Our Secret Monarchy


It’s been a busy few years for the British monarchy. In 2011 they had a royal wedding, and the first half of 2012 brought their popularity to dizzying heights with that spectacular second act of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Not long after, though, the all-too-familiar air of scandal once again embroiled the Royal Family. In August, Prince Harry was photographed in the nude during a game of strip billiards in Las Vegas. Walter Bagehot, the go-to authority on all things monarchy, once said of royalty: "Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic." Just a few weeks later, Kate Middleton was photographed while sunbathing topless in the south of France.

But how much damage did these photographs do to the mystical allure of royalty? During the whole affair, public opinion of the monarchy and its core members remained high. The exploits of the current generation of young royals are fairly tame compared to what their parents engaged in in the 1980s and 90s.

Kings and Queens were once powerful executive sovereigns, exerting their will over domestic and foreign policy. Gradually, however, British parliament began to remove these powers, until they were the supreme power and the monarch was little more than an ornament. But if the monarch no longer has any control over political affairs, why keep one around? It’s a question that still befuddles those Australians with republican tendencies.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, all this reached a tipping point. In her early reign, Victoria had meddled in politics and found herself on the wrong side of public sentiment, but she was able to reinvent herself, and with it, the role of the monarchy. She became more politically neutral, publicly at least, and appealed to the masses in a new social role: as a leader in morality and taste. This was helped by the fact that — as Bagehot observed — "there is no explicit information as to what the Queen can do, any more than of what she does".

In the 21st century, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has brought British government into line with democratic ideals of transparency and accountability. But under this law, royal documents were subject to a qualified exemption. Anyone who requested access had to demonstrate that disclosure was in the public interest. The government, who defend against release, tried to prove that it was in the public interest to keep the documents confidential. In 2010, the Act was amended to give an absolute exemption to communications involving the Queen, Prince Charles and William, but before this change came into effect, the damage had already been done.

In an absolute exemption, no public interest test is applied and any documents with one may not be released under any circumstances before a specified — usually very lengthy — period of time. In April 2005, The Guardian newspaper requested the release of a number of letters between Charles and several government ministers which they claimed contained evidence of political lobbying. After a seven year battle and an appeal, an Upper Tribunal ruled in favour of The Guardian on 18 September 2012.

Though the ruling came after the absolute exemption came into effect, because the case was lodged before that date, it had to be evaluated based on the old qualified exemption. The Tribunal ruled that it was in the public interest for people to know how and where Charles seeks to influence government policy. Under the qualified exemption, the release was appropriate because it did not involve ongoing or sensitive government matters. The Tribunal also ruled that Charles’ lobbying did not fall under the constitutional convention that "the heir to the throne is to be instructed in the business of government".

This argument would seem to be supported by the Prince’s own characterisation of his public role. The Prince of Wales’ official website states that "the Prince is … able to highlight issues which are of concern to himself and to others in the aim of opening up a public debate." Expert witness for The Guardian Adam Tomkins was able to convince the Tribunal that the advocacy Charles undertakes is a constitutional "innovation", i.e. not within the traditional role of the Crown, and was therefore not constitutionally protected from disclosure.

Attorney-General Dominic Grieve disagreed, and on 16 October 2012, he vetoed the decision. In the explanation of his use of the veto, Grieve relied on the same defence that had been dismissed in the Tribunal: that the Prince’s lobbying was permitted and protected from disclosure under the "business of government" clause. He effectively dismissed the results of the public interest test and retroactively applied the new absolute exemption to the Guardian case.

So even in cases where it is clearly demonstrable that the release of royal documents is in the public interest, the government has invoked a greater, overarching public interest in confidentiality, so as to preserve the position of the monarchy. This is problematic. According to the Queen’s own husband, Prince Philip: "It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch. It doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people."

In order to understand the government’s "public interest" argument, some spectacular circular reasoning has to be applied. As Philip argues, the monarchy is in the public interest — the public want it around. However, if the political neutrality of the monarchy was compromised — for instance, by a freedom of information request revealing damaging documents — perhaps the people would change their opinion. This, Philip would argue, would be against the public interest.

The question, then, has to be asked: does privileged royal secrecy serve the public interest, or simply the interests of the monarchy? If Prince Philip and others are arguing that the monarchy is justified by a democratic mandate through public approval, and that mandate can only be sustained through fabrication and deception, is it really all that much of a mandate?

When it’s generally agreed that the public consciously chooses to keep their hereditary monarchy, it becomes demonstrably in the public interest for there to be substantial and relevant information available so that they can keep on making that decision in a fully informed way. Prince Harry’s exploits, Kate Middleton’s shoes and the contents of the Queen’s handbag, interesting though they are, are not relevant pieces of information.

Royal secrecy only exists in the interests of sustaining the monarchy, regardless of whether that is compatible with the greater public interest. Not that there’s much we can do this about this now. The absolute exemption is in effect, and it would take a lot of political will that doesn’t exist to have it repealed.

But next time you look at the monarchy and think, "well, they’re a little bit useless, but aren’t they lovely and entertaining and quaint," remember it’s a distraction, and an example of a public relations strategy that appeals to emotion rather than reason.

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