Rethinking Europe

UK: Saving the Nation from Itself by Royal Veto Power

A monarch with the temperament and selflessness of Queen Anne could save Britain from its own insanity.

Takeaways


  • With the Brexit crisis threatening long-term economic damage to the UK, a few frustrated British lawmakers are suggesting that the Queen ought to get involved.
  • For Britons today, it is not clear that withholding royal assent from any particular Brexit scheme would solve the looming national crisis.
  • A monarch with the temperament and selflessness of Queen Anne could save Britain from its own insanity.
  • For Americans living under a president who wants absolute power, we can only dream that he had the temperament of Queen Anne when he plans his next intervention.

With the Brexit crisis threatening long-term economic damage to the UK, a few frustrated British lawmakers are suggesting that the Queen ought to get involved.

However much this idea is being mocked by the British political mainstream, such a royal intervention has happened before and satisfied all parties involved, when it was last invoked in 1708.

As queen in a parliamentary monarchy, in which Parliament holds most of the power, Elizabeth II plays a largely ceremonial role. Since part of that role is to formally open and close Parliament each year, some hard Brexiteers are suggesting that she also retains the power to prorogue Parliament, i.e. peremptorily shut it down. A few are asserting that she also has the right to withhold royal assent from legislation.

Chris Bryant, a Labour MP mocked this suggestion, as a “preposterous Tudor- or Stuart-era idea,” adding that next “it’ll be sending people to the Tower, hanging drawing and quartering them.”

He insinuates that such a royal intervention would be an abuse of power, equivalent to outdated forms of torture and punishment. Yet the last time a monarch intervened in this way (in the Stuart era), it was not to assert her power tyrannically over Parliament, but to assist Parliament in reversing a prior decision that everyone very much wished to reverse.

In other words, the royal denial of assent in 1708 expressed, rather than undermined, Parliament’s will.

Selfless Queen Anne

The monarch in question was Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, who reigned from 1702-14. In March 1708, she withheld assent from a bill to reactivate the Scottish militias — locally organized military reserve forces that filled a role similar to statewide national guard units in the United States today.

In this instance, Parliament had already voted to approve the Scottish militia bill, following from the 1707 Act of Union that joined England and Scotland to form Great Britain. Yet, at this juncture, Queen Anne was not subverting Parliament’s voice, but working with tacit Parliamentary agreement to avert a crisis.

News had just arrived that French warships were headed towards Scotland carrying the Catholic Pretender to the British throne — Queen Anne’s half-brother, James Francis Edward Stuart.

In other words, a hostile foreign power was on its way to invade Great Britain and attempt a monarchical coup — one that might have the effect of returning the Protestant nation to Catholicism.

Parliament and the Queen feared that James Francis Edward Stuart’s popularity in Scotland (the Stuarts were an ancient line of Scottish kings) meant that local militia members might choose to back the Pretender rather than defend the Queen.

We could disagree today with an English-dominated Parliament’s paternalistic concerns about loyalty among rural Scottish citizens, but Queen Anne was certainly acting with not against Parliament in this instance.

The Glorious Revolution

Having come to the throne because of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which Parliament asserted its power over the monarch by replacing the Catholic line of Stuart monarchs (i.e. James II and his Catholic son by his second wife) with the Protestant line of Stuarts (through James II’s Protestant daughters, Mary — who ruled with her husband William — and then Anne), Queen Anne well understood the need to share power with Parliament.

Anne was a thoughtful and diligent ruler who tried to maintain a government and royal cabinet balanced evenly between Whigs and Tories. In fact, the crises in her cabinet usually occurred because the Whigs and Tories themselves would not readily share power.

This inter-party squabbling is captured comically in the recent film The Favourite — although that film does not do justice to the intelligence, the discipline or the selflessness of Queen Anne (who would never have sat on the floor eating cake with pet rabbits), whose sole concern was to do the best thing for her country.

Saving Britain from insanity

For Britons today, it is not clear that withholding royal assent from any particular Brexit scheme (should one ever pass Parliament) would solve the looming national crisis. But the desire for the queen to act as a deus ex machina to save Britain from its own insanity is perfectly understandable.

For Americans living under the regime of a president who seems to wish he had absolute monarchical power, we can only dream that he had the temperament of the selfless and thoughtful Queen Anne whenever he plans his next presidential intervention.

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About Rachel Carnell

Rachel Carnell is professor of 18th century British literature at Cleveland State University.

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