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Constitution: Monarchy

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 30 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they plan to review the constitutional role of the monarchy.

My Lords, since there is discussion about restrictions on the religion and gender of potential successors to the throne, would this not be an appropriate moment to look at the role of the constitutional monarchy? For instance, does the Minister not agree that it would be quite incompatible with the principle of constitutional monarchy were a potential successor to the throne to make highly controversial statements about science policy on medicine or agriculture—not that any member of the Royal Family would dream of doing any such thing?

My Lords, I repeat myself: the Government believe that the national interest and desire are for the country to remain a constitutional monarchy in its present form. Her Majesty the Queen acts as a focus for national identity and unity. Frankly, although political parties change constantly, Her Majesty provides a sense of continuity and stability in times of political and social change.

My Lords, has my noble friend noted the penetrating observation of his distinguished colleague in the Government, Mr Phil Woolas, that, once you introduce elections to the second Chamber, you are inevitably on the way to disestablishment of the Church of England? Is what his ministerial colleague rightly said about the Church of England not equally true of the monarchy? Is it not therefore time for the Front Benches of the three main political parties frankly to acknowledge the secularist and republican implications of their present schemes for reform of the second Chamber?

My Lords, my noble friend knows as well as the House does that the White Paper included options for both a 100 per cent- and an 80 per cent-elected second Chamber. If there is an appointed element, places for bishops will of course be retained, but if the size of the House is reduced it would be logical for reserved places for bishops to be reduced proportionately. I should add that, as now, the number of bishops would not count towards those appointed by the Appointments Commission.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that these issues about the monarchy are best left for another reign? Would it not be curmudgeonly for this House and, most of all, for the responsible Government to raise questions about the monarchy when we have the most constitutional and Christian monarch in our history?

My Lords, the Government are not raising any issue about the constitutional monarchy. My first answer could hardly have been shorter or clearer. I appreciate the great work that the noble Lord has done in this area and his expertise in it.

My Lords, is it not a blatant discourtesy to Her Majesty and a disservice to our constitutional monarchy to describe the ministerial power, not least to make war without debate or vote, as the “royal prerogative”? Should not this piece of tattered absolutism now be universally identified as the “Prime Ministerial presumption”?

My Lords, we debate important matters of national interest in this House, day in and day out. Again, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who I know is an expert in this field. However, I do not think that this is an immediate issue for the nation.

My Lords, do the Government agree that, before we joined the European Union, the monarch acted on the advice of Ministers, which was purely the product of our former system of representative parliamentary democracy, in which Parliament was supreme under the Crown? Do the Government accept, now that a majority of our national law is made in Brussels—to the exclusion of this Parliament—that this is no longer so? Do the Government not agree that this is a huge change on which the British people should be consulted?

My Lords, I have to tell the noble Lord that I do not agree at all—not in any way. I remember that he was concerned, when we passed the Lisbon treaty Bill, that somehow the constitutional monarch’s role would be altered. He was told then, and I tell him now, that it would not be altered in any way.

My Lords, would my noble friend accept the simple proposition that the monarchy should embrace the values of our society? Those values include not discriminating against women and not discriminating against one particular religion. Are those two arguments not sufficient to justify having another look at the issue?

My Lords, I recall the noble Lord moving the Second Reading of his Private Member’s Bill just before the 2005 general election. Indeed, in preparation for this Question, I read his speech. Of course, these are issues of great importance, but the solving of them is much more complex than it looks at first instance, and, frankly, they are not a priority for us at present.