Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Droit de seigneur

This is an 'interesting' legal judgement which illustrates the knots tied in the messy and unwritten British constitutional settlement. You got rid of the executive monarchy with a Civil War (well done, English yokels), allowing (sadly, in my view) the re-establishment of a constitutional monarchy on the strict understanding – honoured far more in the breach than in the observance – that the royals would shut up, smile for the engraver and later paparazzi and keep their inbred noses out of government, in return for a string of castles, a massive pile of doubloons, deference, flummery and an unbelievable amount of snobbery. A pretty sweet deal, you'd think, though one might easily view it as a gilded cage for some very well-dressed monkeys.

The problem is that the royals are far from normal and some of them believe that they have a right to by-pass the institutions of democracy by pestering government. The state has a legal duty to consult them on any legislation that might affect them, which is pretty much everything: a duty kept secret until recently, because it's such an affront to democracy. Worse, Prince Charles appears to spend rather a lot of time writing angry letters in green ink to government ministers ('it really is appalling'). Being craven, snobbish and power-hungry, ministers from all parties make toe-curling comments about the privilege of receiving said missives, though I suspect their departments issue forth a collective groan whenever a fresh one arrives, replete with a miniature portrait of Mummy in the top right corner of the envelope (or more likely delivered by a flunkey in a tailcoat). But you can guarantee a minister reads and replies to these letters, unlike those we send: they go straight into the circular file that sits under every civil servant's desk.

It breaches the settlement that separated the symbolic power of monarchy from the executive authorities of government which issue de facto from election victories, though de jure from the monarchy. Like any Tory party moneybags, Prince Charles has a direct line to decision makers denied to the rest of us. We're not even allowed to see what he's writing about, despite the strong suspicion that we'll be on the receiving end of whatever conclusions are reached.

So the Guardian made a Freedom of Information request to view the letters. After much legal argument, the Information Tribunal ruled that we do have a right to know what's going on. The government promptly invoked a little-known law that trumps the Freedom of Information Act, a loophole which presumably means that the rule of law – and of a legitimately-established court – means nothing compared with the interests of the powerful. Just the same as when Tony Blair personally halted a police inquiry into British Aerospace bribery because it might upset the customers, Saudi Arabia.

Why are Chuck's letters exempt? Well, here we go down the logical rabbit-hole.
The attorney general said there was a risk that the prince would not be seen to be politically neutral by the public if the letters were published.
So it doesn't matter that Prince Charmless isn't politically neutral, so long as the fact is hidden. The government really believes that it would rather have the heir to the throne secretly lobbying for his pet beliefs (such as homeopathy and terrible architecture) than admit to the public that he bombards them with mad letters. Let's be clear: this is a formal attempt to delude the public.

"This risk will arise if, through these letters, the Prince of Wales was viewed by others as disagreeing with government policy. Any such perception would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king," Grieve had said.

The government wants us to believe that the prince is 'politically neutral' even though they – and we – know that he isn't. It's all about the narrative, rather than the facts: Grieve's case is that even though the Prince frequently forfeits his neutrality, it's only bad if we oiks find out about it. The courts are being used as part of an elaborate and farcical exercise in make-believe, in which the needs of the population (those of us not protected by high walls, palaces, deference and capacious treasure chests) are entirely ignored.

Even the judges who ruled in the government's favour seem a bit baffled. First they agreed with Grieve:

On Tuesday, the lord chief justice, accompanied by Lord Justice Davis and Mr Justice Globe, dismissed the challenge, finding that Grieve had acted in the public interest in a "proper and rational way".
Which seems bonkers enough: apparently it's in the 'public interest' to retail a fiction to 'the public' about the heir to the throne's interference in government. What's next? Legislation to ban mean parents from doubting the existence of Santa and the Tooth Fairy in the presence of their children? I can see how it's in the Prince's interest to hide the evidence of his ill-informed and arrogant interference, and even in the government's interest to hide the extent to which they'll go to accommodate the demands of the unaccountable hereditary crown, but to describe this as 'in the public interest' demonstrates a hitherto unsuspected talent for satire on the part of the judiciary. 

But then the judges made an interesting observation:
"The possibility that a minister of the crown may lawfully override the decision of a superior court of record involves what appears to be a constitutional aberration," he said. "It is an understatement to describe the situation as unusual," he wrote, adding that barristers could find no equivalent in any other British law. "It is not quite a pernicious 'Henry VIII' clause, which enables a minister to override statute, but unconstrained it would have the same damaging effect on the rule of law."
But it's OK because there's a vague possibility of a court hearing an appeal over ministers single-handedly defying the law to protect those with most of the power, social capital and wealth already. There literally is one law for us, and one for the rulers.

Now run away and play, and don't worry your pretty little heads about what Charlie's whispering into the ears of our elected governments. You just keep tugging those forelocks and everything's going to be alright.  


Jake said...

I suppose the important question is, do they actually do anything other than send him a reply full of pious platitudes and vague promises that something will be done and then quietly forget the whole thing?

The Plashing Vole said...

I suspect they probably do take him seriously, especially when he agrees with the current government's atavistic impulses. The Labour government was unashamedly uncritical of royal views, however bizarre.