By Russell Bruce
Funny thing about the Royal family with some of the younger members reported to be in favour of promoting renewable energy and backing action on climate change but Grandma it appears is of a different mind. We all know the constitution of the UK is a malleable mess. Dating back to some of the Stewart kings who believed in the devine right of kings, sometimes refered to as God’s mandate, the right to interfere with parliamentary legislation is alive and well in the 21st century.
Parliament according to UK parliamentary tradition for the last two centuries, is sovereign. This means parliament determines legislation and the monarch does not, being only required to provide royal assent to what parliament has decided to pass legislation into law, or so we were led to believe. Does this mean parliament is just a half sovereign, worth 10 shillings in old money?
The Guardian is to be commended for delving into the strange history of the UK’s Queen’s consent procedure, which allows the monarch to “secretly lobby for changes to proposed UK legislation before it is passed by parliament.” The procedure in Scotland is known as crown consent. There is also Prince’s consent that allows Charles Windsor to intervene and seek changes to legislation that he sees as detrimental to his interests. The heir’s access to Prince’s consent has flared up in the past.
The Guardian reported on Queen’s and Princes consent back in 2013 when a court order revealed how the approval of the Queen and Prince Charles was sought on range of UK Parliament bills. Papers prepared by Cabinet Office lawyers published, following the court order, “show that overall at least 39 bills had been subject to the most senior royals’ little-known power to consent to or block new laws. They also reveal the power has been used to torpedo proposed legislation relating to decisions about the country going to war.”
The UK cannot go to war without the Monarch’s approval. A private member’s bill to place this power solely in parliament’s hands was struck down by the monarch.
The withholding of consent to pass legisaltion without royal changes has a long history under the present monarch. The Guardian has identified over 1000 bills where the UK government ministers advised the Queen that a bill might impact on her interests or opinion. These date back to the first months of her reign with first on 21st April 1952.
The most recent story refers to the monarch’s interference in the Scottish Parliament’s Heat Networks Bill that exempted the Queen’s property in Scotland. The Bill was introduced in the last parliament by the former energy minister Paul Wheelhouse who introduced the amendment sought by the Queen to stop parts of Balmoral being subject to compulsory purchase in the interest of including part of her estate in a heat network.
No seasoned MSP would have been in any doubt that the amendment was being put forward as a result of a demand from the monarch for this specific change that would only apply to the monarch in relation to her Scottish landholdings and would not apply to any other landowner.
Credit goes to a Lib Dem researcher, Lily Humphreys, for pursuing the story under freedom of information laws. The Greens and land reform activist Andy Wightman voted against the amendment. Parliamentarians in all parties would have been clear that that without the amendment to provide singular benefit to the Queen, the bill would not obtain Queen’s Consent and the wider benefit the legislation enabled would be lost.
Parliamentarians in all parties would have been clear that that without the amendment to provide singular benefit to the Queen, the bill would not obtain Queen’s Consent and the wider benefit the legislation enabled would be lost.
The Guardian reports a call from Willie Rennie for “an open and honest conversation” about the archane mechanism of Queen’s Consent. We do not disagree but would note the UK parliament and by extension the Scottish Parliamnet have no chioce but to accede to legislation changes demanded by the Queen. It is time for this to change. But how? That would require legislation at Westminster which almost certainly would be subject to monarchical lobbying and blocking to prevent the removal of residual divine rights. We humbly suggest to Willie Rennie that the solution to removing this archane mechanism in Scotland is through the constitution of an independent Scotland.
Amongst the 1000 odd bills that the Queen was advised by ministers may have implications for her interests, the Guardian has identified 67 Scottish Parliament bills. None of this is new to Willie Rennie. The first Scottish Bill notified to the monarch was the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc (Scotland) Bill in December 1999. There’s a surprise. A total of 22 bills were notified during the first two parliaments with Labour First Ministers – Donald Dewer, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell.
Particularily interesting that the Lib Dems are making a fuss about the procedure which Willie Rennie clearly thinks damages the SNP. Jim Wallace, a QC, was leader of the Scottish Lib Dems from 1992 to 2005. He was Deputy First Minister and Justice Minister in the first parliament, serving briefly as acting First Minister during the illness and following the death of Donald Dewer and later following the resignation of Henry McLeish. He remained Deputy First Minister until 2005 when he stood down as Lib Dem Leader in Scotland, remaining as an MSP until 2007.
In 2010 the Lib Dems were back in coalition, this time with the Tories in Cameron’s government at Westminster. Jim Wallace became Her Majesty’s Advocate General for Scotland, one of the Law Officers of the Crown whose duty it is to advise the Crown and the Governent of the United Kingdom on Scots law. He is more than familar with Queen’s consent procedure in England and Crown consent in Scotland.
Perhaps Willie Rennie should have had a word with Jim Wallace, a former Lib Dem leader who actually has real experience of government.
23 bills were notified to the Queen’s lawyers during Alex Samond’s period as Scotland’s longest serving First Minister. The remaining 22 to date, have been during Nicola Sturgeon’s period as First Minister.
Amongst the 1000 odd bills notified to the Queen going back to 1952 are lots of Scottish bills passed by the UK government prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. There are also a number of UK parliament bills applying to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that the Queen’s lawyers have had a look at. It can perhaps be assumed that the other devolved parliament’s may also have to notify the Queen when a bill might have some significance for the Queen’s ‘interests’.
In many cases the Queen does not seek changes. She was ‘consulted’ on the Coronovirus (Scotland) bills as she operates a wide range of rural businesses on her 50,000 acre Balmoral estate that would have been affected by this legislation. The Queen did not seek exception nor did she on the SNP’s UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. Theresa May did and took it to the Supreme Court where it was judged illegal.
Of the many hundreds of instances of legislation brought to the Queen’s attention by the UK parliament at the time of the 2013 furore, 39 were finally identified as having been amended at the monarch’s insistance. The relatively small number does not make this archaic mechanism appropriate in the 21st century and it is past time for it to be abolished. As we have indicated above that would require the Queen’s consent and a Prime Minister willing to open discussions. A petition on 38 degrees has attracted over 50,000 signatures so this is an issue of concern in all nations of the UK.
It is just possible that an extremely ill-judged demand to exempt Balmoral from the provisions of the Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill 2021 could be a tipping point for the abolition of the last link to divine right. Better stil a constitution in an independent Scotland that does not provide for monarchial powers that are a hangover from the middle ages.
Whilst some on social media think the SNP government should just ignore Queen’s consent that is not legally possible just as it is not possible for the Westminster government to do so either. The issue has been flagged up for reform thoughout the Queen’s reign. One day it might actually happen but we doubt there is a majority for reform in the present Westminster parliament.
This is the liink to The Guardian story (captured as a screen grab) Queen lobbied for change in law to hide her personal wealth – part of the paper’s long running investigations into the monarch’s use of consent procedures.