Britain Can’t Afford the Queen’s Weakness Anymore

In times of crisis, political legitimacy inevitably depends on practical power.

Queen Elizabeth II attends a service for the Order of the British Empire at St Paul's Cathedral on March 7, 2012 in London, England.
Queen Elizabeth II attends a service for the Order of the British Empire at St Paul's Cathedral on March 7, 2012 in London, England. WPA Pool /Getty Images

In Europe, two major political crises are unfolding that are the mirror image of each other.

At the northern end of the continent, on Wednesday morning a tall gentleman squeezed himself into a commuter flight to Aberdeen. Jacob Rees-Mogg is immediately recognizable, so he was traveling separately from the rest of his party to avoid his fellow citizens guessing what he was up to. As president of the Privy Council, he was on his way to Scottish highlands, to Queen Victoria’s summer residence at Balmoral. The mission of Rees-Mogg and his colleagues was to advise Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament in the crucial run-up to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, currently scheduled for Oct. 31.

The power to prorogue Parliament lies with the monarch acting on the advice of the prime minister. Monarchs are expected to do as they are told. This fusion of the power of the prime minister with the formal prerogatives of the monarch as head of state is the true secret of the British unwritten constitution, such as it is. When combined with a solid majority in Parliament, strong party discipline, and responsible political leadership, it is a formidably unified mechanism of power.

This fusion emerged 300 years ago as Britain’s answer to Europe’s crisis of the 17th century. The Reformation, the rise of capitalism, and dynastic struggles formed a maelstrom that reached its bloody height in the Thirty Years’ War. On the continent, the political response was absolutism. In the British Isles, after a power struggle including the overthrow of two monarchs; civil wars in England, Ireland, and Scotland; and a royal beheading, the United Kingdom formed in 1707 was governed by the “crown in Parliament,” with the prime minister emerging as the crucial link.

Given this historical genealogy, it is perhaps fitting that a starring role in Britain’s modern-day constitutional crisis should be played by Rees-Mogg, a man whose ostentatious traditionalism has led him to be referred to as the “honorable member for the 18th century.”

Viewed as a mechanism of power, the distinctive fusion that characterizes the Westminster system may be attractive. Viewed from point of view of checks and balances, it is clearly a high-risk arrangement. But in typical style, no one in U.K. has ever seen fit to do anything about it in the intervening centuries, because fixing it would involve difficult constitutional questions that were best swept under the carpet. Preserving the fiction that the prime minister merely advises the monarch avoids having to spell out the actual state of affairs. Though the prime minister’s power to suspend Parliament might seem excessive, why fuss over such questions, when customary practice ensures that this power is used for nothing more dangerous than the business of resetting the agenda between legislative sessions? The last time a prorogation was used for the kind of overt political purposes to which Prime Minister Boris Johnson is putting it today was in 1948, when the Labour Party was pushing through fundamental limitations on the power of the House of Lords.

Of course, the queen could have refused the advice of Johnson’s emissaries, but that would have deepened the constitutional crisis and drawn the ire of the populist Brexiteers. The queen’s relations with prime ministers have not always been good, but she does not openly defy them. Under normal circumstances, when the government has a solid majority in Parliament, that is no doubt good advice. But in 2019, it means kowtowing to an adventurist Downing Street, headed by an unelected prime minister who lacks a solid parliamentary majority and is using prorogation to ease the path to a no-deal Brexit that has been rejected by Parliament. It means giving supreme constitutional significance to a referendum, which itself was merely consultative.

The fact that electoral politics can be both arbitrary and subject to deadlock is why most constitutions provide for circuit breakers in the form of judicial review, multitier legislatures, and the separations of prime ministerial and presidential roles. What the U.K. crisis reveals is why such constitutional arrangements matter.

The contrast to events at the other end of the continent in recent weeks is stark. In Rome, Matteo Salvini, a right-wing populist, withdrew from the weak government in which he had been maneuvering for power since May 2018 in the hope of triggering early elections. The political infighting of modern Italy is notorious. But this was different. Salvini views himself as a transformational figure. The question was whether he would be able to complete the right-wing nationalist rearrangement of Italian government he aims for.

This too involves the head of state, in this case President Sergio Mattarella. Unlike the queen, he is a professional politician who has demonstrated his willingness and ability to exercise his judgment. In 2018, he blocked the appointment of an openly Euroskeptic candidate as finance minister because he considered him a danger to Italy’s membership of the EU. This time, rather than succumbing to Salvini’s attack, he held off from calling elections until the incumbent prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, was able to gain the backing of the squabbling Five Star Movement and Democratic Party for a new government.

Clearly this involved Mattarella taking a strong political role. He effectively made a judgement that Salvini had behaved irresponsibly enough to be excluded from power. The ultimate outcome is uncertain. Salvini has called on his supporters to march on Rome. The president will certainly face vituperation.

But as the British case demonstrates, in a situation of extreme tension in which the parties to the conflict are fully exploiting every means of power, there is no nonpolitical position. Merely going through the motions makes the queen into an accessory to a constitutional subterfuge driven by the survival instinct of the Conservatives.

What the comparison of Italy and the U.K. reveals is the dangerous fantasy of imagining that in our fundamentally secular modern age, a polity can be anchored on an unpolitical foundation. The Italian president stands above the fray, but only in relative terms. He will not achieve unanimity or consensus. But he does not need to. He is an elder statesman no doubt, but by the same token he is a politician doing a politician’s job.

The House of Windsor has on its side dynastic heritage, pomp, ceremony, and glamor. It has been one of the pioneers of the invention of tradition, and its PR managers are skilled manipulators of the media machine. But in the current crisis, what renders Elizabeth’s position dysfunctional is that her legitimacy as head of state derives from preserving the appearance of being apolitical. At a moment of extreme politicization, that means that she has no basis on which to act. What predominates, instead, is the survival interest of the House of Windsor, leaving the United Kingdom at the whim of arcane procedural technicalities and the tactical maneuvering of England’s profoundly fractured and incoherent political class.

Adam Tooze is a professor of history and director of the European Institute at Columbia University, as well as a columnist at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @adam_tooze

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