Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The royal prerogative

The BBC rather breathlessly announces that David Cameron wants to 'strip the Queen of some of her historic powers.' Even the BBC aren't quite so obtuse as to leave that remark unqualified, and sure enough, a further perusal reveals that the Beeb are talking about Cameron's remarks that the royal prerogative powers need re-examination.

The first thing to make clear is that the so-called 'royal' prerogative is nothing more than the untrammelled power of the executive in a few restricted areas, regardless of the powers of the legislature. The power owes its existence to the absolute powers of the British Crown, and thus ultimately to the theory of the Divine Right of Kings. The range of prerogative powers have been increasingly restricted by the judiciary over the last fifty years, with a noticeable acceleration in the last twenty.

To the specific point addressed by Cameron - is it right for the executive to wield unlimited power with regard to the declaration of war? This is not so straightforward as it might appear, since there is a reasonable argument that the Government needs to be able to act on foreign policy matters swiftly and without lengthy debate. I would argue, however, that the prerogative is an anachronism that lacks the benefit of obvious utility. As was seen with the Iraq war, in a foreign policy crisis if the Executive are unable to persuade the Legislature of the rectitude of a forthcoming war, perhaps they do not retain the control of the House, and accordingly, cannot continue in Government.

A final practical point. Since the brouhaha over Iraq, which lets remember enjoyed the benefit of a Parliamentary vote, it would be a very foolhardy Government indeed that exercised these powers in any case. This makes it an ideal political point for Cameron to champion - it looks radical and forward-looking without making a blind bit of practical difference.

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