Great British political riddle solved as scope of the royal prerogative is revealed for the first time
Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
Mon 20 Oct 2003 21.24 EDT
One of the last great riddles of the British political system was solved yesterday when the powers wielded by the government in the name of the monarchy were set down on paper for the first time.
The “veil of mystery” surrounding the royal prerogative was lifted when a list of them was published in a move intended to encourage greater transparency.
The prerogative, which includes the power to declare war, is handed from monarchs to ministers and allows them to take action without the backing of parliament.
In a move intended to encourage greater accountability, the Commons public administration committee (PAC) published a list of the little-understood powers which it persuaded Sir Hayden Phillips, permanent secretary to the Department of Constitutional Affairs, to supply.
“Over the years when people have asked the government to say what prerogative powers there are, they have always refused to do so,” said the committee’s chairman, Labour MP Tony Wright.
“It tells us largely what we know, but it is a small victory to have the government say at least what it thinks they are.”
The PAC wants parliament to be given a say in how the powers are used. Although MPs were given a vote on the war in Iraq, there is no obligation on the government to let them have a say.
The powers include those that allow governments to regulate the civil service, issue passports, make treaties, appoint and remove ministers and grant honours.
They also include the prerogative of mercy, which is no longer used to save condemned men from the scaffold but can be exercised to remedy miscarriages of justice which are not put right by the courts.
In its paper the government said new prerogative powers could not be invented and that some “have fallen out of use altogether, probably forever”, such as the power to press men into the navy.
But it said there were still “significant aspects” of domestic affairs in which the powers could be used, despite legislation.
And it accepted that the “conduct of foreign affairs remains very reliant on the exercise of prerogative powers” and that they can “still to some extent adapt to changed circumstances”.
It also set out ways in which parliament and the courts have limited the powers through control of the supply of money, new laws and judicial review.
Mr Wright said: “It should be a basic constitutional principle that ministers would be required to explain to parliament where their powers come from and how they intend to use them.”
The committee is looking at proposals for an act which would force ministers to seek authorisation from parliament before they exercised some of the powers, which were “sometimes in effect powers of life and death”.
These include the power to declare war.
The government said it was not possible to give a comprehensive catalogue of prerogative powers.
So there was scope for the courts to identify prerogative powers which had little previous recognition.
In a case about whether the home secretary had power to issue baton rounds to a chief constable without the consent of the police authority, the court held that the crown had a prerogative power to keep the peace within the realm.
Lord Justice Nourse commented: “The scarcity of references in the books to the prerogative of keeping the peace within the realm does not disprove that it exists. Rather it may point to an unspoken assumption that it does“.
Full list of those powers
The appointment and dismissal of ministers;
The summoning, prorogation and dissolution of Parliament;
Royal assent to bills;
The appointment and regulation of the civil service;
The commissioning of officers in the armed forces;
Directing the disposition of the armed forces in the UK;
Appointment of Queen’s Counsel;
Issue and withdrawal of passports;
Prerogative of mercy.(Used to apply in capital punishment cases. Still used, eg to remedy errors in sentence calculation)
Creation of corporations by Charter;
The making of treaties;
Declaration of war;
Deployment of armed forces overseas;
Recognition of foreign states;
Accreditation and reception of diplomats.
Think Google or Apple are powerful? Then you’ve never heard of the East India Company, a profit-making enterprise so mighty, it once ruled nearly all of the Indian subcontinent. Between 1600 and 1874, it built the most powerful corporation the world had ever known, complete with its own army, its own territory, and a near-total hold on trade of a product now seen as quintessentially British: Tea.
At the dawn of the 17th century, the Indian subcontinent was known as the “East Indies,” and—as home to spices, fabrics, and luxury goods prized by wealthy Europeans—was seen as a land of seemingly endless potential. Due to their seafaring prowess, Spain and Portugal held a monopoly on trade in the Far East. But Britain wanted in, and when it seized the ships of the defeated Spanish Armada in 1588, it paved the way for the monarchy to become a serious naval power.
The East India Company (EIC), also known as the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) or the British East India Company and informally as John Company, Company Bahadur, or simply The Company, was an English and later British joint-stock company. It was formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region, initially with Mughal India and the East Indies (Maritime Southeast Asia), and later with Qing China. The company ended up seizing control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent, colonized parts of Southeast Asia, and colonized Hong Kong after a war with Qing China.
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An international corporation was transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power.
One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: “loot”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late 18th century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain.
The last hereditary Welsh prince, Owain Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, built Powis castle as a craggy fort in the 13th century; the estate was his reward for abandoning Wales to the rule of the English monarchy. But its most spectacular treasures date from a much later period of English conquest and appropriation: Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company in the 18th century.
There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display at any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi. The riches include hookahs of burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed spinels and jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds. There are talwars set with yellow topaz, ornaments of jade and ivory; silken hangings, statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant armour.
When the British East India Company (EIC) was formed in 1600, there were already other East India Companies operating on behalf of France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. Thanks to the naval route that explorer Vasco da Gama discovered, riches from the Orient were pouring into Europe. With other nations importing fortunes in goods and plunder, Queen Elizabeth decided England should get some, too. So she granted the charter for the East India Company.
Queen Elizabeth used more than just royal decree and coffers (treasury funds) to help merchants and explorers establish trade on behalf of England in the East. The charter she issued created the first official joint-stock corporation. A joint-stock corporation is composed of investors who are granted shares in a company. In return for their initial investments, shareholders are given dividends, or percentages, of the company’s profits based on the number of shares the investor holds.
Under the auspices of her royal authority, Elizabeth also limited the liability of the EIC’s investors — including hers. This made the company the world’s first limited liability corporation (abbreviated as LLC in the United States and Ltd. in the United Kingdom). Under an LLC, the investors in a corporation are granted protection from losing any more money than their initial investments in the venture. If the company goes under, the investors only lose the amount of money they put into the LLC. The company’s outstanding debts aren’t divvied up among its investors [source: IRS].
Queen Elizabeth covered any losses or debts owed by the East India Company with the royal coffers; modern LLCs are subject to bankruptcy procedures, where creditors may be forced to take pennies on the dollar or nothing at all if a corporation goes under.