There is a certain euphoria in the air….the House of Commons, so long a lickspittle of succeeding governments, told the current one where to go.
The Legislature had landed one full on the nose of the Executive and the Prime Minister was thwarted in his aim of bringing about British participation in American led strikes against Syria.
I am not euphoric….there was crass arrogance and bad management in whipping in the vote on the government side.
Ministers were allowed to absent themselves for ‘family reasons’, ‘holidays’ etc., while two of those actually in the Palace of Westminster managed not to hear the division bell – none so deaf as those who won’t hear….
A more professional performance would have had wiped out the thirteen vote margin by which the government were defeated and the way would have been open for preparations to be made pending a final vote in the House on taking Britain into yet another armed conflict alongside America.
Not, in theory, that the government needs Parliamentary approval to make arms manufacturers rich and mutilate and kill the children of the poor.
Since 2003 there has been an ‘understanding’ that there will be a vote in the House; an ‘understanding’ brokered under Blair, anxious to legitimise his breach of international law in the invasion of Iraq.
But it is only an ‘understanding’.
It has not yet grown into a ‘convention’ – one of those fixed ‘understandings’ which form the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom – and as such cannot claim to have overtaken that constitutional relic….the royal prerogative power to take the nation to war.
I doubt it was noted in the news media, but, victory in the House attained, the leader of the opposition specifically asked the Prime Minister for assurances that the prerogative powers would not be used to achieve his ends despite the vote and those assurances were received.
The constitutional relic is alive and kicking.
It is customary to refer to the Queen as a constitutional monarch, her powers limited by law and exercised on her behalf by government….innocuous indeed, allowing her to concern herself with the receipt of sturgeon and the award of membership of a limited number of the Orders of chivalry…the Garter, the Thistle and the Royal Victorian.
So why should you beware of the Queen?
For the very reason that the prerogative powers are vested in the person of the monarch.
The monarch who is regarded as the fountain of justice and as such immune from criminal prosecution and civil action in the courts.
So? That’s a problem?
Not necessarily in the person of the monarch….but those exercising the prerogative powers on her behalf – the government – claim the same immunity, thus limiting the power of the citizen to ask the courts for redress for government action.
The courts are not without resources…judicial review…the Human Rights Act ….but the problem remains that decisions regarding war and peace, and the power to take measures of internal control when there is no state of emergency give a great deal of power to government to act with neither debate nor discussion and leave the aggrieved citizen – or the relatives of those killed as a result of government action – to rustle up the money to challenge them in court.
There have been attempts to abolish the prerogative powers…there have been consultative committees….but in the end the government claims that it is too hard to disentangle prerogative powers from surrounding legislation and they continue on their stealthy way: relics of an old power, zombies of a new.
In this post democratic age, when the House of Commons – unworthy descendent of Mr.Speaker Lenthall , Wilkes and Bradlaugh – manages a last kick, let us hope that it will manage yet another and reduce the royal prerogative powers to a relic of history, instead of a harbinger of yet more behind the scenes control.