Some Thoughts On The First Virtual Privy Council

The Queen held a meeting of the Privy Council on Friday, but while the business was routine, the circumstances were not. The United Kingdom is currently in a state of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the Government stressing the need for social distancing, a traditional Council meeting would have been impossible. Instead, the Court Circular tells us that the Council was held via video link.

Despite the novel medium, the Council appears to have been conducted in the usual fashion. It was attended by the Lord President and three other ministers, plus the Clerk of the Council. At first glance, this seems a bit comical. At a typical meeting, the Queen and the Lord President are the only ones who actively participate—the other participants are more or less ornaments.[1] While it’s often said that Privy Council meetings have a quorum of three, this is merely a matter of custom rather than law.[2] In theory, at least, the meeting could have taken place with only the Queen, the Lord President, and the Clerk present.[3] Of course, virtual attendance isn’t exactly burdensome, so the Powers That Be may well have decided to follow the customary practice just to be on the safe side.

It will be interesting to see if this innovation survives the present pandemic. Ministers haven’t always been keen to attend Privy Council meetings. Reflecting on a 1966 meeting of the Council held at Balmoral, Richard Crossman wrote:

[F]our ministers, busy men, all had to take a night and a day off and go up there with Godfrey Agnew [the Clerk of the Council] to stand for two and a half minutes while the list of Titles was read out. It would be far simpler for the Queen to come back to Buckingham Palace, but it’s lese-majeste to suggest it.[4]

Now that there’s a precedent for holding a Council via video link, will ministers still be expected to head to Scotland or Norfolk for emergency meetings, or will they be allowed to join remotely? By the same token, will Counsellors of State still need to hold Privy Councils when the Sovereign is absent from the UK, or will the Monarch simply preside from a distance?

History suggests that tradition can be quite malleable, and there have been many instances where temporary solutions eventually became the norm. The Sovereign used to signify royal assent in the presence of both Houses of Parliament, but when Parliament passed a bill of attainder to execute Queen Catherine Howard, they allowed Henry VIII to signify his assent by commission in order to avoid a potentially awkward situation. Over time, the new practice became the default.[5] The Monarch used to present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh on Epiphany, but in 1758 George II was too grief stricken to attend following the death of his daughter Princess Caroline, so the Lord Chamberlain acted in his place. Now, the offerings are always made by two Gentleman Ushers.[6] Even the practice of Privy Counsellors standing up during meetings appears to have been an innovation devised by Queen Victoria to keep meetings brief during her seclusion following the Prince Consort’s death. Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine that virtual Councils could become a regular occurrence or even the default.

[1] The Lord President reads off a list of Orders in Council and the Queen signifies her approval by periodically saying “approved”.

[2] The three-person quorum seems to derive from the personal preference of Queen Victoria.

[3] Although the Clerk isn’t formally part of the quorum, his signature is used to authenticate Orders in Council.

[4] Richard Crossman, Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol. 2 (London: Hamish Hamilton & Jonathan Cape; Book Club Associates), 44.

[5] Queen Victoria was the last monarch to signify Royal Assent in person in 1854. The practice of signifying assent by commission in turn largely fell by the wayside following the Royal Assent Act 1967 which introduced a much simpler procedure whereby the Monarch simply signed Letters Patent to signify assent.

[6] There seems to be some confusion as to when this became the norm. For example, this website about the Yeomen of the Guard says that “[u]ntil this time of George III, the Sovereign always attended the ceremony in person, the sword of state carried before him and preceded by Heralds, Pursuivants and Knights of the Garter, Thistle and Bath. In 1758 the funeral of Princess Caroline took place on the eve of the Epiphany and the King deputed his Lord Chamberlain to make the usual offerings, with the Yeomen of the Guard in attendance instead of the Heralds.” However, George III didn’t ascend the throne until 1760, so the king in question would have been George II.

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1 Response to Some Thoughts On The First Virtual Privy Council

  1. Robin Stanley Taylor says:

    One has to wonder if there was not a room within Windsor Castle large enough to accommodate three people in compliance with social distancing? It’s not as if there would have been much else going on there at the time.

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