What has Charles Windsor, the heir to the British crown, been saying to government ministers? For the past nine years or so that has been the question asked by The Guardian, ever since that newspaper requested copies of 27 pieces of correspondence between Charles and ministers in seven government departments between September 2004 and April 2005.
The Guardian newspaper – supported by a number of organisations that wish to see greater government transparency and accountability, as well as more evidence of democracy in action in the UK and less license to permit princely privilege – has fought numerous court battles to argue that there is a genuine public interest in disclosing these letters. The government, that erstwhile guardian of parliamentary democracy, has fought back every step of the way.
In 2010 the government amended the Freedom of Information Act (FIO) so that until quite recently, if similar requests to release Charles’s letters were made, there would be no chance of disclosure. Late last year the case ended up in the Supreme Court. This past week the Supreme Court published its decision – the government must release these letters.
This issue goes to the heart of any campaign that opposes royal secrecy and raises the fundamental question of whether or not Prince Charles has some kind of constitutional right to lobby and influence politicians in secret. A number of people who have served in government consider that these letters represent serious attempts by Charles Windsor to alter government policy. Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney General in the British Government has stated that, if Charles’s views on some matters that are being kept secret were to be made known, he would be considered unfit to assume the role and function of a British monarch.
One area in which secrecy has made an impact is in the matter of royal funding. A significant amount of detail about royal spending is being hidden from public scrutiny. Royal secrecy is also backed up by royal power – the ‘royal veto’, otherwise known as royal consent, is a rule that says the Queen and Prince Charles must consent to any new law that affects their private interests. That enables these royals to demand changes to laws that personally affect them and to pursue their own political agenda behind closed doors. No other UK citizen has this privilege.
It was with this in the background that I recently read an article about “Orders in Council”. This is a political process used in the UK and many countries of the Commonwealth where legislation is formally made in the name of the Queen by the Privy Council (the Queen-in-Council). Although the Orders are officially made by the Queen, in practice, royal assent is a formality only.
What actually happens is that “a representative of the government (generally a cabinet minister or the Lord President of the Council) reads out batches of Orders in Council drafted by the government in front of the Queen, who, after each order, says “Approved”. They then come into effect.”
Orders in Council can be used in a variety of way, for example, making political appointments, issuing simple laws as a sort of decree and, occasionally, may be used to effectively reverse court decisions applicable to both the UK and British Overseas Territories without involving Parliament. There is one example which, more than any other, exemplifies the gross injustice and undemocratic nature of the use of Orders in Council.
In 1965, the government of Harold Wilson used this “behind closed doors” method of passing legislation in order to remove the Chagossian Islanders from their homeland in the Chagos Archipelago of the Indian Ocean. This action was ostensibly part of a deal to grant independence to Mauritius, another former colony, after the British had initially excised the Chagos Islands from Mauritius. The Chagos Archipelago was subsequently named the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
Under threat, including their starvation, shooting or bombing, as well as the actual evacuation of their precious dogs, around 2,000 Chagos islanders were eventually removed to Mauritius and forbidden to re-enter their homeland. Mauritius got the people, but not the land! The whole business was imposed unilaterally without any referendum or consultation with the Chagossians and it envisaged no democratic institutions.
In due course, the true nature and purpose for the forced expulsion and dispossession of the Chagossians was revealed. The Wilson government had agreed with the USA to “establish a United States air and naval base on Diego Garcia (the main island of the Chagos Archipelago), with a population of between 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. soldiers and support staff, as well as a few troops from the United Kingdom”. (See my article Caught in a trap, 3 March, 2013)
However, the story does not end there.
Both the initial appropriation of the Chagos Archipelago and its aftermath were brilliantly captured and exposed by the intrepid Australian journalist, John Pilger. In a remarkable revelation of secrecy and “behind closed doors” deals at the heart of British government, Pilger’s 2004 documentary film “Stealing a Nation” showed how successive Labour and Conservative British Governments had uprooted and disenfranchised a whole population of a British Crown Colony in order to appease and protect the military strategies and practices of the USA. It was as if “all the way with LBJ” was substituted by “another push for Bush”.
Today, Diego Garcia is one of the biggest USA military bases in the world. As the Pentagon calls it, the island fortress “is an indispensable platform for policing the world.” Furthermore, it was established and developed during the United States’ prosecution of the Vietnam War. A more than adequate cover!
Some forty years after Harold Wilson’s chicanery involving the Chagos Islanders, Orders in Council were again controversially used by the government of Tony Blair in 2004 to overturn a UK court ruling which held that the exile of the Chagossians was unlawful.
Then, in June 2006, the same government successfully appealed against the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal’s ruling that the Chagossians were entitled to return to their homeland. The government’s appeal was to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords – an unelected body! Pre-eminence was given to the “behind closed doors” decisions of the government and the view that “it was not for the courts to substitute their judgement for that of the Secretary of State as to what was conducive to the peace, order and good governance of the BIOT.”
Secrecy, whether by members of an unelected royal family or by elected politicians, is repugnant, or should be to a democratic nation. Cohorts of people such as the Privy Council, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, or Charles Windsor meeting in private with government ministers, affects the democratic process and the making of laws by elected parliamentarians.
Political orders made at the discretion of government ministers, with or without the presence and collusion of a monarch, and which has the same effect as primary legislation, opens the door to abuse, discrimination and injustice. Further, it is an affront to due political process and law. This is especially so in view of there being no public record of what goes on at these secretive meetings, thereby, as pointed out by the charity Justice a few years ago, “evading one of the important checks and balances of the Human Rights Act of 1998.”
Formulating and expediting government policies “behind closed doors”, especially with the connivance or collusion of royalty, is archaic and feudal. Such a political system needs reform so that a modern, democratic alternative may emerge.