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Mission impossible

Sir Anthony Seldon on our unwritten constitution and the challenges facing the new King

Sir Anthony Seldon

For a long time I’d hoped to meet Sir Anthony Seldon and talk about the eccentricities and intricacies of the British constitution, yet it took the most extraordinary events in modern British political history to bring us together at last.

Well, sort of. We were asked to appear on a podcast series, The Bunker, to discuss those two or three days in September 2022 during which momentous things happened in our ancient democracy: we had changed our head of state, our head of government, and key government ministers, all at the same time.

But our encounter is frustrating at first, rather than fruitful. It’s the day of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, so Seldon has to be on the Mall and can’t be in the studio with me. The sound is dodgy. The video doesn’t work. Our hoped-for shared reflection on this great moment in British history ends up like an old-fashioned radio interview, more suited to the beginning than the end of the Queen’s reign. Thankfully, Seldon is patient as well as polite.

Sir Anthony Seldon is undoubtedly a “man of parts”, that great British compliment. He’s an educationalist, a former university vice-chancellor, a constitutional scholar, a contemporary historian and author or editor of some 40 books including biographies of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron. His most recent work, The Impossible Office?, is an evaluation of every prime minister in British history (although he admits that keeping up with the constantly revolving doors of the Conservative party is challenging, even for him).

I’m keen to talk about what, to me, was most remarkable in terms of what did NOT happen in the three days between Liz Truss being appointed prime minister by the Queen on Tuesday 6 September, and the monarch shuffling off this mortal coil on Thursday 8 September. On the surface there was no ensuing revolution; no fuss, beyond the flummery and uniforms, parades, and respectful queues; no gunfire, except cannon celebrating the accession of King Charles III.

But the 68 million British people in our democracy were not asked to give our verdict on any of the huge changes that had just taken place. There was no call for a popular vote. A few, just 0.3% of us, had the right to vote for our new head of government, but this self-selected electorate was confined to those paying £25 a year to be members of the Conservative party. Nor did Liz Truss receive the endorsement of a majority of her own Conservative colleagues in parliament. MPs repeatedly preferred her opponent, Rishi Sunak.

“Even if an independent Scotland could keep the monarch, it wouldn’t be the same relationship and it wouldn’t be what the royal family would want to see”

Since Seldon has written about all 55 previous prime ministers, he’s uniquely qualified to analyse this constitutional dog’s breakfast. I ask him if it’s possible to believe, in the words of the Whig historian Lord Macaulay, that our unwritten (in fact uncodified) constitution is “pure gold” while written constitutions are “paper money”? I suspect that, in the 21st century where even paper money is becoming obsolete and nobody pays in gold, we’ve become a sclerotic democracy whose invented traditions work for the convenience of a few and to the detriment of the many. Seldon rises to the challenge. He does see “pure gold” in the recent smooth transition to King Charles, though not in the decidedly base metal and counterfeit currency of the Conservative party’s repeated leadership struggles.

“To the best of my knowledge,” he tells me, “this country has not [previously] had a new prime minister and a new monarch at the same time. That’s very significant and raises all kinds of questions about who we are as a democracy. But anyone looking at this country from abroad or from outer space could only conclude that the change of head of state is far more important. It’s where all the focus is. We’ve almost forgotten that there’s a new prime minister. So it’s saying something about the nature of democracy in this country that we have a constitutional monarchy, and it’s got such a grip over the imagination of the British people.”

He believes there are three key challenges for King Charles – the future of the monarchy, the unity (or disunity) of the United Kingdom, and the Commonwealth.

On challenge one, he applauds the new King. “The primary job of a monarch throughout history has been to secure the succession, which he’s done. It is pretty much guaranteed to the 22nd century now.”

For challenge two, I suggest that keeping the country united is beyond any monarch. Like his mother, King Charles has a ceremonial role that will continue even if Scotland is independent. The Scottish National Party made clear in the 2014 independence referendum that the monarchy will stay. The issue isn’t the King, it’s the fact that Scotland hasn’t voted for a Conservative government since 1955, and many Scots (and others) see an English nationalist clique running the modern Conservative party. Liz Truss said she would “ignore” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the grounds she’s “an attention seeker”. The monarchy, amid such sentiments, doesn’t matter.

“‘Well, it does matter,” Sir Anthony disagrees. “Even if, as you say, an independent Scotland could keep the monarch, it wouldn’t be the same relationship and it wouldn’t be what the royal family would want to see. The monarchy is different to prime ministers because they embody continuity beyond the short-term horizons of the prime minister and the next election.”

“Many people feel loyalty to the departed monarch, the Queen, but don’t to Charles. I suspect the Caribbean is gone from the Commonwealth”

Continuity is certainly right, and for challenge three, too. Queen Elizabeth eased the “loss” of the Empire by building new relationships with 54 Commonwealth nations. King Charles is now head of state of fourteen of those, including Australia, Canada and Jamaica. But discontinuity is also in the air. Barbados is becoming a republic. Jamaica plans the same by 2025. Antigua and Barbuda will hold a referendum. Australia and others may follow, if more nations decide they don’t want their head of state to be a monarch in a palace thousands of miles away.

“Absolutely,” Seldon agrees. “I mean, he’s male and he’s awkward, and lacks that popular touch. He’s 73. He doesn’t embody the history in the same way she [Queen Elizabeth] does. So these two worries must be absolutely at the top of his desk drawer: keeping the country united and keeping the Commonwealth together. [The latter] is less important… There’s probably a recognition that it is going to change.”

And that touches a deeper British insecurity – national decline. Boris Johnson’s boosterism about “Global Britain” was camouflage to cover the real loss of British influence, trade and wealth after Brexit. We are now far less important in Europe and therefore less influential in Washington too.

“All of that could absolutely be the case,” agrees Seldon. “There’s clearly momentum. Once you start losing countries from the Commonwealth it makes it hard for other countries to make a positive case. If that stream becomes a river, a frothing, enormous force, it will be difficult even for Australia to resist. Clearly many people feel loyalty to the departed monarch, the Queen, but don’t to Charles. I suspect the Caribbean is gone from the Commonwealth.”

Which brings us to the crunch question: should we celebrate our untidy British constitution for working well in practice even if it’s messy in theory? Or should we recognise, as some constitutional scholars argue, that we’ve had a series of failing governments, deep unresolved divisions, rapidly rotating prime ministers and clear abuses of power?

Seldon responds cheerfully, at first, with the positives: an unwritten constitution “is part of the continuity and the secret of the country,” he says. “Britain does have the longest-serving, functioning monarchy. When the Queen came to the throne there were 100 monarchies. Now, outside the Commonwealth, there are only 26. They’re either absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia or largely irrelevant. To have a functioning constitutional democracy, Britain has managed to make adaptations without a single document, a written constitution.”

But then he turns to Boris Johnson’s recent constitutional “innovations”. The Brexit referendum and its aftermath, Seldon says firmly, “has ushered in the biggest domestic upheaval that this country has seen – at the same time as the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom is at threat, with Northern Ireland possibly uniting with Ireland and indeed Scotland breaking away.” We have also seen, he adds, “the attack on the civil service that Brexit has unleashed. We’ve seen a Permanent Secretary fired from the Treasury, and the civil service under attack as never before since the Northcote Trevelyan reforms in the nineteenth century.”

He’s referring to the fact that in 1854 Northcote and Trevelyan responded to corruption and incompetence in British public life by changing the rules to create a cadre of professional administrators recruited on merit, drawn from Britain’s best and brightest, offering prime ministers impartial but well-informed advice. Seldon sees politicians’ attacks on civil servants in the 2020s as a deliberate attempt to undermine impartiality and sound advice and therefore “a significant moment, as is the blithe disregard of the constitution by the outgoing prime minister.”

Armed with his detailed study of 55 British prime ministers, Seldon is scathing about the damage done by Boris Johnson. His “disregard of the constitution” has wreaked havoc by undermining the traditional Good Chap theory of decent behaviour expected of British ministers in our unwritten constitution. Johnson, Seldon observes, “said that if it’s a law I can’t change it, if it’s a convention I can.” He then broke the unwritten rules and traditional democratic norms essential to the British system. Yes, I suggest, but surely Britain’s democratic recession is part of a worldwide phenomenon?

“Democracy is under threat,” Seldon agrees. “Look at the eclipse of democracies and the quality of democratic life globally. What’s happened in the United States is deeply worrying – to have a president [Trump] who doesn’t accept the legality and the authenticity of the electoral process. That undermines a system where he is also the head of state. And it does show the fragility of democracy as we experienced it in the 1930s. So could there be a similar march towards strong men – they are men, not women – who will ‘solve the problems’? We’ve seen a lot of that in the last decade, and many moments of real concern in this country. Boris Johnson did more than any other prime minister to damage the integrity of democratic life.”

Boris Johnson’s two ethics advisers resigned – Alex Allan in 2020 and Lord Geidt in 2022, although Seldon suggests this looked more like constructive dismissal by the ethics-averse prime minister.

“And now Liz Truss apparently not wanting to appoint an ethics advisor!” he exclaims. “Who can champion the civil service if it’s not the head of government – if it’s the head of government and cabinet ministers, who themselves are undermining the impartiality and attacking the objectivity of civil servants!”

With Truss our 56th prime minister, I ask why some of her predecessors succeeded in Downing Street, where so many failed. He responds that it takes time – years – to control the levers of power. The more Thatcher and Blair knew, the more they could do.

“It took Blair, by his own admission, a good four years to learn how to do the job. And to have Brown on three years, Cameron six, May three, Johnson three. Liz Truss, very likely, just two… although it’s not impossible that MPs will rise against her if they think that she’s not the person who will carry the party through to the next general election. It will be very difficult for her to win. No party has won five times on the trot since 1832. And there’ll be the 57th variety of prime minister with Keir Starmer. If, indeed, it is Keir Starmer coming to the office of prime minister before the end of 2024. So clearly it is not satisfactory. If you look at all the most successful prime ministers of the 55, the nine I think most successful have all been in office for six years or more.” He sighs. “All the great prime ministers left Britain stronger, more united and with a better position in the world than when they inherited it. That isn’t true of the last prime ministers,” those who think, “you come in, you change things, you leave, you go off and write your memoirs and do speaking tours.”

“It’s not impossible that MPs will rise against Liz Truss if they think that she’s not the person who will carry the party through to the next general election”

I feel cheered by Seldon’s judicious sense of balance, his learning and his common sense. But there’s a sting in the tail before we part. He mentions Brexit. It comes up when I ponder whether referendums fit constitutionally within our representative democracy. The first two in British history seemed to work well: in 1975 after two years’ membership of what became the European Union, Harold Wilson asked voters if we should continue. Voters said yes. The same clarity emerged when people in Northern Ireland voted for the Good Friday Agreement. Every voter had a 30-page document explaining what it was about.

But Brexit was utterly different, says Seldon, because “both sides were putting out information that clearly was not properly fact-checked. [The referendum] was a dreadfully composed test on the most important issue in post-war British history.” (The other risk when you hold a referendum, he observes, is when it’s a very close vote, as Brexit was.) “Talking to people today, they still don’t know what they were voting for and what the implications were. We will look back at the Brexit vote as a massive moment in British history and far more significant than the transition of the monarch. It was, by any measure, a dreadful contest that took place.”

Perhaps such eccentricities suit the odd British character. Many of us were content to queue for hours to pass by a closed wooden box containing a beloved Queen. Our national broadcaster at 07.52 on Monday 12 September solemnly woke the nation to report that the British Royal Parks service appealed to mourners not to “bring any more Paddington [bears] or marmalade sandwiches” to Green Park to mark her passing. In 21st-century Britain we change our head of state and change our head of government, but it seems we cannot change our slightly odd national character.

Yet with one of our leading constitutional thinkers, Sir Anthony Seldon, insisting the Brexit referendum was “a dreadful contest”, delivering a result more significant even than a new monarch, perhaps we should consider whether we need to change our constitution itself. It might be time to have a system of governance that reflects the benefits and perils of the 21st-century information age rather than the era of the flintlock musket and the horse-and-cart from which our political traditions derive.

I plan to discuss this with him, if we ever get to meet face-to-face. I hope so.

“The Impossible Office?” by Anthony Seldon is published by Cambridge University Press (£19.99)

Gavin Esler is the author, most recently, of “How Britain Ends”

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