‘The Crown’ And The Constitution

As I watched the latest season of The Crown, I was struck by the show’s increasing reluctance to look at the Monarchy’s place in the British constitution. This is a shame because the writers’ unfamiliarity with the subject undermines their efforts at storytelling.  

In episode 2 (“The Balmoral Test”), the Queen and Margaret Thatcher have a conversation about her Cabinet reshuffle. The way the scene is written makes it seem like Her Majesty observed the reshuffle from a distance. In reality, the Queen would have formally approved every change to Thatcher’s Cabinet, and she would have presided over the swearing-in of the new ministers at a meeting of the Privy Council. From a constitutional standpoint, the scene doesn’t make much sense. The writers could have avoided that problem by having the scene take place when Thatcher is seeking Her Majesty’s approval for the Cabinet changes. The conversation could play out in much the same way as it does now. Indeed, the fact that the Queen would ultimately have to approve the changes if she couldn’t persuade Thatcher to think again would make the scene even more impactful.

In episode 6 (“Terra Nullius”), characters repeatedly act as if rising republican sentiment in Australia is a threat to the Commonwealth of Nations, and the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales is portrayed as a strategic move to bolster the Commonwealth. But Australia would remain a member even if they became a republic–republics have been welcome in the Commonwealth since the London Declaration of 1949 allowed India to stay in after becoming a republic. Sir Sonny Ramphal’s dire warnings of a domino effect at the beginning of the episode are just ludicrous.      

In episode 7 (“The Hereditary Principle”), Princess Margaret is upset that, with Prince Edward turning 21, she will no longer be eligible to serve as a Counsellor of State. Leaving aside the fact that this would hardly be a surprise to her (the individuals who are eligible for service as a Counsellor of State are set out in the Regency Acts 1937-53), it’s bizarre that Margaret would find this upsetting. Counsellors of State only serve if the Queen is abroad or temporarily unable to discharge her duties. Their role is largely confined to signing documents and approving Orders in Council—they are essentially human autopens. It’s behind-the-scenes work, and first blush it hardly seems like the sort of thing Margaret would enjoy. But if the writers had established the quotidian nature of the Counsellors’ duties, it could have made Margaret’s unhappiness even more poignant. She’s so upset about her diminished role in the Royal Family that even the loss of a minor perk like serving as a Counsellor of State is galling.

The 80s saw a number of significant constitutional developments in the Queen’s other realms that could have provided excellent fodder for storytelling. In 1982, the Westminster Parliament passed the Canada Act which ended its involvement in amending the Canadian constitution. There was some controversy over this in the UK, and a number of MPs opposed the Canada Bill because they were unhappy with Canada’s policy toward its First Nations and the people of Quebec (44 MPs voted against the bill’s second reading). British politicians also had misgivings about the Canadian government’s proposed Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[1] The Queen took a keen interest in the patriation of the Canadian constitution, and the Canadian government seems to have hoped she could persuade Thatcher to go along with their wishes.[2]

A few years later, the UK Parliament passed the Australia Act 1986 which ended Westminster’s remaining involvement in Australian affairs. The Queen was an active player in the negotiations, as she had misgivings about the Australian proposal to allow state premiers to advise her directly on the appointment of state governors. She feared direct advice from state premiers could see her dragged into tussles between the states and the federal government. Despite her concerns, she ultimately had to accept direct advice when the Australian government made it clear that they supported the states’ desire for access to the Palace.[3]

The developments in Canada and Australia could have tied in neatly to two of the show’s overarching themes, namely Britain’s changing place in the world and the limitations of the sovereign’s power in a constitutional monarchy. The Canadian example would have the added benefit of highlighting the awkwardness that can result when the same person is both Queen of Canada and Queen of the United Kingdom. But none of this is ever explored–instead, we get predictable royal melodrama. And the one episode that did focus on the Queen’s constitutional role (“48:1”) was hampered by a lack of context.  

The fact that The Crown is so beautifully shot and well-acted makes its reluctance to engage with constitutional issues incredibly frustrating. For all its grand scope and luscious beauty, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate The Crown from the many other fictionalized portrayals of the Royal Family. If the writers were willing to leave that well-trodden path, they could do something truly remarkable. Alas, that seems unlikely to happen.

[1] For more information on the British views of the Canada Bill, see Frédéric Bastien, “Britain, the Charter of Rights and the spirit of the 1982 Canadian Constitution,” in Commonwealth & Comparative Politics (2010) 48:3, 320-347.

[2] Frédéric Bastien, The Battle of London: Trudeau, Thatcher, and the Fight for Canada’s Constitution, trans. Jacob Homel (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2014), ch. 7.

[3] The story of the Queen’s involvement in Australian constitutional negotiations is chronicles in Anne Twomey, The Chameleon Crown: The Queen and Her Australian State Governors (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2006), chs. 18-21.

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1 Response to ‘The Crown’ And The Constitution

  1. Mark Loch says:

    Excellent analysis!

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