Review: Victorian values and the royal prerogative

Review: Victorian values and the royal prerogative

Approaching the subject of the personal relations between the monarch and the prime ministers must surely have been somewhat daunting given the longevity of the reign of Queen Victoria.

Many of the individual prime ministers are themselves the subject of an extensive literature by specialist historians dedicated to their subject and the literature on their places in history.

There is no preface with this large tome: the author advises in a brief note at the beginning of the book, that the style of writing in Victorian times was, like the value of money, different to the present day, and off the narrative goes.

Perhaps the early parts of the first chapter might have been more suitably presented as an introduction, but never mind, writers have discretion in presenting their views.

Anne Somerset has diligently produced a long and interesting history about the wildly varying nature of personal relations at the executive level.

The resulting synthesis of a massive amount of material is an interesting narrative that is a triumph of concise descriptions of the dynamics of a small group.

The group constituting the executive changed, and occasionally changed back, in the context of domestic and European politics over a very long period of time.

With the unwritten British constitution, unwritten in the sense that there was no one fundamental text, the view of the subject matter appears to have differed amongst constitutional lawyers, historians and political scientists.

The distinction amongst these groups may amount to no more than discussions as to what is or ought to be, for example, a constitutional principle and what the reality of any application of it was. This work of history shows how principles emerge and were applied.

Contemporary politicians asserted that the royal prerogative was at times pushed to its limits by the active involvement of Queen Victoria. The exercise of authority by Prince Albert in the absence of the Queen also caused concern, and may yet form the basis of a study of vicarious or delegated power.

The additional value of this study lies in the description of a working out in practice of constitutional relationships between leading political figures including the Monarch as head of state.

The focus on Queen Victoria emphasises particularly the difficulties for leading politicians in settling on the national policy for international concerns when family relatives of the Monarch are the heads of state for other involved nations.

There is, however, one important point that seems with respect to have been lost sight of by the author, although it was recognised at the outset. The United Kingdom, she advises, is “often misleadingly referred to as ‘England’”.

After that possibly now standard concession there are numerous, perhaps 16 or more, points where the author herself names wrongly the correct country in the context of the relevant narrative of a political issue of the day. Self-evidently, it is one thing to quote the practice or errors of the past, it is another to repeat their use as if the failing is irrelevant or still acceptable.

This point is made not merely as a demonstration of narrow nationalism, as it might be regarded, but more as an assertion of the need for factual, perhaps even legal, accuracy.
Constitutional law and any other division of the subject needs to be reflected on and understood in its practical application.

Anne Somerset has provided an excellent narrative of the essence of executive action over a long period with the working out of events that must surely have tested the resolve of any lawyers present.

Queen Victoria and Her Prime Ministers: A Personal History by Anne Somerset. Published by William Collins, 576pp, £30.

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