The monarchy in Britain is an institution that divides opinion. To some people it is an antiquated institution that has no place in a twenty-first century democratic system. To others it is an essential symbol of continuity that provides a connection to Britain’s illustrious past. To some, it may simply be a beneficial tourist attraction, pulling in people from around the world to spend their money in Britain.
The role of the monarch can be broadly split into two: Head of Nation and Head of State.
Head of State
Every country has a Head of State. This is the person that is the highest representative of the state, both nationally and internationally. In some countries, like the USA, the Head of State is also the Head of Government. However, in the UK, the Prime Minister is the Head of Government. So what roles does the Queen perform as Britain’s Head of State?
– The Queen represents Britain on an international stage.
For example, the Queen is Head of the Commonwealth and attends Commonwealth meetings.
– The Queen greets foreign Heads of State.
For example, in July 2018 the Queen greeted Donald Trump at Windsor during his visit to Britain.
– The Queen appoints the Prime Minister and meets regularly with them and can ‘advise, guide and warn’ the Prime Minister.
– The Queen officially opens Parliament and gives the ‘Queen’s Speech’. This speech outlines the Government’s legislative agenda for the year.
Beyond this, the Queen’s traditional governing powers, known as the Royal Prerogative, have passed to the Prime Minister. Examples of these powers include: controlling the Armed Forces and signing international treaties. The powers that the Queen has passed to the Prime Minister make the Prime Minister incredibly powerful. The ability to launch military action without parliamentary approval, as Theresa May did in Syria in 2018, is one such example.
There are some traditional powers that the Queen reserves for herself. All of these powers are non-governmental. These include the right to confer honours. The highest honour the Queen can award is to make someone a Knight of the Garter or to create a Peerage. The Knights of the Garter have existed since 1348 and at any time there are a maximum of 24 members. The former Conservative Prime Minister Prime Minister, John Major, was made a Knight of the Garter in 2005. The Queen can also create peerages. This often happens to account for new members of the Royal Family. For example, Prince Harry was made the Duke of Sussex upon marrying Meghan Markle and she therefore become the Duchess of Sussex. The last non-royal recipient of a new hereditary peerage was former Prime Minister Harold MacMillian who was made Earl Stockton in 1984.
Head of Nation
The role of ‘Head of Nation’ is more informal and is shaped by the individual monarch. The role of Head of Nation may include things such as:
– Doing charitable works. The Queen is Patron of over 500 charities.
– Recognising the contribution of ordinary citizens to national life. For example, the Queen regularly hosts Garden Parties which she invites citizens to.
– Representing the nation at sporting and cultural events. For example, the Queen officially opened the 2012 Olympics and presented the World Cup to England Captain Bobby Moore in 1966.
Arguably, the Queen’s role as Head of Nation is now even more important than her role as Head of State.
Britain has a constitutional monarchy, this means that the role of the monarch is predominantly ceremonial. This is opposed to absolutist monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, where the monarch still takes the central role in the political leadership of the country.
To many, like members of the pressure group Republic, the fact that the British monarchy is ceremonial makes it even more essential that the monarchy is dissolved – as it is perceived to serve no useful purpose.
However, there are some potential positive aspects of Britain’s constitutional monarchy:
- It allows the Head of State to focus on governing
In Britain, the Monarch does a number of ceremonial roles that relieve pressure on the Head of Government. Examples of this are meeting foreign Heads of State, foreign dignitaries and distributing awards. In countries with a Presidential System, like France and the USA, the President has to devote much of their time to these events, thereby reducing the amount of time in which they can actually focus on government.
- It allows for sense of continuity
Prime Ministers come and go. However, the monarch can remain in place for decades. Since becoming monarch in 1952 Elizabeth II has asked 13 people to form a Government and become Prime Minister. The person who held the position when she became monarch was Winston Churchill.
- It allows for a distinct national identity
The monarchy is a unique institution with a rich history. This helps to create a distinct British identity which is invaluable for tourism. It is estimated that the Royal Family are worth as much as £500 Million per year to the British tourism industry.
- It creates an independent arbitrator in the political process
If required, it is the Monarch’s constitutional role to act as an independent arbitrator to solve political disputes. This might be particularly important in the event of a Hung Parliament where no individual party can clearly form a Government. Famously this happened in March 1974. The result of the election left it unclear who would form the next Government. With Labour on 301 Seats and the Conservatives on 297, neither had a majority. The Conservatives were in discussions with the Liberals about forming a coalition and whilst these discussions went on the Conservative Leader Edward Heath remained as Prime Minister. As the talks continued it became increasingly clear that an agreement would not be reached between the two parties. If Heath had refused to resign, the Queen’s staff had already made preparations for her to intervene.
In any situation, both Parliament and the Monarch would wish for it to be solved politically, thereby avoiding the necessity of the Queen involving herself in political issues. However, if it were deemed to be absolutely necessary, the presence of an independent arbitrator is potentially very valuable.
There are equally of course a number of arguments against having a constitutional monarchy. It can be argued that it perpetuates a class-based system of society that is not in tune with a modern liberal democracy. Another criticism is that it is largely dependent on the characteristics of one individual, unlike a bad Prime Minister, a poor monarch cannot be removed. Some people are concerned that Prince Charles will not be an effective monarch, with some questioning his ability to remain neutral on political issues. However, constitutional monarchy remains a key principle of the UK constitution and an understanding of how it works is desirable.