Shall I let you into a secret (on Privy Councillor terms)?

The Council is a very strange, very secretive, and a very trivial institution
Click to follow
TODAY, THREE men will be hanged in Trinidad for drugs-related crimes. Whatever the merits of their case, the reason they are paying the ultimate penalty is because their appeal to the judicial committee of the Privy Council, 3,000 miles away in London, failed. One might be forgiven for wondering precisely what the curiously named Privy Council is all about. Apart from its important but anachronistic judicial role, a leftover from Empire effectively delegated to the Law Lords, the Privy Council is a very strange, very secretive, and very trivial institution.

I can still recall the delight with which I received the letter. "I am minded," Harold Wilson wrote in the archaic language thought essential to the dignity of his message, "to recommend you for membership of the Privy Council." I lost the bright yellow envelope in which I was to confirm my willingness to become the Right Honourable Roy Hattersley and worried for a month that my obsequious acceptance was buried under a pile of Downing Street mail. Every time that I was tempted to telephone a confirmation of my agreement, I remembered that I was still not in the Cabinet and that the Prime Minister must not know that I was careless about matters of state. The idea that I was joining an anachronism didn't enter my head.

In those days, membership of the Privy Council had (at least for politicians) three undoubted benefits. Right Honourable Members were called to speak in House of Commons debates before their merely Honourable colleagues. That unreasonable privilege did not survive the arrival of Madam Speaker Boothroyd. But Privy Councillors are still assumed to possess a level of integrity that is denied to those who have not sworn "to keep secret all Matters committed and revealed... or that shall be treated secretly in Council". Classified information is still passed from the government to the opposition "on Privy Councillor terms" - thus guaranteeing that it is not revealed to Russian intelligence or, worse still, the British people.

The third - at once the most understandable and reprehensible reason for politicians' pride in the letters "PC" is their permanence. Only the most senior politicians join the Privy Council. But for the rest of their lives - though, theoretically, only for the lifetime of the monarch who appointed them - they retain their badge of rank. Everybody else may have forgotten that, long ago, they once ran the country, but the postman is constantly reminded that once, they walked with kings - or at least met the Queen every three months or so.

The Privy Council meets at Buckingham Palace most weeks when the Sovereign is in London and spends half an hour on business of absolute triviality. Although, with the passage of the years, it has acquired hundreds of members, the quorum is less than half a dozen and, in sensible Cabinets, the desire not to make up the numbers is very strong. I was a very junior member - as I recall, 17th out of 23 in order of precedence. In consequence, I was often instructed to fill a gap left in the rota by the Chancellor or Foreign Secretary. Nothing of the slightest importance was ever discussed.

In fact, nothing was ever discussed at all. The inconsequential decisions were taken, not by the Privy Council, but by "The Queen in Council". The Clerk read out a proposition which needed the Royal Assent and the Queen indicated her approval while the Privy Councillors watched and we all moved on to the next business. After the little drama had been acted out a dozen times, the ministers present returned to more sensible work.

The item I recall most vividly was "the Appointment of a Chaplain to Wadham College, Oxford". The Queen, very reasonably I thought, asked why that was her responsibility. Michael Foot, the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, modestly announced that, as a Wadham man, he knew the answer. The chaplain's royal relationship was buried deep in history and Michael began to explain how it had all come about. When, after about 10 minutes, he had reached the 16th century, the Queen assured him that she was completely satisfied that her jurisdiction could be properly exercised.

In their time, "Privy Councillor terms" have been employed with dubious results. When I was Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, the Cabinet Secretary asked me - on the same basis - if I would prevent one of my frontbench colleagues from asking a parliamentary question which would have undoubtedly (though unwittingly) put the lives of British Intelligence Officers at risk. I unhesitatingly agreed, but insisted that I must explain the reason for the prohibition. I was reminded that the colleague in question was not a member of the Privy Council. I insisted that he deserved a rational explanation. He proved just as trustworthy as he would have been with the letters PC after his name.

The Privy Council - whatever the importance of the private advice it gave to the First Elizabeth - is now an unnecessary historical appendage. It is as much a part of our history as the Trooping of the Colour or the Changing of the Guards. But, unlike those vestiges of our glorious past, it does not even attract foreign tourists. So I understand why governments of once colonial nations resent, and often reject, the notion that it may - even in its judicial role - still exercise some authority on "Her Majesty's Lands and Dominions Beyond the Seas". The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is - like the House of Lords sitting in its Judicial Capacity - another name for a group of distinguished judges acting as court of last resort. But the whole institution has too many imperial echoes to make it acceptable in other Commonwealth countries. When, 30 years ago, it tried to exercise its historic jurisdiction in one of the Canadian provinces, Pierre Trudeau (lawyer and Prime Minister) described its intervention as "The Empire Strikes Back".

Tony Benn assures me that the whole Privy Council is only summoned to two special meetings. The first is to note the death of the sovereign and the second is to approve the succession, in conformity with the 1688 "Settlement" that the monarch must rule by consent. He says that he will propose a resolution "not to proceed". I wish I had the courage to second it. But even if I did, and it was carried, nobody would take any notice. The Privy Council is not supposed to do anything. It just exists to prove that Britain cannot detach itself from its glorious past and concentrate on the uncertain future.