The Queen has previous – trust me, I'm an expert

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The Independent Online

One of my few unfulfilled ambitions is not merely to appear on television (for I have done that a few times) but to appear on television above the words "Constitutional Expert". I think I may say, without giving undue offence to modesty, that I am at least as well qualified as some of those who are regularly so described. I have, after all, written a book on how politicians become prime minister which contains numerous passages of a constitutional nature. Mr Ferdinand Mount has published an entire work on the subject: The British Constitution Now. He is never on as a constitutional expert either. Nor are people who really are such experts, such as Professors Rodney Brazier and John Griffith, to name only two. Instead the producers wheel on a succession of former politicians, 16th-century historians and manifest charlatans.

One of my few unfulfilled ambitions is not merely to appear on television (for I have done that a few times) but to appear on television above the words "Constitutional Expert". I think I may say, without giving undue offence to modesty, that I am at least as well qualified as some of those who are regularly so described. I have, after all, written a book on how politicians become prime minister which contains numerous passages of a constitutional nature. Mr Ferdinand Mount has published an entire work on the subject: The British Constitution Now. He is never on as a constitutional expert either. Nor are people who really are such experts, such as Professors Rodney Brazier and John Griffith, to name only two. Instead the producers wheel on a succession of former politicians, 16th-century historians and manifest charlatans.

The most eminent, certainly the most visible, is Lord St John of Fawsley. As Norman St John-Stevas he was one of the best Leaders of the House. He edited the collected works of Walter Bagehot, who was an ordinary (if you like, an extraordinary) political journalist for most of his relatively short life and wrote on many other topics besides the constitution. In his hot youth Lord St John published an admired book on obscenity and the law. He has enhanced the gaiety of nations. But what he is really famous for is his acquaintance, maybe even friendship, with members of the Royal Family: certainly with the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, before they went to a Better Place, and possibly even with the Queen herself.

To Lord St John, "The Queen can do no wrong" is more than a convenient legal maxim. It is an article of faith; perhaps, for him, a necessity of life. Whatever touches her, touches him. It is not surprising that he became as agitated as he did on Newsnight at the suggestion that Her Majesty had behaved in any way improperly by intervening in the trial of Mr Paul Burrell. As will appear, Lord St John was right about this. He was, however, wrong in insisting that her entire reign had been free of any controversy or dispute.

In 1963, for instance, she allowed herself to be bamboozled by Harold Macmillan and rushed into asking Alec Home to form a government. In the same decade, she tried to prevent the progress of Emrys Hughes's Abolition of Titles Bill, which she erroneously thought would, if successful, affect the position of the monarchy. Hughes was an amusing eccentric; his measure stood no chance of becoming law. But Harold Wilson was keen to ingratiate himself with her, secured the support of a majority of the Cabinet and was frustrated by the formidable combination of R H S Crossman and Roy Jenkins. Eventually the Bill fell in the normal course of nature. It is surprising that Mr Tony Blair had such an easy time – if he really did have an easy time – at the Palace over the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers.

When Mr Tony Benn was Postmaster-General he experienced the most babyish interference from Her Majesty over the design of the new postage stamps. He lived to tell the tale in his diaries. What possessed the highest potential for trouble was, however, the Queen's stubborn insistence that she was Head of the Commonwealth as well as of the United Kingdom. But the Commonwealth is not the same as it was when she ascended the throne. It is composed largely of states governed by varying degrees of despotism, whose interests may not always correspond to ours. It is strange that there has not been a conflict on this already.

In Mr Burrell's case, the causes of public unease were contradictory. It was considered wrong that she had the power to stop a trial and equally wrong that she had not stopped it long before. But she has no such power. The Attorney General can enter a nolle prosequi to stop the prosecution, which Lord Goldsmith did not do in this case – at least no one has admitted he did – though he knew about the concluding proceedings. Or the prosecution can withdraw, which is what happened here.

It happens all the time, usually because someone's evidence collapses. Here the odd thing was that Mr Burrell's evidence, about which he himself had not been entirely forthcoming – he says because of his feelings of loyalty – was about to be fortified by the Queen. Her testimony, untested but uncontested, was that he had told her five years ago that he was retaining some of Diana's papers "for safe keeping".

Quite why this should have made the trial collapse, when he had in his house a veritable Victoria and Albert Museum of her clothing and possessions, remains mysterious to me, as it does to others. The decision to stop the proceedings was made by Mrs Justice Rafferty (who does not seem to have covered herself with glory); by prosecuting counsel; by the Crown Prosecution Service; conceivably, by the Attorney. We shall only get at the truth through the sometimes blunt instrument of a tribunal of inquiry under a senior judge constituted under the 1921 Act.

It is more doubtful whether such a body could also investigate the alleged male rape in Prince Charles's household and his, or his household's, practice of selling off unwanted presents at a profit. These are certainly factual matters which a 1921 tribunal could well look into. But they are, in an important sense, unconnected with the collapse of Mr Burrell's trial. They would not have arisen if it had not been for that collapse and the consequential tabloid war.

The first question concerns the legal system and the Queen, with Charles putting in a peripheral appearance as the chap in the car who told his mother that she really ought to go to the police. The second and third questions concern the organisation of the Prince's household, a very different matter. It is evident that the duo of Sir Michael Peat and Mr Edmund Lawson QC cannot examine the first question – the collapse of Mr Burrell's prosecution – because they have no power to compel witnesses. It is equally evident that their examination of the second and third questions will be unsatisfactory, not only because they have no compulsive powers, but also because Sir Michael will be investigating both his employer, Charles, and some of his employer's other employees.

Having secured the services of Mr Lawson (the sort of lawyer who asks at least £1,000 for saying "Good morning"), the Palace should at least have had the wit to put him in charge of the investigation, such as it is. We now need two separate official inquiries: the first into the collapse of Mr Burrell's prosecution and why it was undertaken in the first place, and the second into all the royal households. Such investigations need the prior good offices of Mr Blair. And he is going to keep out of things for as long as he can.

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