Craig Dark argues that Charles’s veto over legislation is undermining efforts to bring the monarchy into the 21st Century
It was announced at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia last month that the rules of succession for the British monarchy, which date back over 300 years, would be changed. In a joint press conference the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the UK Prime Minister David Cameron declared that Britain and the 15 other Commonwealth countries, of which the Queen is Head of State, would be ending the male primogeniture rule.
This means that the order of succession will now be determined simply by order of birth and that younger male heirs will not supersede their older female siblings. It was also suggested that the rule barring any royal who marries a Catholic from becoming monarch will be scrapped. As Mr Cameron said:
“The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic – this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become.”
This news was announced three days before it was discovered by a Guardian investigation that Prince Charles possesses an apparent veto on government legislation on any matter which could affect his interests. It has been reported that, since 2005, Ministers from six departments have been forced to obtain the Prince of Wales’ consent to draft bills on a wide range of issues. Unlike royal assent to bills, which is exercised by the Queen as a matter of constitutional law, the prince’s power applies when a new bill might affect his own interests, in particular the Duchy of Cornwall. In the last two parliamentary sessions Charles has been asked to consent to draft bills on wreck removals and co-operative societies, a freedom of information request to the House of Commons has revealed. Between 2007-09 he was consulted on bills relating to coroners, economic development and construction, marine and coastal access, housing and regeneration, energy and planning. Neither the government nor Clarence House will reveal what, if any, alterations to legislation Charles has requested, or exactly why he was asked to grant consent to such a wide range of laws.
Hearing of this within three days of the news of the reform of the rules of succession raises some interesting points. No doubt Prince Charles would claim that his ‘interests’ are compatible with those of the country at large. However, in relation to the Duchy of Cornwall it is questionable whether this is the case. Here Charles’ ‘interests’ relate to his private £700 million land and property empire which last year provided him with an income of around £18 million. Do other big businesses and private estates possess the same veto powers when proposed government legislation will infringe upon their interests? Of course, they don’t.
Businesses and lobbyists may hold a certain amount of influence over government legislation, but they certainly do not have a constitutionally enshrined veto as Prince Charles does. The Prince’s spokesperson stated that:
“Parliamentary procedure determines that the Prince of Wales in his capacity as the Duke of Cornwall may be required to give his consent to bills directly affecting the interests of the duchy.”
These powers would not be awarded to any other private enterprise. Indeed, this constitutional loophole confers on Prince Charles powers and immunities equal to any government body. Charles, or the ‘Meddling Prince’ as he has been dubbed by the media, has been criticised many times in the past for his outspoken views on many issues, his political lobbying and the lack of financial transparency of the Duchy of Cornwall. Republic, the group campaigning for a democratic alternative to the monarchy, stated:
“That such a loophole exists shows our constitution is fundamentally anti-democratic, but Charles’s decision to exploit it betrays his utter contempt for the British people. Charles is quite capable of doing the right thing by declining to use his position for personal gain – yet he refuses to do so.”
This story merely represents the latest instalment in a long history of contradictions prevalent in the British monarchy. The Royal Family claims to be open and representative of modern British society, yet it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Indeed, spokespersons for Prince Charles, and for the UK government have both refused to reveal any information regarding the application of Charles’ veto power.
In theory the Queen has no ‘real’ power within the British ‘unwritten’ constitution, yet in practice wields ‘unofficial’ power of influence over the government. The UK is a democracy that is based on the ideas of freedom and tolerance. At the same time the country has a monarchy that is symptomatic of an elitist and deferential culture. This is only worsened by its ability to use constitutionally provided ultra-Parliamentary powers to further its own ends.
For the most part, support for the royal family in the UK remains high, with a majority of people surveyed by ICM for the Guardian stating that they believe that the UK would be worse off if there was no monarchy (63 per cent). Similarly, 67 per cent of people believe that the monarchy is ‘relevant’ to life in Britain today.
The revised rules of succession are an attempt to make the monarchy appear more relevant to, and reflective of, contemporary British life. However, Prince Charles’ continued veto over legislation that might affect his interests will serve to brush aside much of the goodwill and popular sentiment generated by news of this reform.