Does anyone understand the vagaries of the Membership Board? We certainly don’t. POLITICO mandated a constitutional expert to explain himself. They asked not to be named for this piece.
LONDON — On Saturday morning, the great and good of the British establishment will gather at St James’s Palace in central London for an archaic ceremony that hasn’t been held for over 70 years.
Among them will be current and former prime ministers; cabinet members of past decades; archbishops; judges; and a scattering of senior members of the House of Lords.
The job of this high-ranking, grey-haired and somewhat eclectic group will be to officially proclaim a new monarch – King Charles III – after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth.
Curiously, amid the written but notoriously uncodified world of the British constitution, there is no clear legal basis for any of this to happen.
The Membership Council, as the grouping is called, will actually issue “ordinances” proclaiming something that has already happened. By law, Charles became king the moment his mother died, sometime Thursday afternoon. Yet, based on an immemorial custom, the council must meet and transact certain business.
In truth, no one knows how old the council is. Ancient Anglo-Saxon councils once ‘elected’ the English monarch from a handful of eligible royal men – but the first modern membership council dates from 1603, when Scottish King James VI also became James I of England. In 2022 it will be an international gathering, with Privy Councilors and High Commissioners from the Commonwealth realms attending – assuming their rushed flights around the world arrive on time.
But they will rush, as these are the most popular tickets in town.
On previous occasions, invitations have been extended to all members of the Privy Council – a related body made up of senior MPs, peers and ministers that advises the monarch on legislation. Invitations to join the Privy Council are extended for life, meaning it now has over 700 living members in Britain and around the world. In truth, St James’s Palace simply does not have the space for an event of this scale. A slaughter of the participants was necessary.
A few months ago it was quietly announced that only around 200 people would be invited to the next Membership Council in order to maintain ‘the high standards of presentation and security required for the occasion’. Angry MPs and lords – fearing they wouldn’t attend – tabled questions in parliament, but were politely reminded that their presence was not legally required. A small number were allowed to apply for a place in a special ballot. The winners of these “golden tickets” will be invited to the proclamation ceremony of the new king.
The council itself takes place in two parts. The King will not be present in the first part: instead, he will wait in an adjoining room, while the Lord President of the Council – a Cabinet position now held by new Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt – announces the “disappearance (pronounced “demeeze”) of Queen Elizabeth II. She will then ask the Clerk of the Privy Council to read the membership proclamation. This is signed by those present – even if everyone refused to do so, Charles would still be king.
In the second part, the king himself joins the gathering. He will make a formal ‘declaration’ regarding the Queen’s death and then take an oath to ‘protect’ the Church of Scotland, one of two established churches in the UK. This symbolizes the 1707 union between Scotland and England. Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who supports the monarchy but not this union, will be present.
After that, new ordinances will facilitate the continuity of government. The Queen’s last act was to appoint Liz Truss as Prime Minister, but as her health deteriorated she was forced to cancel Wednesday night’s crucial meeting when members of her Cabinet were due to be sworn in. Their constitutional limbo should come to an end on Saturday morning, in the presence of King Charles.
For a historic British ceremony, the dress code will be somewhat disappointing – for the most part those in attendance will be wearing morning dress or lounge suits. But Charles will be publicly proclaimed king from a balcony in St James’s Palace at 11 a.m., and trumpeters and a colorful array of heralds are expected to follow. The reformulated national anthem will receive one of its first releases. The salvos of weapons will resound in the capital.
The gathering will be significant in other ways as well. It will be televised, an innovation as significant as that which broadcast the Queen’s coronation to millions of homes in 1953. In 1936 Privy Councilors were summoned via a radio broadcast; On Thursday, the Privy Council Office website simply asked them to monitor their inboxes.
Such occasions are expected to be British and orderly, but in fact they have often been chaotic. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, it had been so long since the last Membership Council, in 1837, that no one really knew what to do. By force of habit, the Clerk of the Privy Council at the time – the wonderfully appointed Sir Almeric FitzRoy – concluded the proclamation with a (now outdated) cry of “God save the Queen!” “King!” hissed the Lord Chancellor, though few seemed to notice the faux pas.
Later, the Lord Mayor of London, who was not a Privy Councilor and therefore not actually invited, insisted on attending part two anyway – and got kicked out. The king, Edward II, improvised his own personal statement and no one thought to write it, meaning the published version had to be cobbled together from half-memorized phrases by those present. Edward was at least calm – in 1910 his son King George V found his Accession Council “the most trying ordeal” he had ever endured.
There is no one left with personal experience of the last Membership Council in February 1952. Hugh Dalton, a senior Labor politician, described it as a “resurrection parade”, full of “unremembered people that they were still alive”. Harold Macmillan, a future Prime Minister, lamented the “scruffy and unkempt appearance” of those present. A peer wrote that the Queen’s youthful presence at Part Two made the elderly Privy Councilors look “immeasurably old, gnarled and gray”. A senior Australian politician chartered a private flight to London, arriving just in time to sign the proclamation.
Most of those present praised the Queen’s behavior but, according to an authoritative account, “when she returned to Clarence House, the tension proved too much for her. She broke down and cried.
Even in a ceremony as bizarre as this, emotions can run high.