RECAP: “Viceregalism: Constitutional Crises, Heads of State, and Their History in Britain and the Postcolonial World,” with University of Edinburgh Senior Lecturer Harshan Kumarasingham

The last of the Kinder Institute’s Spring 2021 trans-Atlantic virtual visitors, University of Edinburgh Senior Lecturer in British Politics Harshan Kumarasingham addressed a predominantly American audience in his March 12 colloquium which explained the viceregal system and its function throughout the postcolonial world.

Kumarasingham opened with a line from “God Save Queen” that is often omitted from the standard version but that nicely encapsulates the curious role that the monarchical system plays: “Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks, on thee our hopes we fix.” As the line suggests, while the monarch and its viceregal officeholders are largely deemed symbolic by the public, these officials have nonetheless been imbued throughout history with political powers, some of which remain in an evolved form today. The political actions of these individuals, Heads of State in parliamentary systems, were central to Kumarasingham’s presentation.

As for how to approach the study of these figures and their powers, Kumarasingham emphasized that it is necessary to consider viceregalism in a global context. And while he discussed the role of the monarchy in a post-colonial world, he likewise noted how the residual effects of colonialism and empire can still be seen in the fact that Queen Elizabeth II has been Head of State for 32 independent states. There have been, moreover, 179 Prime Ministers who have served in these various independent states during her reign, and 159 governors-general who have represented a manifestation of her power in different governments globally.

In further focusing his talk, Kumarasingham gave his own updated version of Walter Bagehot’s 1867 rights of a monarch. Bagehot understood the monarch’s rights in three parts: to be consulted, to warn, and to encourage. Appending this list to apply specifically to the historical condition of the role of Parliamentary Heads of State when confronting political crises, Kumarasingham added “to rule, to uphold, and to oblige,” which he then unpacked through nine global examples.

The right to rule marks the monarch’s (and monarchical representative’s) ability to intervene in turbulent times, as in the 20th-century examples of political crises in Grenada, Australia, and Pakistan. In each case, the viceregal exercised direct influence over political events. In Grenada, for example, the executive took over during a time of political strife, which was well within their legal right. In Australia in 1972, there was a budget crisis due to the split of the legislature between two parties, and the governor-general decided to use his power not only to sack the prime minister but also invite the leader of the opposition to take over this position (this, on the other hand, was controversial). Finally, in Pakistan, the right to rule was seen when the viceregal exercised the right to veto legislation.

The right to uphold pertains to the ability of the Head of State to preside over changing regimes and uphold tradition in times of political uncertainty. For context, while their longevity is often attributed to their ceremonial status, historical examples demonstrate that certain governors-general have taken a far more active, far less ceremonial role in order to uphold the constitution in a crisis. In describing the practical application of this right to uphold, Kumarasingham used examples from Fiji, Canada, and Sierra Leone. When two military coup d’états occurred in Fiji in 1987, the Queen sent a formal statement that affirmed the legitimacy of the governor-general. Although the leader of the coup undermined the democratically elected government, and while the governor-general ultimately resigned, he [the coup’s leader] still expressed reverence for the Queen. The Canadian example pertained to Michaëlle Jean asserting her right as the governor-general to restrict the prime minister’s prorogation request in 2008, and in the case study from Sierra Leone, the governor-general attempted to certify a 1967 election only to be suspended by the new military government. In this latter instance, the Queen remained regarded as the Head of State, while her local representative faced the political consequences of exercising the right to uphold.

As for the last of Kumarasingham’s Bagehot-updated rights born of crisis, there was pushback during the question-and-answer portion of the talk as to what constitutes the right to oblige. Kumarasingham clarified that he meant this to be considered as a negative right and wanted it to be used for illustrative purposes. Oblige can in theory imply upholding or ruling, but the examples from the lecture, from Sri Lanka, Ireland, and India, focused on avoiding intervention in political crises. In the face of ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka, the governor-general affirmed rather than denied the passage of legislation that attempted to limit the speaking rights of the Tamil minority. The Irish example emerged from Eamon De Valera’s attempts to undermine the political and symbolic significance of the office of governor-general during his tenure. The right to oblige was also seen during Lord Mountabatten’s tenure as viceroy and then governor-general of India, where the view of him as deeply political subverted any efficacy in his position and contributed to the conflict between India and Pakistan.