23rd November 1839. ‘Ambition rhymes with Perdition’.(1)
In the time of the first Queen Elizabeth there were 40 Privy Councillors. By the end of the English civil-war there was no monarch, House of Lords or Privy Council, though all were reinstated at the Restoration of the Monarchy (1660). Now there are 546 Councillors elected for life.
Today in 1839 the ‘full’ Privy Council was present to hear the reigning sovereign announce her engagement of marriage. It was the last time when this tradition was observed.
A previous full meeting of the Council had been held when George, Prince of Wales took oaths on becoming Prince Regent on 6th February 1811.
The Privy Council developed in the Tudor Age, when in concert with the monarch, it decided the country’s affairs and control of royal finance, especially as Henry VIII tended to rule by Royal Proclamation and thus by-passing parliament.(2)
Nowadays the Privy Council tends to be a mere formality and a reward for senior politicians who can put the letters PC after their name, and have the right to be addressed as Right Honourable.(3)
However like all rewards they can be withdrawn for many reasons, ranging from that of Sir Thomas Chicheley in 1687 for falling out of favour, to that of John Aislabie, Chancellor of the Exchequer, for corruption in 1721.(4)
In more modern times Sir Edgar Speyer (Bart), was forced to resign on 13th December 1921 for his supposed German proclivities in the war. However the first to voluntarily resign was Albert, Duke of Edinburgh, who by the 1890’s had inherited estates in Germany.
Post WWII it has been a sorry tale of misdemeanours resulting in removal from the Privy Council, beginning with War Secretary, John Profumo resigning on 26th June 1963, John Stonehouse on 17.8 1976, and Jonathan Aitken on 25 June 1997, after being convicted for perjury.(5)
In the new millennium there were a flurry of removals: Elliot Morley on 8th June 2011, for false accounting in the expenses scandal, the first to be forced from office since Speyer. Others fell on their sword: Chris.Huhne for perverting the course of justice in 2013, and Denis Macshane over expenses.
Lord (John) Prescott resigned in 2013 when the Press’ own Charter seemed to take precedence over that of Parliament, after the Leveson Inquiry into the Press.(6)
(1) ‘Ambition rhymes with Perdition’. C 58 Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens.
(2) Maitland F. p.253, Constitutional History of England, Series of Lectures 1911. Cambridge.
(3) Privy Councillors had precedence in debate until 1998.
(4) Aislabie was removed also from the Commons and committed to the Tower.
(5) Profumo was at the Foreign Office before Ian Harvey MP, who was found flagrante delicto with a guardsman in Hyde Park.
(6) Why I’ve Quit the Privy Council after 19 years’ Daily Mirror, 6.7.2013.
Ref: bbc.co.uk/uk/politics.Do we need a privy council? Rosie Dawson, BBC Radio 4, 13.5.2009
Ref: Journals of the House of Commons & Dictionary of National Biography.
Ref: Great Parliamentary Scandals: Five centuries of calumny, smear and innuendo: Matthew Parris and Kevin MacGuire.
Ref: wikipedia.org/privy_council/Pic Ref.