The revelations this week by The Guardian UK of the Queen’s secret intervention in political matters to protect her personal fortune are simply extraordinary. New documents from the UK Archives set out in excruciating detail the power of the monarch to vet legislation in her own interests. Under the guise of exercising the arcane ‘royal consent’, long considered a mere formality taken only on ministerial advice, the Queen and Prince Charles can secretly alter any Act that might affect the monarch personally. This they have done with alacrity.
More than 1,000 pieces of legislation have been amended by the Queen during her reign in order to protect, aggrandise and conceal the ‘embarrassing’ wealth of the royal family from her less fortunate subjects. Since almost all legislation, from inheritance to social security and even car parking, can be deemed to affect royal wealth even in the most tangential way, the Queen and Charles have personally vetted an immense range of legislative measures to suit themselves. This anachronistic feudal command over legislation, not for any public good but to cement inherited aristocratic privilege and personal fortune, is genuinely shocking.
Perhaps the most egregious of these private financial benefits is that arranged by Prince Charles, the future King of Australia, to prevent his tenants buying their homes, thereby protecting and enhancing his already stupendous income. Using the same personalised royal vetting service as his mother, Charles ensured that his personal estate, the £1billion Duchy of Cornwall, was excised from legislation that would have enabled residents to buy their existing homes, forcing them instead to continue paying rent – to him. Nice work if you can get it.
Just as troubling is the revelation of the sham, essentially deceptive, process through which the Queen’s intervention has been kept hidden from public view. In a royal round-robin from Palace to parliament the Queen is sent a draft Bill, she proposes amendments to it, the Bill is amended accordingly and only then is it put before the parliament. In the cynical sophistry of the consent process, the Queen can publicly claim to be acting on ministerial advice, without ever revealing that she herself has already determined the nature of it.
The Guardian described this process in relation to the financial transparency legislation: “Following the Queen’s intervention, the government inserted a clause into the law granting itself the power to exempt companies used by ‘heads of state’ from new transparency measures.”
This is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of these revelations, the artifice of ‘acting on advice’. It is a textbook example of a constructed ‘plausible deniability’, crafted to distance the Queen from her own actions and yet palpably untrue, the denial of which sits uncomfortably close to deception.
True to form, Buckingham Palace duly released a robust denial, firmly denying that it had ‘blocked legislation’ – which The Guardian had never suggested – and failing to address the critical revelation of the Queen’s vetting of legislation: “Queen’s consent is a parliamentary process, with the role of sovereign purely formal. Consent is always granted by the monarch where requested by government. Any assertion that the sovereign has blocked legislation is simply incorrect.” Nothing to see here.
This now undeniable evidence of the Queen’s intervention ends once and for all the absurd insistence by some that the Queen does not intervene in political matters. In doing so it has exposed the charade of the Queen’s claimed political neutrality, the routine assertion by Buckingham Palace that the Queen plays merely a ‘ceremonial and symbolic’ role and acts on ministerial advice.
As head of a constitutional monarchy the Queen is, according to constitutional theory and Buckingham Palace, politically neutral and cannot become involved in domestic politics. This is the essence of a constitutional monarchy in a Westminster system, squaring the inherent contradiction between a hereditary monarchy and parliamentary democracy, by giving primacy to the wishes of the people through their elected representatives.
These documents, like others released in recent years, show that the quaint picture of the monarch as a political naïf devoid of political interest and playing a ‘purely formal’ role, is untrue and self-serving. I have long argued that the myth of royal political neutrality and non-involvement is just that, a myth, maintained by secrecy which has concealed an evident and, in many ways, inevitable political role.
The only remarkable thing is that it has taken so long for this myth to be accepted as such. And it is not only UK legislation that is royally vetted. We have known for some time, as I revealed in these pages, that the Palace vetted the former Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s memoirs to ensure there was no mention of Kerr’s discussions with the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, regarding the dismissal of the Whitlam government. This took royal intervention to a new level – from the intervention itself to the written history of it, a secret vetting of our historical record that would have remained hidden had Kerr’s letters to Buckingham Palace discussing his memoirs not been released.
There is a clear pattern at work here, one familiar to us in the denials and obfuscation surrounding the release of the Palace letters between the Queen and Governor-General Kerr on the Whitlam’s dismissal. We have known for many years from Kerr’s papers in the National Archives of Australia that the Queen, Prince Charles and Sir Martin Charteris were aware since September 1975 that Kerr was considering dismissing the government and that they had discussed with Kerr his concerns over his position as Governor-General should he do so.
Extracts from some of the Queen’s correspondence with Kerr, a note among Kerr’s papers referring to ‘Charteris’ advice to me on dismissal’ and Kerr’s 1980 Journal, revealed in my biography Gough Whitlam: His Time, clearly showed the involvement of the Palace in Kerr’s deliberations and in his eventual decision to dismiss Whitlam.
The release of the Palace letters following the High Court’s landmark decision in the ‘Palace letters’ case, Hocking v Director-General National Archives of Australia, confirmed that involvement. As the NSW solicitor-general, Michael Sexton QC, has described: ‘Kerr’s likely course of action was known to the Palace and so to the Queen, but completely secret from Whitlam and his ministers’. How else to read Charteris’s final letter before the dismissal, assuring Kerr that if he exercised the reserve powers against the government ‘you cannot do the monarchy any avoidable harm … the chances are you would do it good’. Which, as Malcolm Turnbull concludes, is precisely why Charteris’s letters ‘can be read as encouraging Kerr’ to dismiss Whitlam.
Yet there remain some who continue to cling, determinedly and limpet-like, to the now impossible view that the Queen was not involved in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. For them, the suggestion that the Queen played any part in Kerr’s decision to dismiss the government is a mere ‘conspiracy theory’, to be derided and denounced in turn, despite the clear text of the Palace letters telling us otherwise.
In what can only be described as an unorthodox analysis, it has even been claimed that ‘the Queen was hostage to Kerr’. Ah yes, Kerr’s obsequious, fawning, ‘stomach-churning’ letters, his desperate need for royal approbation, masked the canny cultivation of a politically powerless monarch in the thrall of her dissolute vice-roy, his helpless hostage. What arrant nonsense.
For those still ‘living in the ‘70s’, insisting that the Queen does not intervene in political matters and unwilling or unable to accept the recent transformation of the dismissal history, these revelations of the Queen’s political interventions have been a humiliating rebuff.