The Daily Telegraph
Our ancient constitution still lives – and thrives
Britain is unlike much of Europe because monarchy and Parliament broadly evolved in partnership
In “Little Gidding”, the last of his Four Quartets, his great reflection on Englishness and history, TS Eliot wrote of: “... people, not wholly commendable, Of no immediate kin or kindness, But of some peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius, United in the strife which divided
Eliot certainly had the Civil War in mind when he wrote those words. I couldn’t help but think of it, too, sitting in Westminster Hall on Monday, as I watched Parliament’s presentation of addresses to the King and Queen Consort.
Maybe I am unusual, but to me the sight of the King on the grand staircase, surrounded by his Yeomen bodyguard, irresistibly recalled the dramatic events of January 4 1642. That day, Charles I and his bodyguard strode through Westminster Hall, up the same staircase and into the Commons, to arrest the Five Members who had led opposition to his rule. Tipped off, they slipped away just in time. Seated in the Speaker’s Chair, the King commented, “I see the birds are flown,” and asked Speaker Lenthall for their whereabouts. His reply, “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me”, has become the most famous expression of Parliamentary independence.
Seven years later, King Charles was tried on that very spot. But the subsequent unhappy republican experiment didn’t last. It’s still worth asking why.
It’s partly because the monarchy has an obvious and vital role in our polity – to stand above the strife that divides in day-to-day politics, symbolise our country, and provide a focus for national loyalty. Our late Queen played that role to perfection and we must hope that King Charles will do the same.
But that’s not the whole story. Yes, that’s how things work today. But it wasn’t predestined that we would get to this point. We might, after all, have abolished the monarchy permanently in 1649 or 1688, and it had wobbly moments in the 1790s and even at times under Queen Victoria. Abolition didn’t happen for a very good reason, and it is something particular in this country’s historical development: monarchy and Parliament evolved, not in opposition, but in partnership. Conflict between the two was an aberration, not the norm, and the story of our monarchy is also a story about Parliament.
Parliament originally grew and prospered because it was useful to the medieval monarchy in raising money for the wars in France. It didn’t get sidelined, as under continental absolutism, precisely because it was the King’s partner in running the country. Its aristocratic and knightly members represented their interests to the King, but also helped make the government’s writ run in the shires.
The Stuarts tried to change things – unsuccessfully and traumatically, one reason why we remember Speaker Lenthall and the Civil Wars so vividly. When James II was sent packing in 1688, Parliament did not abolish the king’s powers, the Royal Prerogative, but instead took some of them for itself.
The group of the monarch’s advisers who could sustain a majority in Parliament, the Cabinet, became the government, and Parliament became the arena for the great debates of the day: court and country, Tory and Liberal, Labour and Conservative.
That gradual shift of power happened sooner in Britain than almost anywhere else. The existence of the monarchy, symbolising historical continuity, both enabled it and disguised it. The old and new could co-exist, and major constitutional change could happen without further civil strife – again, in contrast to almost everywhere else in Europe.
That process is now largely complete, but its terms are not entirely settled. Gina Miller’s first case against the government during the Brexit trauma was, after all, partly about the scope of the Royal Prerogative and whether the government could act without legislation passed by Parliament.
That evolutionary character of our constitution, the ability to manage deep differences within an agreed political arena over time, is the British genius, perhaps part of the genius to which Eliot referred. Certainly, for most of the past 300 years, governance was thought to be our specific contribution to Western civilisation. Only in recent decades has the technocratic rule of experts, the people who know best, like Cromwell’s Puritans, come to be seen as a desirable alternative model – by some.
Not by me. I noticed this week many people quoting Eliot, perhaps unconsciously, in describing our late Queen as their “still point of the turning world”, a phrase from another of the Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”.
Four Quartets is a work of profound reflection on many themes, but the poems are at least in part about finding words to capture that hushed moment when the tumult and the shouting dies: stillness out of movement, the evanescent present out of the deep historical past. As Eliot put it:
“The moment of the rose and the
moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. … History is now and England.”
This week is one such moment. It has shown that the old constitution still lives – and still thrives.