Your choice, Your Majesty…

by Elias Blum

Unlike more recently constituted stated, the UK stumbled into the wonderful invention of parliamentary democracy more or less by accident, and never bothered to write the rules down in a clear, authoritative and legitimate way.

As long as there were two major parties, one of which was virtually assured to win an overall majority, and each with a clearly designated leader, there were few practical objections to this. Everyone, from the palace to the people, understood that the ‘winner’ became Prime Minister and that was that. The Queen’s role was a merely ceremonial formality – something we might dislike on aesthetic and symbolic grounds, but hardly an affront to democracy.

But in an era of multi-party politics, the discretionary power of the Queen is potentially problematic. Now various  governments might be formed after an election: coalitions of two or more parties, or a minority government with different forms of more or less formal external support, depending in part on the parliamentary arithmetic and in part on the willingness and ability of the parties to work together and put forward a workable budget and programme for government. In such conditions, the government formation process, where ultimately the Queen appoints the Prime Minister at her personal discretion, lacks legitimacy.

It is argued that conventional rules are supposed to guide and constrain the Queen’s decision, but the fact that these conventions are so vague, contested and unenforceable means they are not really binding rules at all. They can be made up on the spot (as Gordon Brown and Gus O’Donnell did before the 2010 election, when the idea that the first opportunity to form a government should rest with the incumbent Prime Minister was written into the Cabinet Manual) and set aside at will (as Nick Clegg did immediately afterwards, when he asserted the right of the largest party to have priority).

Another complication is that there’s no automatic resignation of a Prime Minister after a general election, pending their re-appointment or the appointment of a successor. Unlike in many other parliamentary democracies, the Prime Minister doesn’t serve ‘terms’ of office punctuated by elections, but serves ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’. That means an incumbent can, so long as he or she has the confidence of the Palace, remain in office without public or parliamentary support – perhaps from May to the Queen’s speech in the Autumn. It all depends on the will of the Palace, not that of the parliament or people.

This royal power, however delicately used, is unacceptable. This is just one aspect of a system of government that is no longer fit for purpose. Long absurd in principle, it has now become unworkable in practice. If the UK is to hold together (something that I, as a supporter of Scottish independence, am not necessarily in favour of) then we need a new Constitution, and that Constitution should do much more than just try to resolve the ‘territorial problem’ of the UK’s ‘nations and regions’. It should also address the issue of government formation, to remove the discretionary power of the monarch and to place the formation of the government on a democratic basis.

Other countries with figurehead monarchies – Sweden, Spain, and the like – have solved this problem by taking government formation out of the hands of the monarch and allowing parliament to formally elect a Prime Minister. Even in the Netherlands (where the Constitution, which can trace uninterrupted origins back to 1814, is framed in very archaic terms) a change to parliamentary standing orders was made in order to remove the King from the process of government formation and to place that responsibility in the hands of a ‘formateur‘ elected by the Chamber. Scotland and Wales, too, have statutory provision for the election of a First Minister by the Parliament or Assembly.  So there are plenty of examples of how it can be done.

In the meantime, it looks like the one vote that will really count in the coming general election is that of the Queen.