A couple of quick phone calls from the palace should have headed off the prorogation, writes Joyce McMillan
Once, long ago, a committee I sat on had some dealings with people from Buckingham Palace; not the Royal Family itself, but a small group of senior officials.
I suppose that even 20 years on, it’s a beheading offence to give precise details of what they said on the subject of the Queen’s role in the planned official opening of the new Scottish Parliament, on 1 July 1999; but I can say that they were an impressive crew, much more politically savvy about the constitutional nuances of devolution than most UK Government representatives at the time, and much more sharply aware – given their vast experience across the Commonwealth – that political self-determination is one thing, and the role of the monarch as head of state is another.
Amid all the sound, fury, and swings of the constitutional wrecking-ball that have accompanied the latest traumatic episode in Britain’s Brexit crisis, one question has therefore been nagging at the back of my mind; the question of what exactly happened on the morning of 28 August, when Jacob Rees-Mogg, as Lord President of the Council, presented himself at Balmoral, where the Queen was on her usual late summer holiday, to seek the royal assent to the exceptional five-week prorogation of Parliament proposed by the Prime Minister.
This is, of course, a mere sub-plot in the wider Brexit drama which reached such an appalling crisis in the Commons on Wednesday night, with the Prime Minister dismissing the unanimous decision of 11 Supreme Court judges as “wrong”, inciting warlike attitudes by using terms like “surrender” and “betrayal” in relation to Brexit, and dismissing as “humbug” the fears for their own safety of women MP’s – friends and allies of the murdered MP Jo Cox – who are now subjected to a daily barrage of Brexit-related hate mail. Yet it is a sub-plot worthy of a one-act play in its own right; and perhaps not one of those jolly, reassuring ones in which the Queen is portrayed as an infinitely wise and perceptive old lady, who has seen 13 prime ministers come and go, and will doubtless outlast the 14th.
For the truth is that on that day, the Queen and her advisers seem to have made an error of judgment, of the kind they have almost entirely avoided, in her 67-year reign to date; and arguably a much more serious one than the intervention in the Scottish independence referendum suggested by David Cameron in his memoir, which, after all, amounted to no more than the Queen suggesting people “think carefully” before casting their votes, a phrase which only a dyed-in-the-wool Unionist would interpret as meaning that they should necessarily vote for the status quo.
This time, though, warning bells should have sounded in the royal household as soon as they heard that the new Prime Minister was proposing such a long prorogation in the run-up to the Brexit deadline date; and a couple of quick concerned phone calls from palace to Downing Street should have been enough to persuade the PM to shorten his pre-Queen’s Speech prorogation to the usual length of a few days or a week. To the royal household, after all, past custom and practice is 99 per cent of the law.
So what went wrong? We will probably never know, or not for decades. It may be that the Queen and her advisers simply felt that they did not want to question a new government trying to implement a referendum result, however narrow. It may be that Johnson and Rees-Mogg genuinely caught the Queen off guard, at a holiday period when many key people were not available.
Or it may be, as some republican thinkers would suggest, that the whole idea of the Queen as a wise and moderate sovereign, who always hopes to promote the wellbeing of her subjects, is simply another layer of royalist mythology, disguising an edifice of wealth and inherited privilege which, under stress, will unhesitatingly assist a right-wing government in undermining institutions – Scottish, British or European – that might threaten that traditional power structure. It is 42 years, after all, since punk poet John Lydon of the Sex Pistols first noisily linked the Queen with the idea of a “fascist regime”; and although the history of postwar Europe strongly suggests that there is no inevitable connection between royalty and reactionary politics, it can be argued that the 1970s punk movement at least tried to open up a conversation about monarchy and democracy, one which the UK has since failed to pursue.
Whatever the truth about the Queen’s role in the prorogation, though, this much is clear; that as the current Brexit crisis is testing Britain’s unwritten constitution to its limits, and provoking a dangerous moment of open constitutional warfare among government, parliament and the courts, it has also succeeded in undermining the monarch’s conventional stabilising role in that constitution, associating her with a rash act that has now been declared unlawful, by a government that commands no parliamentary majority. The global merchants of democratic instability and breakdown – the Putins and Bannons, with their armies of hate-mongering internet bots – must be delighted by the spectacular progress of their project, over just three years, in one of the world’s most stable democracies.
And Scotland, which has not been the primary target of this destabilisation, must now soon be given a second chance to consider its position, in relation to a UK so radically changed by Brexit. In 1977, Lydon and the Sex Pistols famously warned that “there is no future for you, in England’s dreaming”. Yet now, England’s fierce dream of a glorious past, filtered through layers of 21st-century lies and delusion, is starting to shape all of our futures on these islands; and we will all have to live in that landscape of dream or nightmare, until we find our own ways – with or without the Queen, and inside or outside the UK – of resisting the lies, rejecting the illusion, and coming together to re-engage with reality of our lives, as citizens of the 21st century.