May 31, 2008
Over in Great Britain, the House of Commons recently passed the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which, among other things, keeps the time limit on abortions at twenty-four weeks (in spite a hope that it would be lowered), authorizes the creation of “savior siblings (brothers and sisters deliberately created in a lab solely for their organs to be harvested for use by the already-born), and allows for the creation of animal-human hybrids. The British human rights activist James Mawdsley, famously jailed for over a year by the military junta in Burma, has asked opponents of the HFE Bill to sign a petition to Queen Elizabeth II imploring her to withhold the royal assent necessary for the Bill to become law.
Under the British constitution, a bill only becomes a law when it has received the assent of all three components of the British Parliament: the Commons, the Lords, and the Crown. The last time the Crown withheld consent was in 1708 when Queen Anne refused to sign the Scottish Militia Bill. Since that time, it has been an unspoken convention that should the Crown object to a piece of legislation, it should privately inform its ministers before the legislation is voted upon in order for it to be withdrawn, thus preventing the scandal of the Crown and the Commons appearing to be in disagreement. Despite this convention, however, the Crown still has the right to withhold consent, but merely neglects to exercise that right.
While the Crown has faded to near-irrelevance in the everyday workings of the British government, this was certainly not always the case, and the Crown has intervened in politics several times since Queen Anne’s refusal of assent in 1708. What follows are but a few twentieth-century examples.
In 1925, William Mackenzie King was Prime Minister of Canada with 99 Liberal MPs to the Conservative opposition’s 116. He was able to do this by forming a minority government with the support of the 24 MPs of the Progressive Party. A year later, Liberal MPs were implicated in a bribery scandal and so the Progressives having withdrawn their support for the minority government. As parliament debated a motion to censure the MPs involved, the Prime Minister asked Lord Byng, the Governor-General of Canada (and thus the direct representative of the Crown), to dissolve parliament and call a general election.
Lord Byng did not want it to appear that the Crown was allowing parliament to be dissolved in order to prevent the censure of government MPs and so used the royal prerogative and refused to call an election. The Conservatives, as the largest party in parliament (Lord Byng argued), should have a chance at forming a government instead. The Governor-General invited Arthur Meighen, leader of the Conservatives, to form a government instead, and Meighen agreed. This, in turn, infuriated not only the Liberals but also the Progressives, throwing the middle-man back into the Liberal camp. Meighen put his government up to a vote of confidence, lost it by one vote, and so resigned and asked the Governor-General to dissolve parliament and call an election, which Lord Byng duly did.
“I have to await the verdict of history to prove my having adopted a wrong course,” Lord Byng wrote, “and this I do with an easy conscience that, right or wrong, I have acted in the interests of Canada and implicated no one else in my decision.”
In 1931, when the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald submitted his resignation to the King, George V took the unprecedented step of asking MacDonald to form a national government with the support of Conservatives and Liberal Members of Parliament. MacDonald lasted as Prime Minister until 1935, but Great Britain would not be governed by a single-party government again until 1945.
More recently, the Crown controversially intervened in Australian politics in 1975. Gough Whitlam’s Labor government commanded a majority in the House of Representatives but the opposition coalition of the Liberals and the National Country Party held sway in the Senate. It is traditional in Westminster-style systems that if a money supply bill fails to pass, the government falls with it. The Senate refused to vote on the annual Budget, in hopes of provoking Whitlam into calling a new election. Whitlam stubbornly refused, and the impasse grew as the weeks passed and, with no budget approved, it looked like the government of Australia would not be able to meet its financial obligations for the year.
Finally, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, used the royal prerogative to dismiss Whitlam as Prime Minister, asked the opposition leader Malcolm Fraser to take the job. Fraser formed a caretaker government solely to pass the appropriations bill then immediately called a new election which his own Liberal/National Country coalition won handily.
Such royal interventions, however, are not limited to the English-speaking world. Belgium’s King Baudouin I, a Charismatic Catholic and friend of Francisco Franco, famously refused to give assent to a bill liberalizing the kingdom’s abortion laws. The Prime Minister, Wilfred Martens, simply had the King declared temporarily unable to reign and the Government signed the Bill in place of the King (as is provided in the Belgian Constitution). Two days later, the Government declared the King able to reign once more, and all was back to normal (except for the unborn children killed thereafter, of course).
One of the great benefits of a monarchy is this: that the Crown act as a source of authority, free from democratic accountability, who is capable of blocking any egregious acts which the government of the day may attempt. The HFE Bill is the perfect example of a bill the Crown ought to reject, for the benefit of all the kingdom, most especially the unborn. Yet we can reasonably assume that Elizabeth II will grant her assent to this travesty of law nonetheless, as the current occupant of the throne has (ironically) so thoroughly and woefully imbibed the democratic spirit that she knows not how to fulfill her purpose and duty as Queen. (It is important to note that in neither the King-Byng affair nor the Whitlam-Kerr affair was the Governor General acting on the orders of the actual person who was the Crown at the time, but rather on their dutiful instinct as the local incarnation thereof). It is disappointing to those who are unflinching in their attempts to defend the British Monarchy that the British Monarchy insists on participating in, and sometimes urging on, the very sort of wickedness which we look to the Crown to protect us from. Alas, so far we have looked in vain.