The transfer of power

I am not a historian nor a constitutional expert but I was always a bit smug about the way the transfer of power happens in the UK. The evidence from the USA demonstrates that even in long established democracies the handover period can be fraught with danger. In comparison the changes from one Prime Minister to another, and from one Monarch to another, seem pretty seamless here.

The events of the last week have shown me that the processes are not as seamless as I had imagined. On Tuesday, for a short period between the visits of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, full constitutional power lay in the hands of the Queen. We were dependent on her acting in the interests of democracy and the country, which of course she did. Two days later we realised just how risky that short period had been. Although unlikely, malign interventions, or indeed death, could have thrown the process into unplanned chaos.

And then we lost her. Charles was immediately hailed as King and we all assumed that the powers that come with monarchy had transitioned smoothly at that point. But in fact there was an awkward wait until the Accession Council on Saturday, which showed that was not the case.  In Part 1 of the meeting the Council proclaimed Charles as King, without him present – this was the acceptance of him as King by the people. In Part 2, the King held his first Council during which he had to assent to a long list of Orders of Council put to him by the Lord President of the Privy Council, and then take an oath to formally recognise the status of the Church of Scotland.

Is there anyone still alive today who attended the last Accession Council in 1952, or even remembers what it was about? It was held in private and probably did not register in the minds of most citizens at the time. For some historians it has always been a matter of deep interest, but I imagine most of us were simply unaware of its complexities and risks.

Maybe you all knew that already and I am just showing my ignorance. But I think not, as judged by the many comments on social media deploring the ban on political activity until after the Queen’s funeral. At first I too thought it was excessively restrictive, and I fussed about the piles of undelivered Focusses sitting in my home and the dilemmas for people fighting by-elections this week, not to mention the cancellation of Conference. I too thought it was all about showing respect for Queen Elizabeth during a period of mourning, and I sympathised with the view that she would have wanted democratic practices to continue. But the events on Saturday were a revelation and changed my mind.

It doesn’t stop with the Accession Council either, as the King will spend this week visiting the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These are not just social visits but include essential constitutional acts that ensure the continuity of the United Kingdom.

Sarah Olney’s post earlier today laid out the reasons why political activity is curtailed during the crucial period between the death of a Monarch and the funeral. She refers to it as a “sensitive constitutional moment”.

Those of us who watch too many adventure movies could imagine any number of scenarios that could interrupt that moment. How many of you, seeing that gathering of Royalty and Government in St James Palace, briefly speculated on what would happen if they were all wiped out by terrorist activity? Or, less dramatically, what if some of the politicians took advantage of the period to plot against the Prime Minister and destabilise Government? In spite of all the restrictions and prescriptions during this time ultimately the continuance of good Government depends on the good will of all the participants and their fundamental commitment to democracy.  That, I’m afraid, can never be guaranteed. Many years of stability have led us to assume that things could not be different, but they could.

Pausing all political activity during this period greatly reduces the chances of disruption to the crucial, constitutional processes. We can’t be selective about which political activity should be stopped and which can be allowed. The word is “all”. And that is why, here on Lib Dem Voice, we are pre-moderating comments and not allowing any which have political content, however much we may agree with it.

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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6 Comments

  • Laurence Cox 12th Sep '22 - 4:20pm

    Up to the beginning of the 18th Century, the death of the Monarch (apart from Charles I, obviously) did indeed trigger an immediate General Election, but it was recognised that the period without Parliament and no obvious successor (this was before Walpole as the first Prime Minister and IIRC George I was something like 51st in line to the throne – but the first Protestant) left the country vulnerable to being invaded by James II or one of his descendants. So, the first change was that Parliament should continue to sit for six months after the death of the Monarch, before a General Election took place. The last General Election caused by the death of the Monarch was in 1837. Thirty years later, the process was changed to what exists today, where the death of the Monarch no longer triggers a General Election, although some of us might like it if it still did.

  • Charles III was King from the moment the Queen died. Constitutionally there is absolutely no doubt about that. There have been a series of endorsements and proclamations – these have a long history and are there to demonstrate that everyone knows that there is a new monarch and knows exactly who they are. Before we had instant rolling 24-hour news, television, social media or even newspapers, this was essential to ensure that the news was spread and accepted throughout the country. Hundred of years ago there would even be a solemn (and slow) progress around the country so that the new monarch could literally be seen and recognised by their subjects.

    None of the ceremonies that have taken place alter the basic fact that there was no gap in the transition of power. If there had been any sort of emergency that required the intervention of the monarch, Charles would have had full power and authority to act from the moment his mother died.

    Our historical tradition is wonderful, and it is fascinating to see how smoothly it all slips into gear. Constables and Heralds and Gold Sticks and Pursuivants simply appear, fulfilling their ancient roles, as if they have all simply been waiting for the moment. Which, of course, in a sense they have (though they all have ‘day jobs’ as well). And perhaps, in these days of fake news and viral conspiracy theories, it is again useful to be able to see it all happening – albeit for most of us via the TV screen.

  • George Thomas 13th Sep '22 - 7:36am

    “Pausing all political activity during this period greatly reduces the chances of disruption to the crucial, constitutional processes. We can’t be selective about which political activity should be stopped and which can be allowed.”

    I respect this position but hope you can at least see that it’s come at the worst possible time: from an extensive Tory leadership contest to extended period of mourning to Autumn Conference season all while ordinary people see their lives get more and more difficult.

  • Gwyn Williams 13th Sep '22 - 11:27am

    I agree @Mary Reid. There is a need to pause and reflect. However already the new King is breaking with tradition. The title Prince of Wales has already been conferred on Prince William. This is the first time in history that this has happened before the funeral of the late monarch. What is the hurry? Why rush? Prince of Wales is not a constitutional position. It is an honorific title. It has started a row across Wales and not just in the extremes of nationalism and republicanism. There needs to be a full national debate about the role. Should it become a constitutional part of the relatively new Welsh democracy? Should Wales as part of the United Kingdom have the status of a Principality? As Prince of Wales since 1958
    the then Prince Charles made mistakes but he had time to put them right. It is upto Prince William to correct this error.

  • Peter Hirst 18th Sep '22 - 3:35pm

    While appreciating the role our monarch has in our political life, is it right that they should have poltical power? I am in favour of our hereditary process but only if all democratic functions reside with elected representatives. There are grey areas and they should be restated so at no time does an unelected head of state wield political power over the electorate.

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