BRB’s recent guest article on how the Queen has often put a foot wrong during her reign reminded me of another myth that is too often bandied about. It has been said many times that the Royals have no real power or influence and their role is merely a ceremonial one.
It should be pointed out that, under our constitutional system, the Queen technically possesses some powers, which she could, in theory, exercise if she wanted to. Royalists will, of course, argue that many of these so-called Royal Prerogatives appear to be a formality, with some not having been used by a monarch in centuries. Although the Queen’s exemption from the Freedom of Information Act means that the public cannot know the full extent of her involvement in affairs of state, she has largely gained a reputation (unlike her son) for not interfering in politics.
Certainly, for the most part, she has not intervened in matters where action might have been welcomed. For instance, the Royal Prerogative was not withheld for the Iraq War, despite around a million people protesting against it in the capital. Nor did the Queen respond to pleas to use the Royal Prerogative of Mercy when teenager Derek Bentley was hanged for a crime he had not actually committed. That’s not to mention how she expressly declined to get involved during the Australian Constitutional Crisis of 1975.
However, following revelations that both the Queen and Prince Charles also have the power of veto over certain government legislation it emerged earlier this year that the Queen had torpedoed a private member’s bill in 1999 that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament. This, in turn, may lead some to wonder why – if she was so intent on retaining that power – she did not attempt to stop Britain’s participation in a highly unpopular and illegal Iraq war, in which up to a million people lost their lives.
For my part, I suspect the clue may be in the fact that the above-mentioned right to veto refers to government legislation that affects the Queen’s and Charles’s own interests. It surely cannot be denied that it is to the monarch’s personal advantage to keep hold of (any kind of) power that may prove useful to them one day.
Pondering this notion a little further, I then recalled one very particular occasion – where the Queen’s power, position and influence worked very much in her own favour. It was also the one instance I could think of where she interceded in a specific incident.
Remember Paul Burrell, Diana’s former butler, who – for a while – became something of a media personality? Allegedly referred to by Diana as her “rock” and subsequently branded by others as a somewhat “porous” one, Burrell is undoubtedly a very strange character.
Let us cast our minds back to January 2001. Burrell’s house was raided by police, where over 300 items including Diana’s clothes, jewellery, nightwear, personal family photographs and letters were found. In August 2001, Burrell appeared in court where he denied accusations of stealing. Nevertheless, in November of that year, he was committed for trial and charged,with three counts of theft, relating to property worth £6 million that did not just belong to Diana, but to Princes Charles and William too.
The court case at the Old Bailey was scheduled for January of 2002, but (believe it or not) ended up being postponed until October so as not to clash with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Yet no sooner had it begun, when the jury was discharged two days later at a cost of approximately £30,000. A second trial commenced on 17 October and lasted for almost two weeks before it was abruptly halted again and the second jury was sent home. The whole case then collapsed in spectacular fashion on 1 November – when it emerged that it had been stopped by none other than the Queen!
The official line was that during a conversation with Princes Charles and Philip, the Queen suddenly remembered that Burrell had told her he was going to put some of Diana’s papers away for safekeeping. Apparently, the Queen had not realised the significance of this alleged conversation and it had been solely the CPS’s decision to not proceed with the trial.
While it may have ultimately been the CPS’s decision to halt the proceedings, such a revelation could – in all honestly – not have resulted in anything other than the trial collapsing. Moreover, this story has raised a number of other issues/questions, chiefly;
that despite considerable media publicity about Burrell’s alleged theft from January 2001 onwards, the Queen did not realise until October 2002 that a conversation she’d had regarding him putting some items aside could be relevant
- If either the Queen’s memory was so bad (at the age of 76 back then) that she completely forgot about the conversation with Burrell, or she was not wise enough to realise the relevance of it, is she really mentally fit to be the Head of State (now aged 87)?
that at the time that the conversation took place, the Queen did not think it strange that someone who no longer worked for her or her late ex-daughter-in-law would want to put some items aside for safekeeping – presumably on the belief that his home would be safer than Kensington Palace
I’ll leave the readers to draw their own conclusions as to these points. Suffice to say, the result was that the Queen’s intervention caused the trial to collapse at a cost of about £1.5 million to the taxpayer. Depending on what you believe, through her failure to speak out sooner, she also either put an innocent man through almost two years of an unnecessary, traumatic investigation – wasting police time in the process – or she let a criminal walk free.
Now, ordinarily, there are severe consequences if someone causes a trial to collapse. In fact, judges have been known to jail people responsible for doing such a thing. However, in the Queen’s case, she was not held accountable for her actions at all despite widespread criticism at the time. Nor could she be, thanks to her sovereign immunity making her officially above the law.
In conclusion, if that isn’t an example of power, influence and an abuse of both, I don’t know what is.