Of Parliaments, Dukes and Queens

map.jpgFour interesting stories recently, all having to do with the ancient relationship between a sovereign and a parliament, or the relationship of hereditary rulership to democracy. I secretly admire the emergent forms of government which have proven stable despite their chaotic origins. I’m fascinated by these imperfectly republican nations like Canada and the United Kingdom, where the assent of the Queen to legislation is still required. And for our Canadian and UK readers who think that isn’t really relevant…well, take note of what happened in Luxembourg.

The Grand Duke of Luxembourg had the termity to not rubber-stamp a bill (on euthenasia). Radio Netherlands is reporting that a mere parliamentary committee has written him out of the process entirely. It’s not clear to me who the Prime Minister of Luxembourg is now prime minister to, but that’s the problem of the Luxembourgers.

Meanwhile, on December 4th, the Canadian “Governor General agrees to suspend Parliament until January.” Formally, prorouging them. I sort of like the idea that someone in a position of authority has declared all of Canada’s parliament to be rouges, but the G.G. is usually understood to be a ceremonial role. It turns out that that’s not entirely the case, although her action was unprecedented. (The Wikipedia article on Governor General is unsurprisingly good – enjoy the section on controverseys — the one on the “2008 Canadian parliamentary dispute,” is not yet well organized.) Still, the G.G. took decisive action to prevent the government from falling.

I’m a little disappointed that Stéphan Dion didn’t call for a meeting of Parliament regardless of the prorougement, and vote Harper out. That would have been quite the republican act and given Americans some fine, and highly confusing chaos to observe. (I’m using republican in the sense of republicans versus monarchists, of course.)

At just about the same time, on Sark, the Chief Pleas have been pleased to replace membership by land ownership with democracy, which promptly elected them back into office.

Finally, in Britian, the Crown has arrested a member of Parliament to nary a whisper. As the Economist mentions, such acts once led to civil war in England. (“England had a civil war?“)

Despite my dislike of monarchies, I don’t want to forget that historically, legislatures wrested power from those monarchs. There’s a value and risk to such a balance, which is that (as Madison wrote):

In a government where numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of an hereditary monarch, the executive department is very justly regarded as the source of danger, and watched with all the jealousy which a zeal for liberty ought to inspire. In a democracy, where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter. But in a representative republic, where the executive magistracy is carefully limited; both in the extent and the duration of its power; and where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.

I’ll have a little more to say about the indulgence of that jealousy shortly.

In the map, Sark is marked by the pin. Canada is not shown.

10 thoughts on “Of Parliaments, Dukes and Queens

  1. The thuggish and heavy-handed behaviour of the Barclay twins on Sark has been a source of consternation for the Sarkese ever since they built their monstrous castle next door fifteen years ago. I’m delighted to see that their scheming has back-fired.
    For those of you who have never visited, go. It’s a beautiful island made all the more appealing for not having paved roads and motor cars. I recommend staying, or at least dining, at La Sablonniere on Little Sark, connected to the main body of Sark by a precarious isthmus. Ironically, the isthmus has one of the few bits of paved road, built under the last tyrannical rulers of Sark when the Germans occupied the island during WWII.
    On the subject of democracy, it is fair to question if the new system on Sark is really any more representative of the people than the old one. With less than 200 households on the island the old system had 40 representatives from the Tenements and 18 appointed members, typically chosen to “round out” the makeup of the Pleas. As such about one third of the households were directly represented and more or less everyone had a neighbour who was in parliament. The new, divisive system driven by corrupted campaign financing and patronage from special interests concentrates the power in the hands of just 28 select individuals. How, exactly, is this an improvement?

  2. Don’t forget that in Canada, the Governor General was acquiescing to the advice of the Prime Minister. His will may have been against the majority in Parliament, but it’s not exactly the same as the GG just taking the reins. Though it’s an unusual situation, my understanding is that, by tradition, the GG is obliged to take the advice of the Prime Minister.
    Still, I’m with you on this: “I’m a little disappointed that St├ęphan Dion didn’t call for a meeting of Parliament regardless of the prorougement, and vote Harper out. That would have been quite the republican act and given Americans some fine, and highly confusing chaos to observe. ”

  3. On Canadian prorogation:
    First, prorogation isn’t unusual. It’s how every session of parliament ends (except those in which parliament is dissolved, preceding a general election). The Prime Minister asks the Governor General to prorogue it to a specific date (prorogation is a basically scheduling act), and she is bound by constitutional convention to oblige. It wasn’t unprecedented for her to accept Harper’s request, it would have been unprecedented for her to refuse it.
    Canada isn’t ready for a republic. The possibility of Dion calling for a parliamentary session that does not serve the Crown was never on the table because it would go against the constitution. To attempt to effectively remove the Queen’s representative as Head of State would have turned public opinion violently against the parties who did it. The coalition was broadly perceived as being a greedy power grab, working outside the law would have made that perception far worse.
    In any case, the Liberals had serious misgivings about going through with the coalition with Dion as leader. That’s why they kicked him out as soon as parliament was prorogued (and pressured Michael Ignatieff’s leadership opponents to concede, so he could take over uncontested). They now regret not doing it sooner. Ignatieff doesn’t want a coalition, he wants to win an election. So he’s angling for the most politically positive way to back down from it.
    It is significant that Harper’s government already won a confidence vote in this parliament (the Throne Speech passed). Once that happened, the Queen’s representative had to consider Harper her first minister from whom she receives advice. This is why the letters from the opposition to the Governor-General about their ability to form a government probably didn’t matter much.

  4. It may be the first time that has ever happened. But it would also have been the first time a request for prorogation was ever refused.
    It’s easy to forget that Canada is indeed a monarchy, even though the Queen is still on all our money. If you follow the decline of the British monarchy’s power from the 18th century to the 20th, you realize that very little of this stuff was ever actually written down in law. Technically speaking, the Governor General of Canada has most of the power that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had over England 4 or 5 centuries ago. The main difference is in unwritten rules (constitutional conventions) that govern how the monarch should act in given situations.
    Monarchs centuries ago fought to maximize their own power within the government. Since Queen Victoria it has been taken for granted that this is no longer tolerable in a world dominated by classical liberal ideals, and therefore the monarch should exercise the absolute minimum discretion necessary in order to maintain a functioning government.
    So the prorogation question was whether the Governor General should exercise discretion where she has never exercised it before. The case to do so would have to be extraordinarily strong, which in this case probably was not.

  5. Mango,
    I suppose it depends on how you look at it. If it’s the first time a PM has ever tried to avoid a no-confidence vote, then whichever way the GG goes, it’s a first–either consenting to it or blocking it.
    I would argue (and admit that this argument might not fly in the Canadian context) that a limit on the power of the PM to maintain his own power is a good thing. Turning down the PM’s request would need to be carefully scoped to the nature of the request.
    I do understand that what I suggested would likely bring on a constitutional crisis, and that the political nature of the crisis likely wouldn’t have led to a more republican Canada.

  6. The main reason I don’t think the case was strong for the Governor General to set a new precedent is that prorogation is by definition a temporary measure. The Parliament will sit again in January and there will be a Throne Speech which, if defeated, will bring down the government. So there already is a limit to the power of a PM to evade a hostile Parliament.
    Technically it would be legal for a PM to prorogue for over a year, since (IIRC) the only requirement is for a Parliament to have a session once per calendar year. This, however, runs into the problems that British monarchs always had when they dissolved parliament and didn’t summon a new one (sometimes for years at a time): they had no power over taxation or state spending without a parliament to pass budgets.
    It’s an interesting question if the Governor General might have refused had the PM had requested an extended recess.

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