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The Guardian (editorial) - 25 Februari 2019
The Guardian view on the Queen and Brexit: a crisis in the making
The palace does not intervene lightly, so even a coded speech alluding to fears for the state of public discourse is revealing
'A sure sign that political turmoil has tipped into constitutional crisis is a hint that the Queen might get involved. Monarchy can only work in the 21st century if the person occupying the throne upholds a rigorous vow of neutrality. All of the historical, legal precedents behind the weird principle of sovereignty belonging to “the crown-in-parliament” amount to one rule: the crown is for ceremony; MPs do the rest.
Elizabeth II is diligent in upholding her side of that bargain, so it must have taken some provocation for the palace to make an intervention, even an encrypted one, calling for a more harmonious public discourse. The Queen did not mention Brexit in her speech to the Sandringham Women’s Institute, but she hardly needed to. Alarm at the present intensity of political discord rang out in her allusion to “respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture”.
There is something preposterous in the idea of a hereditary monarch inviting commoners to find more in common with each other. And not all of the royal family are as good as the Queen at recognising the need for discretion within a modern democracy. The Duke of Edinburgh is the most frequent offender, and his decision to get back behind the wheel apparently without a seatbelt just days after crashing into another vehicle in Norfolk is a recent example.
But even those who lament the monarch’s primacy in Britain’s constitution, like this newspaper, cannot deny that it exists. It is not craven deference to note that the prime minister is a crown appointment and many functions of government are performed by royal prerogative. Those are facts. Inevitably, when parliament looks incapable of navigating through a crisis, the power vested in the crown becomes relevant. Jacob Rees-Mogg identified that simple truth when he suggested that parliament could be prorogued to prevent MPs legislating to obstruct a no-deal Brexit. It was a fanatical suggestion but one that invokes a real mechanism. On this trajectory, it is only a matter of time before the Queen finds her position dangerously politicised. It is surely to avert that outcome that she has spoken now.
One challenge is the role of the palace in the event that the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in the government. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act allows for a 14-day window before dissolution, in which parties manoeuvre to assemble a majority and thereby form a new administration. The process has never been tested and the Queen could be pushed towards a decision based on uncertain Commons arithmetic against a statutory deadline.
Britain used to be admired as a paragon of stability, and that state of affairs is due in part to the combination of a liberal political culture and an archaic constitution. It is a flexible arrangement but not an indestructible one. It relies on unwritten norms and undeclared consensus around the parameters of civilised debate. Those conditions have been corroded in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Abuse, death threats, accusations of treason and invocations of violence and rebellion have surged. The very character of British politics has turned more extreme, more venomous. Aggressive rhetoric which rejects the legitimacy of dissenting views has become increasingly widespread. That shrinks the space where politics can be conducted within civil boundaries and in recognition that democracy itself is the overarching enterprise.
These trends have not appeared overnight. But the Queen’s decision to say something indicates that the situation has reached a certain gravity. The palace is not a neutral or dispassionate player. There is a monarchical self-interest in wanting the ship of state steadied; in not wanting to see a crisis reach the stage where crown powers become more than ceremonial and so more controversial. But whatever questions might be raised about the timing or necessity of the Queen’s public appeal to a spirit of mutual respect and common endeavour, there can’t be any doubt that she has a point.'