Once a mighty constitutional office, the role is now played by political minnows. Our democracy is the weaker for itby Jake Richards / May 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
The state opening of parliament is a typically British affair. The day begins with a ceremonial searching of the cellars, supervised by the Lord Great Chamberlain providing glasses of port, marking the gunpowder plot. Accompanied by mischievous laughter on the green benches, there is then a delivery of a parliamentary hostage whereby a current member of parliament is held “prisoner” for the duration of the Queen’s speech, in an apparent homage to the beheading of Charles I in 1649. After the frivolous nods to the past, the Queen, with her crown adorned, finally addresses parliament with a speech written by her political cabinet—the emblem of our constitutional monarchy.
In the midst of the proceedings, wry smiles can be seen from the assorted journalists at the sight of the justice secretary, usually a mid-ranking cabinet member with political ambitions for higher office, dressed in black silk stockings, a velvet tailcoat and buckled patent court shoes kneeling before the monarch. The role of lord chancellor is now an afterthought, a title from a bygone era attached to the justice secretary as a constitutional quirk.
The belittling of the role reflects a dangerous development in our political culture. There is a reason why the mild-mannered Robert Buckland sits above the prime minister in the order of precedence, below only the royal family and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ceremonial pomp reflects the significance of the role in our history, but more importantly the unique traditional function of the lord chancellor as a constitutional guardian in government.
The decline of the once powerful role removes a necessary protective force. Successive officeholders have failed to appreciate the importance of their function as a representative of different branches of the constitution in government, weakening the position considerably. Forthcoming clashes between the executive and the courts—on issues from human rights to bio surveillance and the use of technology in the administration of justice—will strain relations, already battered by the Brexit process, further. There is a need for a reforming lord chancellor—a considerable political figure—who understands the history and their duties while embracing modern methods. Sadly, this currently seems a distant prospect.
Historically, the lord chancellor, a role dating back to 1068, was the alter rex—all powerful in…