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Responsibility and power are different


Listening to the unelected and unaccountable (also intelligent and articulate) representative of Demos telling us on Radio 4 how the Queen should behave in future, it became clear that the authority this tribune was exercising derived from a survey in the Independent on Sunday. It was a reminder of the old criticism of newspapers that they have 'power without responsibility'. Perhaps this is why these two ideas have elided in what passes for the media mind in relationto the Queen's 'powers'. Constitutional monarchies have responsibilities dressed up as powers, as was established in Britain in 1688; on occasion they may exercise influence, but only within a constitutional framework defined (in blood) long ago.

There are, by contrast, institutions which have responsibilities but virtually no formal powers at all. An obvious example is the Royal Fine Art Commission, which can demand to see planning applications but has no authority to prevent any development from taking place. It does, however, have a certain moral authority derived from the responsibilities placed up on it, and from the fact that it exists independently of the formal planning system. It can say what it pleases, and it is scarcely surprising that some subjected to its crits and criticisms find its conclusions not to their taste.

The position of the commission is under scrutiny as the the government struggles towards a coherent attitude towards the role of architecture in both public and private sectors, and how it can best be championed. Should it be replaced, and if so by what? Thus far, the suggestions for replacement, in which the commissioners (who work free) would become a sub-group of whatever may replace the Arts Council, sound less than convincing. The commission exists to scrutinise, recommend and report, independent of party interest. This is auseful role.

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