Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Depend on Mr Blair, Ma'am

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Depend on Mr Blair, Ma'am

Article excerpt

`IF THE KING could see you now, he'd abdicate,' a despairing drill instructor of the Brigade of Guards roared at us on the parade ground more than half a century ago. But George VI stuck it out, and ultimately his raw recruits brought him victory.

How much more alluring abdication must sometimes seem to his daughter, the most dedicated and least appreciated of sovereigns. An impeccable reign of 46 years, initially dubbed the New Elizabethan Age, has exposed her in recent years to a succession of rebuffs and reforms, to displays of ingratitude and envy, from ministers, press and 'citizens' alike. Only an exceptional sense of duty can have deterred the Queen from packing up the best of her tiaras, her grandfather's valuable stamp collection and a portfolio or two of Leonardo drawings to settle down for good at Balmoral under the benign protection of the Republic of Scotland.

In a reign marked by the erosion of most of the royal prerogatives, there remain, it is true, the three rights enunciated by Walter Bagehot: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. But their effectiveness depends on the willingness of the Queen's prime ministers to enter into the spirit of this compact; and it would be difficult to point to any occasion during the past half century or so on which a sovereign deterred a government from a determined course of action.

Probably the most far-reaching was in 1944, when George VI forbade a furious Churchill to risk his life - and the conduct of the war - by sailing with the D-day fleet to Normandy.

What at first sight may seem to have been a humiliating loss of the most important royal prerogative - the sovereign's right to appoint a new prime minister on the defeat, resignation or death of the old - paradoxically strengthened the Queen's role by removing her from the arena of political strife. It was, as we all recall, provoked by her choice of Lord Home rather than Rab Butler to succeed an ailing Harold Macmillan in 1963. The circumstances in which she allowed herself to be guided solely by Macmillan from his sickbed, rather than by wider consultations, are now irrelevant; so, too, are the merits of the rival contenders for office. What did stamp its mark on constitutional history was the subsequent decision of the Conservative party to follow Labour practice in electing a new leader whose name would then be submitted to Her Majesty for formal endorsement.

The survival of a constitutional monarchy lies not in the sovereign's exercise of astute political skills but in their relinquishment. Political decisions taken by a monarch other than on the advice of her ministers invite controversy; and controversy, by offending some at least of her subjects, corrodes the impartial status that is the touchstone of monarchy. The nation has cause to be grateful that never again shall a change of prime minister call the sovereign's judgment into dispute.

Blair's government follows a more dangerous path. Instead of insulating the Queen from political controversy, it seeks to involve her as a Labour partisan. All governments, of course, use the monarch as a mouthpiece: in the speech from the throne at the opening of Parliament, for instance, or in declarations of foreign policy during state banquets at home and abroad. On such occasions it is known and accepted that her words or sentiments are those of her ministers.

The Blair government, however, has distorted constitutional practice by purporting to reveal her private opinions on topics on which her subjects are divided. …

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