I had a very uncomfortable feeling about the Queen’s visit to Cabinet today. At first I thought it might just have been the obsequious fawning of the print and broadcast media alike as they sought outdo each other in the bowing and scraping stakes. But although I found that stomach turning, that’s not the root cause of my discomfort.
Nor was it seeing the Cabinet – who allegedly run the country – line up to bow and curtesy before HRH. (Although the Republican in me wanted nothing more than for someone to shake her hand and greet her in a more conventional way, perhaps by saying “Nice to meet you Mrs Windsor”.)
No, what made me feel uncomfortable was that Elizabeth Windsor’s decision to turn up at today’s Cabinet meeting flies in the face of hundreds of years of (increasingly positive) precedent. The gap between the Royal Family and politics has been widening over the course of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. And in a mature democracy it should be widened far further, not narrowed.
Now I don’t want to sound po-faced (although I’m almost certain that I do), but it’s important to remember than in Britain (without a written constitution) just how reliant we are on precedent.
Having the Monarch present at a Cabinet meeting for the first time since the 1700s – even if it’s just for a nice chat – is not a positive precedent to set, and harms much of the sensible (but wrong) case for a constitutional monarchy.
The argument from traditionalists and monarchists whenever the role of the Royals in politics is raised as an issue is that the Queen plays a merely ceremonial role. That although she can choose a Prime Minister, veto legislation or call an election, that she chooses not to displays how benign she is.
We can now add “attending Caninet meetings” to the list of things that the Monarch can probably do if they want, now that the precedent has been set. They can sit there – benignly of course – as many of the major decisions of state are made and discussed.
What could possibly be wrong with that?
My concern as a Reasonable Republican, is that this increases the soft power held by the Royals, as well as the theoretical hard power they also have at their fingertips. And whilst the current Monarch is widely considered above politics (and is hugely popular), the probable next monarch is not above lobbying cabinet ministers, and is an intensely political animal.
Now on top of all of the other powers he stands to inherit, and the weekly audiences with the PM (a perfect opportunity for ear-bending), the precedent has now been set that the Monarch can attend meetings of the Cabinet. And sit in the Chair with the arms that denotes that the person seated there is “first among equals”. Quite literally usurping the Prime Minister’s seat.
And whilst the political whims of Prince Charles (architecture, alternative medicine) may seem rather benign, it is not so long since Britain had a monarch whose politics were far less benign.
That’s why I’m deeply uncomfortable about the Queen attending Cabinet. I fear the precedent this sets for more political future monarchs, who might see this as another diplomatic weapon against a democratic government they opposed.
But hey, I’m probably worrying for nothing. And what a lovely present they gave her…so it was probably worth it…right…?