?

  • Jason Connor 12th Sep '22 - 3:42pm

    Well said Sarah, spot on and you get my full support. The governing party is elected and by rights their members, not MPs can choose the PM. It is not a democratic system as we don’t have PR. But that’s a different matter to how leaders of parties and consequently the PM as the leader of the governing party are elected.

  • Trevor Peel 13th Sep '22 - 9:31am

    I agree with Sarah Olney – the party has made the right decision

  • Pieter-Paul Barker 13th Sep '22 - 10:44am

    Not sure why this is being framed in such black and white terms. It is the complete cancellation of conference, rather than rescheduling, that is the bad decision. All other party conferences are going ahead. Extending the spring conference is not the answer, it falls in the middle of a very large set of local election campaigns.

  • We cannot cancell the hotel, but after reading terms and conditions it says we can stay and then cancel future nights. So a 2 night in Brighton and then declare a family emergency.

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