Whether you like the monarchy or not, you’ve got to agree that the Queen knows her job inside out. It’s hard to think of anyone who has a more natural, ingrained understanding of her role and the protocol that goes with it. Just witness her glance of disappointment when Barack Obama bungled things and talked over the national anthem last year.
So it’s fair to say she does not do things by accident when enacting her constitutional role.
There was a great example of this at her visit to this morning’s Cabinet meeting. As the camera panned down the table, two things were noticeable.
First, that she was sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair. This is symbolic as well as polite – a reminder that the PM exercises many of his powers under Royal Prerogative, on the Queen’s behalf. She was visiting, so he gave up the chair to the person whose powers he exercises.
The second was that the Queen was sitting ever so slightly back from the table. Every minister had his or her chair pulled in to do business – she, though, was a few inches further back.
It is the tiniest thing, but far from irrelevant. It wasn’t chosen to enable a quicker getaway, or for leg-stretching room, but because it was part of her role in the room. In our constitutional monarchy, which has proved such a stable way of preserving democratic liberty against the tyranny of crown or dictatorship since 1688, the Queen was there to watch others exercise the powers of Government, not to govern herself.
She sat by the Cabinet table, not at it. And in those few inches of space lay 324 years of constitutional history – liberty preserved by the placing of a chair.
You won’t find an elected president in the world who is as classy as that.
Last night, I took part in the new series of podcasts from House of Comments, along with Labour blogger Emma Burnell and Lib Dem Mark Thompson. We covered the big stories of the week, Leveson and the rise of UKIP, as well as a bit of a look forward to what might be in the Autumn Statement.
An unexpected outcome of the negotiations around the Scottish Independence Referendum is that votes for 16 year olds has suddenly popped up again. A round of huffing and puffing has commenced, with varying degrees of legitimacy.
There is justified concern that this is not really the way to go about revolutionising our constitution – who is allowed to vote should be a matter for Parliament, not something to be agreed in a bout of policy Border Reiving by Westminster and Holyrood.
The mechanism by which it is being introduced is unattractive, but the idea of votes at 16 is a good one in itself.
Deciding when an individual goes from legal childhood into fully responsible adulthood is always tricky. Any rule will inevitably be arbitrary. No matter how much Great Aunts may ask “how does it feel to be older?”, the answer is of course that someone is no more competent at voting on the day of their 18th birthday than they were the day before.
But given that arbitrary lines must be drawn for when the State recognises us as adults, we should at least try to ensure they are drawn in a consistent manner.
At the moment the qualifying ages for various kinds of legal and social rights and responsibilities are a dreadful muddle. You can leave school and go into the workplace, paying full rates of tax, at 16 – as long as you continue some kind of training. You can join the army at 16, though you can’t be sent to fight until 18. Of course, you can also legally have sex and have children from 16.
These are all signs that we think of those over 16 as adults, so why do we remain in denial when it comes to the right to vote? It is absurd that a 17-year-old serving soldier, working and paying tax, driving a car, and bringing up a child is currently told that he or she is not deemed mature or responsible enough to vote.
Opponents of lowering the voting age argue that 16- or 17-year-olds wouldn’t make informed decisions about who to vote for. In some instances, that may be the case – but it is certainly the case that there are plenty of 46- and 47-year-olds who may well not read the manifestos before voting, either. Arbitrary systems are like that, and if we removed the vote from every age group which has some wildly irresponsible members then we’d swiftly take the vote away from everyone.
Instead, let’s look to the plentiful evidence that 16- and 17-year-olds are very much capable of rational, responsible behaviour. Our society has weighed that evidence in deciding to allow them to work, pay tax, have babies and so on, but has been unaccountably stubborn on democratic rights. It is high time to equalise the voting age and iron out this anomaly.
Today’s news of David Cameron’s trouble remembering what Magna Carta means on theLetterman Show inevitably recalls Tony Hancock’s classic “Twelve Angry Men” episode of Hancock’s Half Hour:
With the immortal words:
Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?
Hancock reduced the audience to gales of laughter, and secured yet another entry in the annals of comedy history.
And yet, there’s also something rather sad about that clip, echoing down from 1959. If a prime time comedy show made that gag today, how many people in the audience would laugh and how many would be left scratching their heads over what it meant?
If you go to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed – laying the foundation stone of English freedom – you will find a memorial. Its inscription reads
“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law”
But it was not erected by the British public, or by our Parliamentarians, or our legal institutions. It was put there by the American Bar Association who, it seems, value Magna Carta more than we do.
Perhaps Hancock was right – Magna Carta means nothing to us. She died in vain.
Arresting people for swearing is ridiculous. And yet, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, it regularly happens.
Section 5 is a badly written, catch-all law which – as one former officer put it to me recently – “lets us take people off the streets if they haven’t committed a specific offence but we don’t really want them there”.
The precise wording outlaws anyone who:
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
Given the total lack of any definition of what constitutes “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”, and the overzealous nature of some (though far from all) bobbies on the beat, it is hardly surprising that the clause has been abused over the years. It has been applied to stop people making perfectly valid criticisms of Scientology, protesting against the murder and oppression of gay people in the Middle East, and saying religions are “fairy tales”, among many others.
Given that it is on the statute book, and that it is regularly used to arrest ordinary members of the public for far less serious behaviour than that displayed at Downing Street last week, Section 5 should surely have been used to arrest Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip.
Instead, he was allowed to swear repeatedly at a police officer, despite the police log’s report that bystanders looked “visibly shocked” – which seems to my lay perspective to qualify as using “insulting words…within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”.
How many plebeians would be allowed to get away with that with only a verbal warning, rather than a trip to the cells?
Giving greater privileges and more freedom under the law to members of the Government than is given to the people at large prevents Westminster from understanding how bad the criminal law of this country has become. Leading the Chief Whip away in cuffs would have been an absurd scene when his sacking or resignation should be the sensible outcome, but it would have woken our representatives up to the excessive powers of Section 5.
Until that happens, what hope is there that they will realise the urgent need to reform the Public Order Act?