Corbyn's kneeling row – a 'constitutional crisis' that just went away

Queen on 80th Birthday

Phew! Another “constitutional crisis” averted barely 10 days after we all invoked the dogged spirit of the blitz to get through the last one.

You do remember the last one? No, not the one involving the armed forces. We’ll come back to them later.

In the new crisis Jeremy Corbyn has finally managed to join the privy council and become the right honourable Jez, apparently without kneeling, even slightly, before the Queen. Or Mrs Betty Glucksburg, as she is probably known at the Labour leader’s own privy kitchen council in Red Islington.

The bogus row had already served its purpose in providing weeks of fun for the Corbyn-baiting Tory press, the ones usually happy to defy a royal charter designed to curb their appetite for paparazzi pictures that make young royals self-harm.

Corbyn himself had kept the fun going by ducking a chance to join the council last month (it’s a bit of ancient freemasonry that goes with the job) on the humorous grounds that he was busy. Perhaps this flummery was one of the things which should change in 21st century Britain, he speculated radically.

Wot? Too busy to air-kiss the Queen’s hand? The Daily Filth nearly had a seizure. But “life-long republican” Corbyn is learning on the job. Look how he manned up enough to put in a properly-dressed-for-the-occasion appearance at the Cenotaph on Sunday.

As Roy Greenslade noted, the republican-pacifist’s nod was good enough to satisfy grander pundits like the Telegraph’s Charles “Lord Snooty” Moore, though not the rougher end of the etiquette trade, which is out to get him.

Does any of this matter? The nodding and air kissing is mere symbolism, a Disney-ish relic of long gone times when the regal word was close to being law. The monarch’s power, though never quite unaccountable, was pretty commanding.

Plenty of sensible people say yes it does matter. Some say there is plenty of bowing and scrapping to power and money in democratically sanctioned republics like France and the US. Everyone, even the tabloids, stand for the president. Others protest that the trappings of royalty hold up a hierarchical class system that damages and divides – and that they should be done away with.

Either way, the symbolism boils down to a matter of priorities. Some of the Rt Hon Jez’s admirers will be disappointed that he wore tails to the palace bash for the not-very-accountable president of China, Xi Jinpingand a red poppy in Whitehall, and decided against joining the privy council by text or email.

Others will feel relief that Corbyn is getting to understand that singing the national anthem on TV doesn’t imperil his political credibility or immortal soul; it could be a courtesy to the war dead in the presence of an 89-year-old lady who hasn’t done much harm and some good. Corbyn Labour has more important priorities, which are far more daunting than political gestures that help political opponents more than they help Labour.

Which gets us back to the last “constitutional crisis”. No, not the one that broke out when Sir Nick Houghton, chief of the defence staff, suggested that a prime minister unwilling to at least say he might just press the nuclear button would present a bit of a problem for a deterrent. Serious people disagreed about whether or not Houghton had overstepped an important constitutional point: that the military obeys elected civilian leadership.

It’s a more important point than hand kissing. Corbyn stuck to his guns, the metaphorical kind, and is said to be writing a letter of protest as soon as he can make Ed Miliband’s printer work.

But much more important than either was the phoney outrage by David Cameron and George Osborne over the House of Lords’ threat (duly carried out) to block the more egregious callousness of child tax-credit cuts. Wholly predictable, it was coupled with hollow promises to curb the lords’ power or the lords themselves, a ploy designed to cover the Treasury’s climbdown.

Yet the lords were legally entitled to vote as they did. Like it or not, the upper house is lawfully constituted and breached no informal convention on child tax credits. Public opinion and experts, including a Tory dominated select committee, were behind them, unelected or not.

As for the Queen, she kept whatever opinion she had to herself. Great survivor. That’s why Corbyn wasn’t “forced to do anything he wasn’t comfortable with” on Wednesday. Obviously, Prince Philip was kept well away.

What a country, eh! It can have constitutional crises once a week and resolve them peacefully within hours. Me, I am starting to think that white ties, tails and assorted dinner jackets suit Comrade Jez and his greying beard rather well. Right on indeed.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12th November 2015 10.32 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010