Does anyone understand the vagaries of the Accession Council? We certainly don’t. POLITICO commissioned a constitutional expert to explain. 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 which has not been held for more than 70 years.
Among their number will be current and former prime ministers; members of the Cabinet from decades gone by; archbishops; judges; and a scattering of the more senior members of the House of Lords.
The job of this high-ranking, grey-haired and somewhat eclectic group will be to formally proclaim a new monarch — King Charles III — following the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth.
Oddly, amid the written but famously uncodified world of the British constitution, there is no clear legal basis for any of this to happen.
The Accession Council, as the grouping is called, will in fact be issuing ‘orders’ proclaiming something which has already happened. By law, Charles became king the moment his mother passed away, at some point Thursday afternoon. Yet on the basis of immemorial custom, the council must meet and process certain business.
In truth, no one knows how old the council is. Ancient Anglo-Saxon councils once “elected” the English monarch from among a handful of eligible Royal males — but the first modern Accession Council dates from 1603, when the Scottish King James VI also became James I of England. In 2022, it will be an international gathering, with privy counsellors and high commissioners from the Commonwealth realms in attendance — assuming their rushed flights across the globe arrive in time.
But rush they will, for these are the hottest tickets in town.
On previous occasions, invitations have been extended to every member of the privy council — a related body made up of senior MPs, peers and ministers which advises the monarch on legislation. Invitations to join the privy council are extended for life, meaning it now has more than 700 living members in Britain and around the world. In truth, St James’s Palace simply does not have the space for an event on that scale. A cull of attendees has been required.
Some months ago, it was quietly announced that only around 200 would be invited to the next Accession Council in order to maintain the “high presentation and safety standards required of the occasion.” Angry MPs and lords — fearing they would miss out — tabled questions in parliament, but were politely reminded that their presence was not legally necessary. A small number were allowed to apply for a place in a special ballot. The winners of these ‘golden tickets’ will be invited into the ceremony to proclaim 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, as the lord president of the council — a Cabinet post now held by new Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt — will announce the “demise” (pronounced “demeeze”) of Queen Elizabeth II. She will then call upon the clerk of the privy council to read the Accession Proclamation. This is signed by those present — though even if everyone refused to do so, Charles would still be king.
In part two, the king himself joins the gathering. He will make a formal “declaration” regarding the queen’s death, and then take a statutory oath to “protect” the Church of Scotland, one of two established churches in the U.K. This symbolises the 1707 union between Scotland and England. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who supports the monarchy but not that union, will be present.
After this, further orders 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 the crucial meeting Wednesday evening when her Cabinet members were to take their own oaths of office. Their constitutional limbo may come to an end on Saturday morning, in King Charles’ presence.
For an historic British ceremony, the dress code will be somewhat underwhelming — largely those present will wear morning dress, or lounge suits. But Charles will be publicly proclaimed king from a balcony at St James’s Palace at 11 a.m., and trumpeters and a colorful array of heralds should follow. The reworded national anthem will receive one of its first outings. Gun salutes will echo around the capital.
The gathering will be significant in other respects, too. It will be televised, an innovation as significant as that which beamed the queen’s coronation into millions of homes in 1953. In 1936, privy counsellors were summoned via a radio broadcast; on Thursday, the Privy Council Office website simply asked them to monitor their inboxes.
One expects such occasions 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 Accession Council, back in 1837, that no one really knew what to do. Through sheer force of habit, the then-clerk to the privy council — the wonderfully-named Sir Almeric FitzRoy — concluded the proclamation with a (now-outdated) cry of “god save the queen!” “King!” hissed the lord chancellor, although few seemed to notice the faux pas.
Later, the lord mayor of London, who was not a privy counsellor and so not actually invited, insisted on attending part two anyway — and got himself thrown out. The king, Edward II, improvised his own personal declaration and no one thought to write it down, meaning the published version had to be cobbled together from phrases half-remembered 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 Accession Council in February 1952. Hugh Dalton, a senior Labour politician, described it as a “resurrection parade,” full of “people one didn’t remember were still alive.” Harold Macmillan, a future prime minister, lamented the “scruffy, scrubby appearance” of those present. A peer wrote that the queen’s youthful presence at part two made the elderly privy counsellors look “immeasurably old and gnarled and grey.” 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 demeanour but, according to one authoritative account, “as she went back to Clarence House, the strain proved too much for her. She broke down, and cried.”
Even at such a strange ceremony as this, emotions can run high.