Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch has signed an open letter calling on the British Government to pardon gay men who were convicted of “gross indecency” back when homosexual activity was illegal. Cumberbatch plays codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and while Turing himself received a posthumous pardon from the Queen in 2013, thousands of gay men still have convictions on their record. However, Cumberbatch’s letter calls on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge “to acknowledge this mark on our history and not allow it to stand.”
This call for royal support betrays a lack of understanding of the British constitution. For starters, Prince William and his wife have no role in the pardon process. That power belongs to the Queen alone, and she can only exercise it on the recommendation of the Secretary of State for Justice. The constitution does not allow the Sovereign to have views separate from those of her Ministers. She can privately urge Chris Grayling to support a pardon, but she can’t use the power of the bully pulpit to sway him. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge must be similarly discreet despite the fact that they don’t have a constitutional role. There is a convention that members of the Royal Family avoid discussing controversial subjects lest they cause difficulties for the Queen.
Since modern society generally takes a dim view of anti-sodomy laws, it’s tempting to argue that the idea of overturning those convictions is now so anodyne that members of the Royal Family could safely endorse it. This argument is beguiling, but it’s also dangerous. For one thing, it’s tough to know where to draw the line. The Prince of Wales often speaks out on non-partisan topics such as the environment and architecture, and his comments invariably cause anger in some quarters. Negative headlines are particularly dangerous for royalty since the Monarchy is supposed to be a focus for national unity. The Queen’s speeches might be platitudinous, but they also can’t be used against her. It’s a lesson that Prince William (and his father) would do well to heed.