Privy to the privy council

Despite some public misgivings, Jeremy Corbyn has followed in the footsteps of other leaders of the opposition and joined the privy council. I suspect he will not be quite as excited about the swearing in ceremony as I was. My enthusiasm in kissing the Queen’s hand resulted in a smacker which echoed around the room. While understanding that I was joining a body of long (and possibly slightly dubious) provenance, I found it practically impossible to find any more information about the history and role of the council. This gap has now been ably filled by David Rogers in his account ‘By Royal Appointment – Tales from the Privy Council’.

There is little in the book which would reassure the constitutional reformers among us. The privy council grew from a relatively loose gathering of advisers around the monarch to form the basis of the present day structure of government and courts. Despite these functions now being largely and rightly vested in the democratically elected and accountable government or in the independent judiciary, the privy council continues today including in approving orders for which there is no democratic oversight.

Rogers manages to make a complicated history fun to read with his use of anecdotes and examples. If you like a good tale of intrigue, torture, power struggles, conspiracy and failed assassination you will find this an entertaining read. If, however, you are looking for a constitutional justification for the continuation of the council, this is asserted rather than argued in the book. And the council’s role ‘as the body that looked after the bits and pieces of the constitution’ hardly seems irreplaceable in a modern political system. You do not even have to be a republican to view the existence and activity of the council as anachronistic.

There have been times when the privy council has played a key role. Its influence on foreign policy with respect to the United Kingdom’s ‘colonies’ was significant. Rogers describes the important attempts by the council to protect the rights of native Americans as the United States of America developed. However, it is less commendable that it appeared to be both silent and impotent on issues of slavery.

The role of the judiciary committee of the council as the court of last appeal for many countries has been totally anachronistic although in its judgements on the death penalty in some countries it has, at least, saved lives and promoted modern practice.

It is the privy council oath which requires members to maintain secrecy on issues discussed under its auspices which is the basis used for briefing, for example, the leader of the opposition on intelligence issues. I can vividly remember briefing the shadow home secretary on privy council terms as the foiled terror attacks unfolded in my first days in office. It is wholly right that people should give an undertaking to maintain secrecy if they are being briefed on issues where disclosure could put people’s lives at risk. However, I remain unconvinced from this book that the privy council is the only way to deliver this assurance.

The overriding theme of this book is the way in which the privy council has evolved and adapted over the years. It is a fascinating read. However, what it has not done is to convince me that the privy council should not and could not evolve itself out of existence in the future.

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Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary, writes the Monday Politics column for Progress, and tweets @Jacqui_Smith1

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By Royal Appointment
Tales from the Privy Council

David Rogers

BiteBack Publishing | 344pp | £25.00

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Comments: 5...

  1. On September 22, 2015 at 10:57 am Verity responded with... #

    With a veiled threats of possible military rejection of elected leader’s mandates these apparently ‘trivial’ organisations may potentially become dangerous bodies that unexpectedly leap to life.

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  2. On September 22, 2015 at 2:38 pm Trebor123 responded with... #

    The Privy Council has also been used to bypass or subvert the will of parliament and permits ministers to create primary legislation outside of the usual democratic process! This power was abused by New Labour, in 2004, in order to block the return of Chagos Islanders, who had been forcibly removed from Diego Garcia in 1971.

    http://justice.org.uk/the-constitutional-role-of-the-privy-council-and-the-prerogative/

  3. On September 22, 2015 at 6:18 pm steve mcginnity responded with... #

    If a Political Party Leader in the House of Commons becomes a Privy Councillor does his party receive extra funding from the treasury as was reported recently in a national newspaper.

  4. On September 22, 2015 at 6:37 pm Norfolk29 responded with... #

    Strange that there is no suggestion that reform is necessary. I believe there are hundreds of members. How many attend HM when she meets them and is the number restricted officially?

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