Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Queen's Private Secretary

Most of the key players in the British constitutional system are well known. The leading members of the Executive are the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The current list can be found here. Details of senior civil servants can be found here. Members of the Legislature are listed at Parliament's website. The Supreme Court, which is the highest court of the judicial system has a very informative website which can be accessed here.

The British Constitution is not set out in a single document. Many key 'rules' are known as conventions. These have been described as non-legally binding (in other words they would not be enforced by the Courts) - but which the political actors regard themselves as bound by. For example it is now a convention that the Queen will sign any bill presented to her which has been passed by both Houses of Parliament. If she failed to do so, she could not be ordered to sign by a Court, but - if asked - the Queen would say that she has no alternative but to sign.

What happens if a constitutional crisis arises? Who would sort things out? The key to understanding the British constitution is that such crises would be resolved - not by a legal solution (for example in the USA the Supreme Court might be regarded as the final arbiter in a dispute over the Constitution) - but by a political solution.

When there was controversy over Edward VIII's proposed marriage to a divorcee (1936) - or when there was a constitutional crisis over the House of Lords blocking the Budget (1909-10) - the key political actors, between themselves, sorted out a solution.

One individual who has often played a key role is the Private Secretary to the Monarch. Vernon Bogdanor devotes a whole chapter of his 1995 book "The Monarchy and the Constitution" to this office holder. He claims that "the office...has become crucial to the working of constitutional monarchy in Britain." It is a chapter worth reading!

The official description of the post on the UK Monarchy's website can be accessed here. The photograph accompanying this post is that of Lord Knollys - Private Secretary to Edward VII and George V.