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. But what might be the benefits of having a constitutional monarchy?
What is a constitutional monarchy and which states have one?
Britain is not alone in having a constitutional monarchy. A number of states have this constitutional arrangement. The following European states also have constitutional monarchies:
In addition, states outside of Europe have constitutional monarchies. Many of these have Elizabeth II as Head of State, a legacy of Britain’s imperial past. Most notable of these are Canada and Australia. In total Elizabeth II reigns over 15 realms with a combined population of over 151 million people.
What are the roles of the monarch in Britain?
The role of the monarch can be broadly split into two parts: Head of Nation and 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. The role of ‘Head of Nation’ is more informal and is shaped by the individual monarch. It essentially refers to the role of the Monarch in being a focus for national unity and acting in a way that represents the principles of the UK.
What does the Monarch do as Head of State?
The Monarch has a number of roles as Head of State:
The Queen represents Britain on an international stage. This means that for ceremonial occasions, where no significant political decisions are being taken, it will be the Monarch who attends, not the Prime Minister. This particularly the case with foreign visits. During her reign Elizabeth II has visited 110 states.
The Queen greets foreign Heads of State. When a foreign Head of State visits the UK it is the diplomatic protocol that they are received by the Queen, not by the Prime Minister. Occasionally the Monarch will host a State Visit for a foreign Head of State. The history of the British Monarchy makes this very appealing to foreign leaders and provides significant soft power to the United Kingdom.
The Queen officially opens Parliament and gives the ‘Queen’s Speech’. This speech outlines the Government’s legislative agenda for the year. Although it is written by the Government, it is announced by the Monarch from the throne in the House of Lords. The speech is followed by five days of debate and by convention if the Government loses the Commons vote on the Queen’s Speech is is expected that Parliament will be dissolved a new election held. This has happened on three occasions, but has not occurred since 1924.
To appoint a Prime Minister and Government. It is the Queen who appoints a Prime Minister to lead the Government. By convention the Queen appoints the Member of the House of Commons who can ‘best command the confidence of the House’. In the modern day this is usually straightforward as parties have leadership elections and one party usually dominates the House of Commons. However, in the past it has been more challenging and even controversial, as shown in the Douglas-Home appointment (discussed below).
To ‘advise, guide and warn’ the Prime Minister‘. Once the Prime Minister is in post they are expected to liaise regularly with the Monarch. This usually happens through a weekly audience. This normally takes place at Buckingham Palace but sometimes takes place via telephone. Traditionally this audience takes place on a Wednesday. In these meetings the Monarch is expected, as Walter Bagehot put it, to ‘advise and warn’ the Prime Minister. Whilst it may be assumed that these meetings may be somewhat of a chore, numerous Prime Ministers have commented that they are immensely valuable. Not only does the Monarch have incredible experience (she has appointed 14 Prime Ministers) she is also one of the only people the PM knows he can talk to in complete confidence. Given the strains of being PM, this is extremely useful.
Tony Blair: “There are times sometimes when I [would] ask her about what it was like in previous times of previous Prime Ministers and of course she’s got such a huge fund of stories in History to draw upon.”
John Major: “I went to see the Queen privately. Prime Minister’s always see the Queen absolutely privately….You know that not only now but in the future no one is going to write memoirs with a version of what was said so you can be utterly and totally frank, even indiscreet.”
To act on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Queen ‘reigns but does not rule’. Whilst many important decisions are taken in the Queen’s name, in reality the political decision is taken by the Prime Minister and Government. As such, the Queen is expected to always act on the advice of her Ministers. This issue was bought into sharp focus in 2019 during the prorogation crisis. Boris Johnson had advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament but in Miller vs. Prime Minister this was judged by the Supreme Court to have been unlawful. However, even if the Queen had doubts at the time over the decision, she was bound to accept the Prime Minister’s advice. Famously the Victorian Scholar Walter Bagehot said:
“The Queen would be required to sign her own death-warrant if the two Houses of Parliament sent it up to her”
The English Constitution (1867)
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 and Tony Blair controversially joined the Order in 2022.
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.
What does the Monarch do as Head of Nation?
The role of Head of Nation may include things such as:
Supporting charitable works. The Queen is Patron of over 500 charities. In this pursuit, she is joined by other ‘working Royals’ within the institution of the Royal Family. This work is funded from the Civil List – a grant of money by the government in order to carry out their work.
Recognising the contribution of ordinary citizens to national life. For example, the Queen regularly hosts Garden Parties which she invites citizens to and around 30,000 people attend these events each year.
Representing the nation at sporting and cultural events. The Queen is a fixture and sporting and cultural events. This helps to give events profile and significance. Famously, the Queen even parachuted out of a helicopter at the Olympics in 2012:
What controversies have surrounded the Monarchy under Elizabeth II?
Given the public spotlight that it operates under and the length of the the reign of Elizabeth II she has been involved in relatively few controversies. However, there are some that stand out:
The Douglas-Home Affair: In 1963 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan became ill and announced he would resign as Prime Minister. At the time there were no leadership elections in the Conservative Party and instead the new leader would be chosen by party elders. It was widely expected that Rab Butler would be appointed Prime Minister. However, the Queen visited Harold Macmillan in Hospital and he instead recommended that the Queen appoint Alec Douglas-Home. Macmillan and Butler were personal rivals and there is a suggestion that his recommendation was based on his personal feelings. Suggestions of impropriety were not helped by the fact that Douglas-Home was a aristocratic member of the House of Lords and was a personal friend of the Queen.
The Queen’s Tax Affairs: In 1992 the Queen experienced what she called her ‘annus horriblis’. A number of events conspired to give her this impression including the divorce and separation of two of her children and a fire at Windsor Castle. However, a more constitutionally testing issue came over her own personal finances. In the early 1990s there was a serious concern about the rising cost of the Monarchy. This was bought into public focus after the fire at Windsor Castle. At the time the Queen paid no income tax on her private income or that which she received as a proportion of the Crown Estates. Following growing pressure, she announced that she would pay income tax voluntarily, whilst officially remain exempt from tax in law.
The Aftermath of the Death of Princess Diana: In 1997 Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris. Diana was officially no longer a member of the Royal Family, but was someone held in high esteem across the nation. The outpouring of national grief was unlike anything seen before. However, the public sensed that the monarchy was not honouring Diana in the way it should in stark contrast to Tony Blair who took the role of ‘mourner in chief’ and ‘People’s Princess’ to describe Diana. For example, the decision of the Queen to refuse to lower the Royal Standard at Buckingham Palace (which only flies when the Queen is in residence) was taken to be a cold rebuke to Diana’s memory. Eventually following significant pressure from Downing Street the Queen appeared live on television to give an unprecedented national address:
The events surrounding Diana’s death are the focus of the Oscar winning film The Queen in which she was played by Helen Mirren:
Prince Andrew: The biggest scandal surrounding the Monarchy in recent years has undoubtedly been those relating to Prince Andrew. The Queen’s second (and allegedly favourite) son was friends with Jeffrey Epstein and maintained contact with him following his conviction for child sex offences. A woman named Virginia Giuffre alleged that she had been trafficked by Epstein to have sex with Prince Andrew. The tidal wave of accusations led to Andrew giving an utterly catastrophic interview on Newsnight:
Following this Giuffre launched legal action in the United States and Prince Andrew took the decision to make an out-of-court settlement with her. The Queen subsequently forced Andrew to return his charitable and military patronages and he is no longer a working member of the Royal Family.
In 2022 a controversy emerged over the process of Queen’s Consent provided for parliamentary bills. This is not to be confused with Royal Assent which is the process whereby the Monarch gives their approval to bills (this is always granted and was last refused in 1707). Queen’s consent refers to the vetting of bills by the Monarch if they may impact the Crown’s interests. An investigation by the Guardian in 2021 found there have been 1,062 bills that have been subject to Queen’s consent since the Queen ascended to the throne. There was also evidence of the Queen showing her concerns about legislation. For example, a bill was altered in 1973 which would have forced the Queen to disclose her private investments in certain industries. This was of course very controversial as it gave the unelected Monarch exclusive influence over the passage of legislation.
What does the Pressure Group Republic argue about the Monarchy?
One of the most famous groups that campaign for the abolition of the Monarchy are Republic. It was originally formed in 1983 but regained prominence in 2006. They campaign against the excesses of Monarchy and argue that the notion of Head of State decided through the hereditary principle is an absurdity in the 21st Century. The website outlines the reasons they want a republic:
It’s simple: Hereditary public office goes against every democratic principle.
And because we can’t hold the Queen and her family to account at the ballot box, there’s nothing to stop them abusing their privilege, misusing their influence or simply wasting our money.
Meanwhile, the monarchy gives vast arbitrary power to the government, shutting voters out from major decisions affecting the national interest. The Queen can only ever act in the interests of the government of the day and does not represent ordinary voters.
The monarchy is a broken institution. A head of state that’s chosen by us could really represent our hopes and aspirations – and help us keep politicians in check.
However, despite being a prominent pressure group, polls indicate that they clearly do not represent public opinion.
What might the benefits be of having a constitutional monarchy?
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.
- 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
The Monarchy and its very existence is always going to be divisive as a political issue. In Britain, there is a Constitutional Monarchy where the Queen functions as Head of State but also as Head of Nation. This contrasts with Presidential Systems where the two roles are mixed and it may be argued that separating the two allows for the Head of Government to focus on their prime role – that of governing.
Constitutional Monarchy – A Monarchy where the power of the Monarchy is strictly controlled and limited and the role of the Monarch is predominantly symbolic.
State Visit – An official visit by a Head of State to another which is normally a significant ceremonial occasion.
Head of Government – The person responsible for the day-to-day running of the Government. In a Presidential State this role is also held by the Head of State.
Head of State – The highest-ranking constitutional position in a State. In Britain the Queen is Head of State, although most of her powers are delegated to Members of the Government.
State Opening of Parliament – The yearly event whereby the Queen officially opens Parliament for the year. As part of this event, she also gives the ‘Queen’s Speech’, this lays out the government’s plans for the coming year.
Queen’s Speech – The yearly speech given by the Monarch that outlines Government’s proposed legislative agenda.
Prorogation – The mechanism by which a parliamentary session is ended. The Queen prorogues Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister. In 2019 the prorogation of Parliament was reversed by the Supreme Court in Miller vs. Prime Minister.
Royal Prerogative – A number of privileges and powers of the monarch, most of which have now been passed to the Prime Minister and members of the government. For example, the Prime Minister appoints the Cabinet on behalf of the monarch.
Civil List – A list of members of the Royal Family given money from the public purse to perform their duties.
Working Royal – A member of the Royal Family who carries out duties on behalf of the institution.
Royal Assent – The final stage of the legislative process in which the Monarch agrees to a law. By convention Royal Assent is now never refused, the last time it was refused was by Queen Anne in 1707.
Queen’s Consent – The mechanism via which the Monarch is able to scrutinise proposed legislation that may impact their affairs.