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Yay! A Parliament decided it has a bit of self respect. A long time ago.

April 6, 2014

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This is an interesting one. On April 6, 1780, MP John Dunning successfully moved a motion in the House of Commons which declared that: “the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished” and “it is competent to this house to examine into and correct abuses in the expenditure of the civil list revenues, as well as in every other branch of the public revenue, whenever it shall appear expedient to the wisdom of the house so to do”. The motion therefore represented a bold statement of parliamentary sovereignty and an interesting chapter in the history of Britain’s democratic evolution.

Now it is crucial to understand that by “the crown”, Dunning and his supporters did not just (or primarily) mean the person of George III. ‘The Crown’, as Dunning understood it (best theorised by Edmund Burke who may not have liked the French Revolution but spent much of his career defending parliament against the debilitating influence of crown patronage) involved an entire structure and culture of patronage and secrecy that threatened to make parliamentary debate and scrutiny redundant. As Dunning and Burke saw it, ‘the crown’ referred to the growing exercise of executive power in ways that effectively bypassed proper accountability and discussion.

(Not that George III was some sort of innocent cipher. of course. Until his first major bout of insanity of 1788-9, he was determined to exercise the right to choose government ministers and to decisively influence foreign policy. As a result, he was extremely unpopular for the first half of his reign.)

When modern British democrats challenge ‘the crown’, it’s far more than the habits and personalities of a particular family that are objected to, but the denial of popular sovereignty and the culture of secrecy and patronage that ‘crown authority’ represents and sustains. Like Dunning, it’s not that modern republicans prefer politicians to royals, it’s that modern republicans prefer people being held to proper account. Like Dunning, republicans oppose the abuse of power by politicians who prefer invoking ‘crown authority’ to having their policies properly debated on the floor of the House of Commons.

Dunning’s motion was successful. A hopelessly unrepresentative and corrupt eighteenth-century House of Commons nevertheless mustered enough of a backbone to defend its own right to scrutinise any state institution. At some point during the twenty-first century, a modern House of Commons with a proper sense of history and tradition may discover enough self respect to introduce a similar bill. George III may be long gone but “crown authority”, considered as an expression of unchallengeable executive authority remains, and its increase is crying out to be checked.

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