The court of King Boris

We should stop prattling about democracy. Our everyday politics are court politics, and Boris Johnson is king in all but name


This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Today the hero-villain is called Dom Cummings, not Tom Cromwell. Otherwise little changes. Dom, like Tom, did the impossible and freed England from the bonds of (the Treaty of) Rome. They said it couldn’t be done.

But Dom, like Tom, trampled over parliament, the judges, the church and more or less everybody else, and won the prize. In return Dom, like Tom, wanted a free hand to carry out A Revolution in Government and impose order on chaos. But the boss demurred, declaring, “Chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge.” Which was curtains for Dom and the chopper for Tom.

That’s not the only echo of Henry VIII in Boris Johnson’s life. He’s just redecorated his private apartments at vast expense and using too much gold. And he’s now onto his third marriage which, on a technicality, took place in Westminster Cathedral according to the Catholic rite, despite the Catholic Church‘s disapproval of divorce (let alone two). Equally on a technicality, one presumes, his bride wore virginal white, with her hair hanging long and loose and a chaplet on her head, like Anne Boleyn in her coronation procession.

Like Anne also, she’s made the transition from mistress to wife and quarrelled with Dom over appointments along the way — though so far with the opposite result to her predecessor’s encounter with Tom. And it all takes place on the same few hundred square yards in Westminster/Whitehall.

The Tudors or the twenty-first century? Royal court or Downing Street? Actually, it is both because the origins of the office of Prime Minister are much deeper and older than the circumstances of its immediate creation by Sir Robert Walpole at the beginning of the eighteenth century in the reign of George II.

 Like so much else in English history, they go back to the reign of Henry VIII. For Henry didn’t only sever England from the Roman church, he also divided the political geography of England. Hitherto the government of England had been remarkably centralised in a single place: Westminster.

The Abbey was both the coronation church and the burial place of kings, just as the adjacent Palace was both the king’s principal residence and the seat of the formal institutions of government, like the law courts, the exchequer and parliament.

But in 1513 the inner, residential part of the Palace burned out and was never rebuilt. At first, Henry VIII resided primarily at Greenwich, commuting to Westminster when necessary by boat. Then, with the fall of his first great minister, Cardinal Wolsey, the king acquired Wolsey’s Westminster town-house, York Place. Rebuilt on a vast scale and renamed in popular though not official usage as Whitehall, the new palace became a second centre of government alongside the remains of the old.

Despite the king’s defeat and his palace’s destruction, Britain, as it now was, remained a monarchy

The result wasn’t just two palaces but the embodiment of two different views of kingship. In the old Palace of Westminster, where justice continued to be dispensed in the king’s name and parliaments to be called on his writ, the king was increasingly an abstraction, “the Crown”; in the new Palace of Whitehall he was a real physical presence and equipped moreover with the new instruments of the Tudor Revolution in Government, the privy council and the secretaryship, which gave effect to his will and were based close to his person in the inmost recesses of the new Palace.

The inherent tensions between these two different views of kingship — the one collectivist, the other intensely personal — were exacerbated by the religious struggles of the Reformation, which Henry VIII also initiated. These struggles, which increasingly pitted the monarchy against a majority of the political nation, culminated in the civil wars of the seventeenth century.

These were not, as is lazily supposed, about monarchy versus republic, since republicanism had only the shallowest roots in England and was a mere pis aller when managing kingship became temporarily impossible. Instead they were a clash between the two different views of kingship, the abstract and collectivist and the real and the personal and between the two palaces of Westminster and Whitehall, which were their embodiment.

 Westminster and parliament won, with a pyrrhic victory in the Civil War in which a military coup abolished parliament and kingship together, and definitively in the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9. Ten years later physical destruction followed as well, as the residential part of Whitehall burned down, again never to be rebuilt.

 But, despite the king’s defeat and his palace’s destruction, Britain, as it now was, remained a monarchy and the old tensions remained as well. Moreover, the victorious parliament threatened, as representative assemblies always do, to degenerate into a mere talking shop or, still worse, to renew civil conflict thanks to the intensity of its party strife.

 It took the political genius of Sir Robert Walpole to solve both problems at once with the creation of the office of prime minister. From the beginning the position was a Janus-faced paradox: the premier constrained the king by determining the broad outlines of royal policy on behalf of parliament, while, at the same time he managed parliament — via his disposition of royal patronage — on behalf of the king. The great beneficiary, of course, as pig in the middle, was the premier himself.

Similar dual monarchies, with one king who wields real power and another who is a ceremonial figurehead, are not all that uncommon

Once again, the novel constellation of power was spelled out in architecture. The Palace of Whitehall had gone, but its name survived and its site was redeveloped as the new government quarter of Georgian England. The Admiralty was built in the 1720s, the Treasury in the 1730s and the Horse Guards in the 1740s. And, bang in the middle was 10 Downing Street, given by a grateful George II to Walpole and his successors in office.

The Downing Street facade is deceptively modest, just as the office of premier for generations dared not speak its name. In reality the building is a sixty-room town-palace, while the premier was the second king in Britain and in time has become the first. Similar dual monarchies, with one king who wields real power and another who is a ceremonial figurehead, are not all that uncommon. One such was late Merovingian France and another early-modern Japan. Here the outcomes were different. In France the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace dethroned and displaced the last of the long-haired kings.

With the Meiji restoration in Japan, the Emperors of the ancient ceremonial capital of Kyoto retook power from the Shoguns of Tokyo and occupied their seat of power. I am not suggesting, of course, that Boris Johnson is going to march on Buckingham Palace and mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee by dethroning the House of Windsor. But I am saying we should abandon our nineteenth century apparatus of constitutional analysis. 

 For Bagehot was wrong to declare that “a republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a monarchy”. The intruder wasn’t a republic; it was a second monarchy — an elective one, to be sure, but so is the papacy. Similarly, Dicey erred when he declared that parliament was sovereign. This is to mistake (like the Supreme Court in its absurd Prorogation ruling) the legal fiction of parliamentary sovereignty for a political fact. Politically parliament/the Commons isn’t sovereign; it’s an electoral college for choosing the premier who is sovereign in all but name.

So Boris has realised his boyhood ambition. He wanted to be “king of the world”. He’s actually king of Downing Street. But it’s a real monarchy all right. 

Downing Street is a palace, albeit a small one. Carrie is consort and, like other overweening queens-consort before her, such as Margaret of Anjou or Anne Boleyn, aspires to share in the public political authority that properly belongs only to her husband. The Cabinet is a mere Tudor Privy Council, attendant on the monarch’s every whim. And Dom was indeed a would-be Tom and imagined that, by virtue of Johnson’s mere unstinting trust, he could wield viceregal powers like another Wolsey or Cromwell. 

In other words, we should stop prattling about democracy. Our everyday politics are court politics. It’s time we grew up and recognised the fact. 

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