Democracy and the black spider memos

The release of the ‘black spider memos’—Prince Charles’s letters to British government ministers and officials, recently made public by the Guardian—provide insights into the future reign of a meddlesome king. What they don’t do is threaten UK democracy. For them to do that, UK would have to be a democracy.

Imagine the following: You can make whatever decisions you like about how to live your life. I might or might not like the decisions you make, but I have neither the right nor the power to interfere. So you go ahead and make your decisions, whether I like them or not.

Contrast this with the following: You can make any decisions you like about how to live your life, but if you are about to make what I take to be a wrong decision, I reserve the right to prevent it from being made. You go ahead and make your decisions, and I choose not to intervene.

In both cases, you get to make the decisions you want. But there still seems a big difference between the two cases: in the former case, but not in the latter, what decisions to make is your call and your call only. With respect to decisions about your life, you are, in a word, sovereign.

Notice that this difference remains even if we alter the second case in such a way that I have a long history of not interfering—such a long history, in fact, that typically the possibility of interference doesn’t even cross your mind. That’s because the mere fact that I can at any moment interfere means you’re not sovereign, whether or not you feel that you are.

Now, let’s alter these cases further, and imagine that the question is whether I can block decisions, not of you personally, but of an entire people to which you belong. In the first case, I don’t have that power. In the second case, I do. Let’s assume, yet again, that in the latter case I also have a long history of letting people decide for themselves what’s to be done.

Notice, again, that altering the cases in this manner doesn’t change the point made earlier: in the first case, the people are sovereign—it’s their call and their call only what should be done. In the second case, the people aren’t sovereign; I am.

Let’s add one final premise before leaving the world of hypothetical fiction: a people that isn’t sovereign isn’t living in a democracy. If democracy means anything, it’s that the will of the people is sovereign. That means that the people in the second scenario—where I retain the right to at any moment block the people’s decisions, whether or not I actually choose to do so, or have a history of so doing—are not living in a democracy.

The second case is, of course, completely analogous to that of the people of the UK. The mere fact of a Royal Prerogative—an unrestricted right on the part of the monarch to, among other things, dissolve Parliament—means that the UK is not a democracy: ultimately, it’s not the people’s call how the UK should be governed. The presence of elections and elected representatives doesn’t change that fact, so long as the will of the people as expressed through such elections isn’t sovereign.

This brings us, finally, to the black spider memos. While they confirm that Prince Charles is likely to be a very meddlesome king, and that he in that respect will be different from his mother, they don’t threaten UK democracy. For them to do that, the UK would have to be a democracy. However, as we have seen, the very right of royal interference entails that it’s not, irrespective of the frequency thereof.