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That Humble Address – Constitutional Chaos, or Merely Displaying the hypocrisy of our ‘Constitutional Monarchy’?

November 2, 2017

So last night (November 1st) Parliament unanimously passed an ‘humble address’ to the Queen to request her to demand that the government release the secret Brexit papers. Once again the chaotic state of our ‘unwritten’ (or un codified) constitution has been revealed. According to what the Telegraph wrote before the vote http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/11/01/labour-use-arcane-19th-century-parliamentary-procedure-try-force/ “Parliament’s rulebook Erskine May states that each House has the power to call for the production of papers through an address to the sovereign but it has rarely been used since the middle of the 19th century. “ The vote was unanimous presumably because the government did not believe it could win the vote. According to The London Economic, https://www.thelondoneconomic.com/news/fury-as-government-loses-unanimous-vote-to-reveal-what-reports-on-effects-of-brexit-say-but-insists-its-not-binding/02/11/ “[the speaker] Bercow confirmed the motion is binding, as did other independent Westminster clerks, and after a Humble Address the Queen is now expected to enter the fray by having to comment on whether it is and whether Brexit Secretary should reveal this information to the Brexit Committee.”

However the Daily Star https://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/politics/657035/brexit-news-latest-the-queen-labour-humble-address-labour-jeremy-corbyn said, ‘By convention, the monarch has to respond to a humble address passed by MPs in parliament. Her response will be delivered to parliament in writing, a spokesperson for the House of Commons said.

A senior government source told the Telegraph that the motion will embroil the Queen – who is impartial on political issues – in the row. “The Palace is not happy,” the source said. “It risks dragging the crown into political issues. It is a concern. The Crown has to respond. There are concerns at the Palace that about using a procedure to address non-controversial issues in a controversial way.”’ That is as may be, but apparently all the palace said publicly was that the Queen will not wade into political matters. “Parliamentary procedures are a matter for Parliament.”

Until about a year ago the monarchy website said that the Queen always acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. This statement does not appear on the new website, but it is surely not credible that the Queen has changed her position. In reality then it is up to the Prime Minister how she will respond.

This is somewhat different from the situation in 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald who had been leading a minority government submitted his resignation to George V. The King persuaded MacDonald that it was his duty to form a new government to address the financial crisis. This was a perfectly reasonable thing to do even if things did not quite work out as the King had hoped. At some point since then the monarch decided that such activism is too controversial.

These days, where the Royal family does have influence is over matters that affect it. If for example a Bill is drawn up that may adversely affect the finances of the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles will complain privately and a minister will then advise him to use his power of veto over that Bill.

During the debate Jacob Rees-Mogg welcomed the use of the ‘humble address’ procedure. In fact Keir Starmer’s use of it was justified only because a suitable purely parliamentary procedure does not exist. It is not the role of the Queen that is in question, but the lack of adequate mechanisms to hold government to account.

None of this flummary would have been necessary if the government had behaved responsibly and had discussed what information could be divulged with select committees at a much earlier.

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