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Brexit: The strings of democracy being pulled by royalty

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Boris Johnson received support from Queen Elizabeth II on his decision to suspend Parliament (Screenshot via YouTube)

Britain’s roguish Prime Minister Boris Johnson was pulled up for trying to bluster through with “Brexit” by closing Parliament over a key period, with the aid of Queen Elizabeth, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

MEMBERS OF JOHNSON'S own Conservative Party joined the Opposition to vote 328 to 301, to give Parliament control of the Brexit process.

A former Minister rubbed it in, removing the Government’s standing majority of one when he crossed over to the centrist Liberal Democrats.

The Government had “no mandate, no morals and, as of today, no majority”, said the Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn.

SNAP ELECTION?

Boris Johnson began talking about going to a new British General Election.

Fresh uproar had broken out when he moved to suspend Parliament; proroguing it, expecting to get away with that as it was underwritten by the Queen.

The move underlines concerns about royal influence and disrespect for the elected Parliament extending into Australian politics as well.

It was an outright political move by Boris Johnson intended to side-step opposition to the historical act of taking Britain out of the European Union.

It has hardly been contested that this was overt politics and, by week’s end, courts in England and Scotland were being asked to countermand it for that reason.

Protest against the suspension of Parliament has been on the lines that Parliament is there for decision-making, not the executive wing headed by the Prime Minister acting on their own.

While there is outrage, there is complacency also, helped along by the Queen as Head of State giving her direct imprimatur: she gave “royal assent” to the prorogation.

The idea of a neutral and fair royal umpire might seem dangerously naïve to those who know politics, but it is trusted by millions who do not follow politics, let alone constitutional affairs.

If Elizabeth Windsor thinks it is good, then it's probably an idea that brings in public support and compromises the outrage. There is goodwill around the monarch and you can trade on it, as Mr Johnson must think.

The rules and conventions are muddled but it appears that the Government cannot suspend Parliament without the Queen agreeing, while she in turn has to follow the Prime Minister’s advice.

WHAT DATES ARE NOW SET UP?

What did she agree to, the sovereign said to be unable to do anything to restrain the Government on Brexit?

The Johnson plan had been to shut down Parliament this week for a period of almost five weeks, up to 14 October, so that he could produce a new Government program — covering Brexit and all that is to follow it.

That program would be read out at a new opening of Parliament by the Queen on that October day.

The deadline for Britain’s exit from the EU was set for just 17 days later on 31 October — the shortness of time maybe helping him to bump it through.

Normally, the Parliament has a few weeks recess, not five weeks, without the need for a full restart. That is what was expected and the extra time would be important because of the massive change to be debated — the leaving of Europe.

BREAKING A LONG-STANDING DEAL

The matter of walking over the elected Parliament by some Queen or King and chosen Ministers was supposed to have been sorted out after January 1642, when King Charles I intruded into Parliament with armed troops.

In present-day terms, this King was a would-be dictator. He claimed an absolute right to rule; found legal japes to raise taxes without Parliament’s agreement, started wars and would terrorise and maim his political opponents by putting them through a special “private court”.

Not long after his incursion into Parliament, he formally declared war on that institution, eventually lost on the battlefield and was executed by decapitation.

With this loss of a head, later sovereigns after their restoration to authority have had to keep their heads pulled in — as “constitutional” monarchs bound to work with the elected Government of the day.

AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRACY AND ROYAL POWER

Once again, along with the anguish in Britain over being trundled out of Europe by Boris Johnson, Australia is providing a test of that same principle of restricted royal power.

On 16 August, the High Court decided it would rule on an application to release letters between the Queen and the former Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, during the time of Kerr’s Dismissal of the Whitlam Government.

Professor Jenny Hocking, the Monash University political scientist who brought the case, has published very clear explanations of the importance of the letters.

Under instructions from Kerr before his death, the letters have stayed in Australian national archives but cannot be made public until 2027 and then only if the British monarch agrees. If they should say no, they would also be empowered to lock away the letters forever.

As Professor Hocking has explained, the question is whether Kerr and the Queen colluded politically on the dismissal of the Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

In a previous court case, two Federal Judges agreed these could be classed as “personal” mail and one judge considered that they had to be official Commonwealth papers, because of the positions being held by the correspondents.

The Professor, who then took the matter to the High Court, has pointed out that parts of the known story might suggest the Queen was in on it — notably that additional royal honours were given to Kerr after the dismissal.

ACTING TO GET RID OF GOUGH

Whitlam headed the first Labor Government for 23 years and conducted a reform administration in a climate of international recession, all of which generated enormous conservative resistance.

Kerr interrupted a Government stand-off against the conservative-dominated Senate to sack Whitlam and install the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser, in his place.

The act was doubly controversial because he had managed it only by colluding with others in advance: some senior judicial figures, the Opposition leader, never Whitlam himself but possibly the Queen. It was done as a trap.

The understood convention had been that a PM should be consulted on such matters and that if the PM sought the removal of the Governor-General himself, the sovereign would do it.

Whitlam reported that at the moment of betrayal, he had said he would “go to the palace” and was told that had already been closed off.

The “palace” announced the Queen was not able to act on the matter.

When the House of Representatives voted to reaffirm Whitlam as PM, Kerr replied that was closed off, too — looking ahead, he had already prorogued the Parliament.

QUEEN A CONSPIRATOR AGAINST DEMOCRACY?

So the question of concealment and manipulation by Kerr, to commit devious and manipulative political actions, now extends to whether that included collusion with Elizabeth Windsor in London.

If the High Court determines to open the set of documents most important to Australians in understanding their history, it can affect the view taken of the present 93-year-old monarch.

Does she continue as a person held in very wide affection, of tremendous duty and sense, who has never in her symbolic and ceremonial life let us down?

Or does she get called a sour, conservative old woman who crossed the line, calling up old habits of despotic Kings like that head-strong predecessor Charles I?

What will it tell about the strength or otherwise of Australian democratic belief and whether Australia will ever be fully free while it must wait on word from the “palace”?

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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