- This article concerns the British Sovereign's Privy Council. See also Privy Council (disambiguation).
Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council is a body of advisors to the British Sovereign. Formerly, the Council was a powerful institution, but is now largely ceremonial. Most of its power is held by one of its committees, the Cabinet. The Council also performs judicial functions, which are for the most part delegated to the Judicial Committee.
The Sovereign, when acting on the Council's advice, is known as the King-in-Council or Queen-in-Council. The members of the Council are collectively known as The Lords of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council (sometimes The Lords and others of...). The chief officer of the body is the Lord President of the Council, who is the fourth highest Great Officer of State, a member of the Cabinet and, normally, the Leader of either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Another important official is the Clerk, whose signature is appended to all orders made in the Council.
Both "Privy Counsellor" and "Privy Councillor" may be correctly used to refer to a member of the Council. The former, however, is preferred by the Privy Council Office.
During the reigns of the Norman monarchs, the Crown was advised by a royal court, which consisted of magnates, ecclesiastics and high officials. The body originally concerned itself with advising the Sovereign on legislation, administration and justice. Later, different bodies assuming distinct functions evolved from the court. The courts of law took over the business of dispensing justice, while Parliament became the supreme legislature of the kingdom. Nevertheless, the Council retained the power to hear legal disputes, either in the first instance or on appeal. Furthermore, laws made by the Sovereign on the advice of the Council, rather than on the advice of Parliament, were accepted as valid.
Powerful Sovereigns often used the body to circumvent the courts and Parliament. For example, a committee of the Council—which later became the Court of the Star Chamber—was during the fifteenth century permitted to inflict any punishment, except death, without being bound by any rules regarding evidence or the burden of proof. During Henry VIII's reign, the Sovereign, on the advice of the Council, was allowed to enact laws by mere proclamation. The legislative pre-eminence of Parliament was not restored until after Henry VIII's death.
Though the royal Council retained legislative and judicial responsibilities, it became a primarily administrative body. The Council was a large body—it consisted of forty members in 1553—which made it difficult to manage as an advisory body. Therefore, the Sovereign relied on a small committee, which later evolved into the modern Cabinet. James I and Charles I attempted to rule as absolute monarchs, contributing to further deterioration of the power of the Council.
After the English Civil War, Charles I was deposed, and the monarchy and House of Lords abolished. The remaining house of Parliament, the House of Commons, instituted a Council of State to execute laws and to direct administrative policy. The forty-one members of the Council were elected by the Commons; the body was headed by Oliver Cromwell, the de facto military dictator of the nation. In 1653, however, Cromwell became Lord Protector; the Council was reduced to between thirteen and twenty-one members, all elected by the Commons. In 1657, the Commons granted Cromwell even greater powers, some of which were reminiscent of those enjoyed by monarchs. The Council became known as the Protector's Privy Council; its members were appointed by the Lord Protector, subject to Parliament's approval.
In 1659, shortly before the restoration of the monarchy, the Protector's Council was abolished. Charles II restored the royal Privy Council, but he, like previous Stuart monarchs, chose to rely on a small committee of advisors. Under George I, who did not speak English, even more power passed to the body. Thus, the Privy Council, as a whole, ceased to be a body of important confidential advisors to the Sovereign; the role passed to a committee of the Privy Council, now known as the Cabinet.
The Sovereign may appoint all Privy Counsellors, but in practice does so on the advice of the Government. The heir-apparent and the Sovereign's consort are invariably appointed to the Council, as are the Church of England's three highest ecclesiastics—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London. Several senior judges—Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, judges of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, judges of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and judges of the Inner House of the Court of Session (the highest court in Scotland)—are also named to the Privy Council. The bulk of Privy Counsellors, however, are politicians. The Prime Minister, ministers in the cabinet, some senior ministers outside the cabinet, the Leader of the Opposition and leaders of large parties in the House of Commons are all appointed Privy Counsellors. Although the Privy Council is primarily a British institution, officials from some other Commonwealth realms are also appointed to the body. The most notable instance is New Zealand, whose Prime Minister, senior politicians, Chief Justice and Court of Appeal judges are conventionally made Privy Counsellors.
The following oath is administered to Privy Counsellors before they take office:
- You do swear by Almighty God to be a true and faithful Servant unto The Queen's Majesty as one of Her Majesty's Privy Council. You will not know or understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done or spoken against Her Majesty's Person, Honour, Crown or Dignity Royal, but you will lett and withstand the same to the uttermost of your power, and either cause it to be revealed to Her Majesty Herself, or to such of Her Privy Council as shall advertise Her Majesty of the same. You will in all things to be moved, treated and debated in Council, faithfully and truly declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience; and will keep secret all matters committed and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of secretly in Council. And if any of the said Treaties or Counsels shall touch any of the Counsellors you will not reveal it unto him but will keep the same until such time as, by the consent of Her Majesty or of the Council, Publication shall be made thereof. You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance to the Queen's Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates. And generally in all things you will do as a faithful and true Servant ought to do to Her Majesty. So help you God.
Membership concludes upon the dissolution of the Privy Council, which automatically occurs six months after a demise in the Crown. (Formerly, until a statute to the contrary was passed during the reign of Anne, the death of a monarch brought an end to the Council immediately.) By convention, however, the Sovereign reappoints all members of the Council after its dissolution; hence, membership is, in practice, for life. The Sovereign may remove an individual from the Council. The last individual to voluntarily leave the Privy Council was Jonathan Aitken, who left in 1997 following allegations of perjury. The last individual to be expelled from the Council against his will was Sir Edgar Speyer, 1st Baronet, who was removed in 1921 for pro-German activities during the First World War.
Victoria held her first Privy Council meeting on the day of her accession in 1837.
Meetings of the Privy Council are normally held once each month wherever the Sovereign may be residing at the time. The Sovereign attends the meeting, though his or her place may be taken by two or more Counsellors of State. Under the Regency Act 1937, Counsellors of State may be chosen from amongst the Sovereign's spouse and the four individuals (at least twenty-one years of age) next in the line of succession.
At meetings of the Privy Council, the Lord President reads out a list of Orders to be made, and the Sovereign merely says "Agreed." Only a few ministers of the Crown attend such meetings, which rarely last very long. Full meetings of the Privy Council are only held when the reigning Sovereign announces his or her own marriage, or when a demise in the Crown occurs. In the latter case, the Privy Council—together with the Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal, the Lord Mayor of London, the Aldermen of the City of London and representatives of Commonwealth nations—makes a proclamation declaring the accession of the new Sovereign.
The Sovereign exercises executive authority by making Orders-in-Council upon the advice of the Privy Council. Orders-in-Council, which are drafted by the government rather than by the Sovereign, are used to make simple government regulations. Furthermore, they are used to grant the Royal Assent to laws passed by the legislative authorities of British crown dependencies. Government appointments are also made by Orders-in-Council.
Distinct from Orders-in-Council are Orders of Council. Whilst the former are made by the Sovereign on the advice of the Privy Council, the latter are made by members of the Privy Council without the participation of the Sovereign. They are issued under the specific authority of Acts of Parliament, and are normally used to regulate public institutions.
The Sovereign, furthermore, issues Royal Charters on the advice of the Privy Council. Charters grant special status to incorporated bodies; they are used to grant city status to towns.
The Crown-in-Council also performs certain judicial functions. Within the United Kingdom, the Crown-in-Council hears appeals from ecclesiastical courts, the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports, prize courts and the Disciplinary Committee of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, appeals against schemes of the Church Commissioners and appeals under certain Acts of Parliament (the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998). The Crown-in-Council also hears appeals from several Commonwealth Realms, British Overseas Territories, Sovereign Base Areas and crown dependencies. The aforementioned cases are theoretically decided by the Crown-in-Council, but are in practice decided by the Judicial Committee, which consists of senior judges who are Privy Counsellors.
Rights and privileges of members
Though the Privy Council as a whole is "The Most Honourable," individual Privy Counsellors are entitled to the style "The Right Honourable." Peers who are Privy Counsellors also append the post-nominal letters "PC," but commoners do not. Peers are already entitled to the style "The Right Honourable," if not a higher style, even when they are not Privy Counsellors; thus, the letters "PC" are necessary to indicate membership of the Council. For commoners, on the other hand, "The Right Honourable" is sufficient identification as a Privy Counsellor.
Privy Counsellors are entitled to positions in the order of precedence. At the beginning of each new Parliament, members of the House of Commons who are Privy Counsellors may take the oath of allegiance before all other members except the Speaker and the Father of the House (the most senior member of the House). Formerly, whenever a Privy Counsellor rose to make a speech in the House of Commons at the same time as another member, the Speaker would first recognise the Privy Counsellor. This informal custom, however, was abolished in 1998.
Privy Counsellors are allowed to sit on the steps to the Sovereign's Throne in the House of Lords Chamber during debates. They share this privilege with peers who are not members of the House of Lords, diocesan bishops of the Church of England, retired bishops who formerly sat in the House of Lords, the Dean of Westminster, the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.
Each Privy Counsellor has the individual right to personal access to the Sovereign. Peers also enjoy the same right individually; members of the House of Commons possess the right collectively. In each case, personal access may only be used to tender advice on public affairs.
The Privy Council is one of the four principal councils of the Sovereign. The other three are: the courts of law, the commune concilium (common council, or Parliament) and the magnum concilium (great council, or the assembly of all the peers of the Realm). All are still in existence, but the magnum concilium has not been formally summoned since 1640.
Several other "Privy Councils" have advised the Sovereign. England and Scotland once had separate Privy Councils, but the Act of Union 1707, which united the two countries into Great Britain, replaced both with a single body. Ireland, on the other hand, continued to have a separate Privy Council even after the Act of Union 1800. The Irish Privy Council was abolished in 1922, when Southern Ireland separated from the United Kingdom; it was succeeded by the Privy Council for Northern Ireland, which became dormant after the suspension of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.
Canada has had its own Privy Council—the Queen's Privy Council for Canada—since 1867. (Note that whilst the Canadian Privy Council is specifically "for Canada," the Privy Council discussed above is not "for the United Kingdom.") The equivalent organ of state in the other Commonwealth Realms and some Commonwealth Republics is called the Executive Council.
- Blackstone, W. (1765). Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Davies, M. (2003). Companion to the Standing Orders and guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords, 19th ed. (http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld/ldcomp/compso.htm)
- "Privy Council." (1911). Encyclopćdia Britannica, 11th ed. London: Cambridge University Press.
- Privy Council Office (Home Page). (2004). (http://www.privy-council.org.uk)