Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian newspaper. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had planned a safe environment for his speech Tuesday in New York. In the Big Apple for this week’s UN General Assembly, he was set to address a select group of business leaders on opportunities in the United Kingdom, in the shadow of the Vessel, a structure recently built by his designer friend Thomas Heatherwick.
But the morning didn’t go according to plan for Johnson. Instead he found himself stammering out a response to a different crisis: a Supreme Court ruling that has sent yet another earthquake through the already fractious landscape of British politics. The United Kingdom’s highest court ruled unanimously Tuesday – with a panel of 11 judges – that Johnson acted unlawfully when he suspended the British Parliament for five weeks at the end of this summer. There was the usual bluster from Johnson in his reaction – an assertion that he “respects” the judiciary was followed immediately by an insistence that he “strongly disagrees” with the legal findings of Britain’s preeminent judges. Notably, there was an apology missing. At no point in Johnson’s speech did he apologize to Britain’s people, or to the Queen.
Why did Boris owe the Queen an apology? Because by upholding a previous ruling by Scotland’s Court Session, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson had misled the sovereign herself. As the head of state, the Queen has to give permission to “prorogue,” or suspend, Parliament; Johnson’s lawyers had assured her they were acting constitutionally. It is unclear whether the Queen’s own team could or should have imposed further scrutiny before they agreed; what is clear is that by his actions, Johnson has significantly imperiled the last seemingly safe component of Britain’s shaky constitution: the institution of the monarchy. The royal family are big losers from Johnson’s staggeringly embarrassing behavior.
No one in Britain can ever quite agree whether and how the Queen counts as a political figure. As a constitutional figurehead, she certainly isn’t allowed to pronounce on matters of personal political opinion – so even when another member of the royal family ventures an opinion on a social matter, whether it’s Prince Charles lobbying for organic farming or Meghan Markle talking about the environment, there’s always cause for a discussion about whether this royal intervention is “political.” (Unfairly for Meghan, however, the tabloid press rarely applies the same standards to all of them.) But the Queen also has the power to appoint or dismiss heads of government, supposedly only ever doing so as a formality to confirm the results of an election or a no-confidence vote.
Things get constitutionally murky, however, when the democratic will that the monarch is supposed to endorse becomes too difficult for her to read. She’s always supposed to appoint as prime minister the person who is most capable of commanding a majority of democratic representatives in Britain’s House of Commons – but it’s not always easy to tell who that person is.
In a nation as divided as contemporary Britain, it is likely that no political party will be able to win an overall majority at the next election. It may not even be clear that any party leader is capable of building a working coalition. Theoretically, the Queen should then play a role in selecting the next prime minister – but is that really acceptable in a modern democracy? The last time she played such a role was in 1963 and – as depicted recently in the Netflix series “The Crown” – her youthful decision to appoint the aristocratic Alec Douglas-Home was a disaster.
The truth is that the Queen has no democratic accountability – and therefore in a modern world, she has no moral authority. The idea of her sweeping onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace and announcing her personally preferred prime minister is impossible. Yet at the same time, the monarchy’s defenders have long presented the royals as the last bulwark against demagogy and political overreach. The Queen’s one job is to act as a check on misbehaving politicians. This week’s decision demonstrates that the 21st-century monarchy is no longer capable of doing that job.
It’s hardly the monarch’s personal fault. Can you imagine what Johnson would have done had she refused to approve a suspension his own attorney general insisted was legal? The forces of Brexit, whose hero Johnson claims to be, base their political power on the mantra that the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union was the ultimate expression of democratic will. What fate might await an unelected, hereditary monarch who stood in the way of that will? Turning down Johnson’s demands was not a good option. But neither was acquiescing to it.
When Brits are children, many of us are told a happy story about the British monarchy. Why hasn’t there been a Hitler in Britain, we ask? Because the Queen exists to stop him, we are told. A fascist prime minister, however many fervent supporters voted him in, would never be able to impose laws of the sort passed by Nazis, because the Queen would stop him. So the story goes.
Johnson is not – however florid the exaggerations of some of his critics – a Nazi or a fascist. Not remotely. But he has exposed the myth that the Queen holds any power to check the land grabs of a demagogic prime minister intent on breaking the norms. Already, it’s not a good time for the monarchy; Prince Andrew’s association with the late convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein should be causing every British citizen to examine just how easily the privileges enjoyed by our royal family have been and can be abused. Andrew (who denies accusations of abuse lodged against him) has called his continued association with Epstein after his conviction a mistake.
Now, Johnson has demonstrated that the Queen can’t even do her one job: standing up to him. The rest of Britain is left to wonder what on earth the monarchy is for.