Attached as the British have been to their monarchy (even when disliking individual incumbents), they have been curiously reluctant to admit that the institution has any effective powers. At some point, the argument goes, British kings and queens threw off the mantle of political authority and became constitutional figure-heads, leaving politics to the politicians. The date of that moment of emasculation remains vague, but it is always a long time ago, reinforcing the view that the present monarch is a political innocent. The Hanoverian kings were considered in their time to be constitutional monarchs, their powers fettered by Parliament and contrasted with those of their Stuart predecessors (and, naturally, with their Continental counterparts, despots and tyrants all); Victorians tended to view George III as the first constitutional king (disagreement from across the Atlantic notwithstanding): his reign and especially his insanity and confinement were seen as marking a shift of political power towards Parliament. Commentators in the early 20th century took Victoria to be the first constitutional monarch, a view derived in part from Bagehot and the Queen’s own campaign to present herself as a simple widow bearing responsibilities beyond her strength and suffering pomp out of necessity. More recently, there has been a move towards viewing Victoria as the last unconstitutional monarch – so the moment at which the monarchy divested itself, or was stripped, of its political functions carries on rolling forward.
The term ‘constitutional monarchy’ is bandied about as if it always meant the same thing. William of Orange was a constitutional monarch; so is Elizabeth II. The powers, rights, and obligations accruing to each are, of course, very different. Even written constitutions are subject to different interpretations at different times (as the extension of the franchise in the US to African Americans and women makes clear). We should be even more cautious about an unwritten constitution, in which the meaning of a phrase may be more fluid because it lacks such a rigid context. It is futile to debate whether Victoria was more or less constitutional than George III, or whether Edward VII was the first really constitutional king, because no British monarch since 1688 has had power unfettered by Parliament. We should be asking other questions. How, for example, did different monarchs and politicians perceive their relationship and accommodate each other? What external factors influenced the balance of power between monarch and Parliament? What were the constitutional effects of long reigns? (This is of great importance in respect to monarchs like Victoria, who could cite precedent and experience from a time before their ministers were born.) Does a change in the relationship between Crown and Parliament necessarily mean a decline in the power of the throne?
There are those who assert that the monarchy is, and has been for more than a century, politically impotent and irrelevant. Simon Heffer and the late Robert Rhodes James have thought differently, and rightly so. Recent indignation over the ‘co-option’ of royal events by Tony Blair highlights the uses to which politicians can put the monarchy; it is hard to see why Prime Ministers would continue the ritual of the weekly interview with the sovereign if they found it entirely without purpose. From the other perspective, if the role of monarchs is as devoid of meaning as some critics have suggested, why have they not (with one exception) preferred to retire into private life? Neither Heffer nor Rhodes James escapes being ensnared in the ‘relative constitutionality’ debate, but both demonstrate (one from a study of Edward VII’s papers, the other with the benefit of access to the papers of the Queen Mother) the value of historical analysis in fields ploughed and re-ploughed by tribes of popular biographers.
Power and Place sets out to analyse the relationship between monarch and ministers at a time that Heffer considers to be a turning point in British constitutional development. The dominant popular image of Edward VII – unduly influenced, even created, by Timothy West’s portrayal in the 1970s television drama – is of a jolly, ageing playboy with no interests beyond the runners at Newmarket, his next lavish meal and the charms of his latest mistress. Heffer’s Edward is rather different, a politician manqué throughout his long years as Prince of Wales, kept from his natural place by the jealousy, longevity and inconsiderateness of his mother. On succeeding to the throne in 1901, he blossomed into a mature political figure.
His short reign saw the beginning of the processes that led to the curtailment of the powers of the House of Lords, to Home Rule for Ireland and to the First World War. Heffer argues strongly that the King had an important role in all these developments, but breaks off abruptly with his sudden death in May 1910, so that the consequences of his reign are not explored as fully as they might have been. Power and Place is a compromise between old-fashioned biography and political analysis, written by Heffer in an interlude between working on the lives of two radical conservatives (Carlyle and Enoch Powell). It seems at first to be a Life of Edward without the gossip (the Telegraph’s version, perhaps, rather than the Mail’s). But in fact Heffer constructs a serious, if not altogether successful, argument about the institution of modern monarchy. His belief – not widely supported by political historians – is that the King mattered; that, much as they might have wished to do otherwise, politicians had to take Edward seriously, because he took his own position seriously.
The first part of Power and Place, before Edward acceeded to the throne, is the weaker. Princes of Wales are, as we know too well, in an invidious position: debarred from useful employment, without a defined political or constitutional role, the relationship with the reigning parent often tarnished – they provide easy targets for cynics and satirists. To his credit, Heffer saves his satire for others, notably Disraeli and Balfour. He draws a sympathetic portrait of an intelligent – he is careful not to suggest ‘clever’ – man, frustrated in his ambitions to be useful. The trouble is, he provides barely any evidence for this positive assessment. In relation to the early 1870s, for example, when British republicanism was at its height and the Prince was in receipt of £100,000 a year of public funds, Heffer asserts that he ‘did his bit, and more than earned his stipend from the Government’. His ‘bit’ seems, however, to have been no more than the charming of a newspaper editor and a dinner with Joseph Chamberlain. Heffer can in fact find little to refute Victoria and Albert’s view that, in these years at least, their son was a dilettante, lacking judgment, discretion and a capacity for sustained work. Heffer holds Victoria largely responsible, but it’s certainly possible to argue that the Queen’s assessment was a sound one, and that the Prince’s interest in the labours of the sovereign was piqued only by his exclusion from them. Referring to Gladstone’s proposal to send Edward to Ireland as a non-political Viceroy, Heffer himself comes close to admitting this: ‘the idea of work was far more comforting than its immediate prospect.’
With Victoria dead, Heffer and Edward reach more solid ground. Although the precise powers of the King might be in dispute, it is easier to show what he actually did once crowned than what he might have done as Prince of Wales. The vigour with which the new monarch approached his task surprised his ministers. And Heffer’s account makes clear – in a way that purely biographical studies, cluttered with the King’s mistresses, family relationships, failing health and other such matters cannot do – that Edward did in fact make a distinctive contribution to the politics of his day, most notably in his initiation of the Entente Cordiale with France. This episode has been played down in accounts of the political role of the monarchy, but it is an example, almost certainly unique in this period, of a British King initiating political policy without being directed by his ministers. The visit to Paris in 1903 was arranged by the King, without the assistance of his ambassadors or Foreign Secretary, and he declined the attendance of any minister on his tour. Heffer’s account of the systematic efforts by Balfour, then Prime Minister, to disparage Edward’s activities – these included telling Sir Sidney Lee, who was writing the entry on the King in the Dictionary of National Biography, that the King had had little, if any, influence on the political events of the day – makes for some of the most interesting reading in the book.
Even though Edward was dependent on the willingness of particular ministers to share information and to act on his advice, he claimed special interest and knowledge in the field of foreign affairs, and clearly believed his direct intervention there was within the boundaries of constitutional prerogative. Balfour, on the other hand, felt that the King’s actions trespassed on ground belonging to politicians. As the outcome of the Paris visit was favourable, however, he decided to try to take credit for it. Heffer is savage about Balfour, who painted a negative portrait of Edward after the King’s death ‘in order to retain his own self-regard and not own up to the fact that he was, for all his intellectual brilliance, a moral coward, a vacillator and a compromiser’. Heffer’s loathing obscures the fact that the personal relationship between sovereign and Prime Minister is as important a factor in the way constitutional monarchy develops as formal constitutional law, precedent and practice. And the fact that the early years of a reign (especially when they follow a long period of relative incapacity on the part of the preceding monarch) are crucial for the relationship between the Crown, ministers, and Parliament.
Heffer argues that Edward’s use of his privileged position to achieve certain political and diplomatic ends was the last gasp of a tradition of political engagement by the monarchy. Politicians factored the potential opposition of the King into their policy calculations; while he did not attempt to veto any particular policy, the knowledge that the king opposed it and the possibility of a long fight persuaded ministers not to follow their preferred course of action. In this way, the King acted as a brake on constitutional change. Having sought to establish that Edward’s political influence was greater than generally supposed, Heffer concludes that Asquith and Lloyd George acted to ensure his successor would be reduced to the political nonentity demanded by Bagehotian constitutional theory.
Rhodes James suggests otherwise. It is true that the political influence of George VI appears to have been more uncertain than that of his grandfather, dependent as it was on his exceptionally close relationship with Churchill, and on the special circumstances of the Second World War. Other Prime Ministers – Chamberlain, for instance – refused to take George into their political confidence, and at such times the King was impotent to a degree that would have been inconceivable to Edward VII, who simply didn’t stand for Balfour’s attempts to cut him out of the political world. Rhodes James is at pains to assert that, given Churchill’s confidence in him and the peculiar demands of a nation at war, George VI was not what Ben Pimlott has called a ‘cypher-monarch’.
Rhodes James’s brief as an apologist is fairly evident. There’s never any doubt that the Duke of Windsor was unfit for the position he abdicated; and no criticism of George VI, however trivial, goes unanswered – for example, the suggestion that the royal family had a larger allowance of clothing coupons than the rest of the population. Rhodes James is stating the obvious here: there is little support for the idea that Edward VIII would have made a better king than his brother. (Republicans no doubt regret the Abdication: the prolonged reign of a man eager to separate the monarchy from the democratic process, and a suspected Nazi sympathiser to boot, could well have meant the end of the institution.) Insofar as George VI lives in the popular imagination, it is very much as the man and king Rhodes James portrays – dutiful to the point of self-destruction, the brave figurehead and supporter of both nation and Government during the Second World War. Sniping at more recent royals has not undermined this perception.
Rhodes James starts out with a broad interpretation of the term ‘political’, and says that ‘almost every public activity of a monarch has a political character to it.’ He is right (although any casual distinction made between public and private in this context should be treated with caution). It’s a pity, then, that he restricts much of his account to the high politics of the relationship between King and Government. When George VI was in agreement with his ministers, his opinion was sought and valued, and this certainly constitutes political influence of a kind. But there is nothing to suggest that when he was in disagreement with them, he was able to exert any influence. In discussing his relations with the Attlee Government, Rhodes James strenuously asserts that the King was not partisan, but within a few paragraphs admits that he was ‘disconcerted’ to find the Government a ‘genuinely socialist’ one, that he was ‘concerned’ by its ‘headlong dash into unprepared radical policies’ and that he found it difficult to carry out his Bagehotian obligation to ‘encourage’ his ministers when he did not agree with their policies. This sounds like the old argument – which all the years of Thatcherism ought to have put to rest – that Conservatism is not ideological or partisan, but natural, and that to be merely ‘pragmatic and personal’ is not a political position.
It is sometimes a little difficult to fathom exactly what Rhodes James’s argument is. He wants his readers to recognise that George VI was an important element in the political structure, but is unwilling to concede that he had any political power, where power is construed as having any partisan or ideological content or motivation. For partisanship would be clearly unconstitutional, and Rhodes James is committed to an ahistorical ideal of constitutionality at odds with his usually sound historical sense. His conclusion is that by becoming the ‘servant of his people’, George VI both saved and elevated the monarchy, and he regards this as a jolly good thing. We are not told for what purpose it had been saved.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.