For Queen and Country
Thursday, April 20, 2017 - 09:30
Yesterday, the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted 522 MPs to 13 to call a general election on 8 June 2017. This might seem quite strange to us, with a parliament with fixed terms – and in fact, it is a bit strange for the UK as well – after all, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 had not even survived two successive parliaments.
What makes it even more significant is that this is the first time a sitting parliament has voted to dissolve parliament and initiate an election. Before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, parliaments in the UK usually dissolved on their own, initially after seven years, in line with the Septennial Act of 1715, and from 1911 onwards after five years, in line with the Parliaments Act of 1911.
This self-dissolution, however, rarely happened. Due to the existence of the UK parliament, we tend to consider the UK a democracy. However, it is the United KINGDOM of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and parliament could always be dissolved by Royal Proclamation of the Monarch by virtue of his or her Royal Prerogative.
Originally, this meant the King or Queen decided when parliament would dissolve, but as parliament’s power grew, this was done less and less on the Monarch’s whim, and increasingly only on advice of the Prime Minister. As such, by the nineteenth century, the Prime Minister in essence dissolved parliament and decided when elections would be held – not an insignificant power for the party in charge, and the reason why parliament so rarely dissolved on its own.
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 changed that of course. The Act removed the royal prerogative to dissolve parliament, and repealed the Septennial Act of 1715 as well as any other reference to this royal prerogative. It thus vested this duty in parliament itself, allowing it to dissolve parliament itself either by a two-thirds vote for an early parliamentary election, or by a motion of no confidence in the government.
Lest you think that the queen has given up much, it should be remembered that she still retains quite a large set of prerogative powers. While she these days only exercises them on advice of her government, it remains within her power to do so in case of a governmental crisis. These powers include appointing a Prime Minister of her own choosing – which she last did in 1963 when she appointed Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Prime Minister, on the advice of outgoing Harold Macmillan.
She can also dismiss a Prime Minister and government on her own authority. The last time a monarch did this was in 1834, by King William IV. She can also refuse royal assent on a parliamentary Bill, though a monarch last did that in 1708, when Queen Anne withheld assent on the Scottish Militia Bill.
Inter alia, her other power still include: to summon and prorogue parliament; to command the Armed Forces; to dismiss and appoint Ministers; to commission officers in the Armed Forces; to appoint Queen’s Counsel; to issue and withdraw passports; to create corporations via Charter; to declare War and Peace; to deploy the Armed Forces overseas; to ratify and make treaties; to grant honours; to grant Prerogative of Mercy; and to appoint Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England.
Wait, what? Yes, you read that correctly. Even though we call Queen Elizabeth II a monarch, the United Kingdom is in fact a theocracy. In 1534, King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, seized its assets and declared himself Head of the new Church of England. Even today, Queen Elizabeth II has as part of her titles ‘Defender of the Faith,’ with the Church of England being a state religion, with its measures approved by both Houses of Parliament. In the UK House of Lords, there are still 26 Bishops of the Church, the Lords Spiritual, who retain seats in the Upper House of Parliament.
What about parliament then? Well, while the United Kingdom may be a theocracy, the royal prerogative is these days only exercised by the Queen on advice of her government. And these powers have been greatly diminished over the years. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, parliament established itself as the source of legislation. By 1707, the Acts of Union had established Parliamentary Sovereignty.
Essentially, this devolved into three basic concepts. One – parliament can make laws concerning anything. Two – No parliament can bind a future parliament. In other words, no previous parliament can make a law a future one cannot overturn. And three – A valid Act of Parliament cannot be questioned by the court. Parliament is the supreme lawmaker.
So when we come back to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, we see that it is in fact powerless to bind any parliament to its provisions.
According to parliamentary sovereignty, any future parliament can vote simply to repeal it.
While it has for now survived, it did not need to for Prime Minister Theresa May to call an election – she could simply have used her Conservative majority to nullify it. And not even the Queen with her vast prerogative powers could have stopped it.
In truth, the government of the world’s fifth-largest economy is a strange affair, a result of its long existence. This is why we remain curious whenever something strange occurs on that tiny island off the coast of Europe. That, and the fact that that tiny island nation, with its odd form of government, once controlled the largest empire known to man, with a quarter of the earth’s population and land area under its dominion.
Desmond P van Heerden, HonsBComm (Stell) is the Chief Analytics Officer of Trustco Group Holdings Ltd. Previous articles available online at http://toi.hopto.org/. He can be contacted at DesmondV@tgh.na