Britain is a democracy, yet its people are not, as one might expect in a democracy, constitutionally in control of a state. The constitutional situation is an apparently contradictory one. As a result of a historical process, the people of Britain are subjects of the Crown, accepting the Queen as the head of the state. Yet even the Queen is not sovereign in any substantial sense since she receives her authority from Parliament, and is subject to its direction in almost all matters. In short, she ‘reigns’ but does not rule. Technically British sovereignty collectively resides in the three elements of Parliament: the Crown, and the Parliament’s two chambers, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
This curious situation came about as a result of a long struggle for power between the Crown and Parliament during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. In 1689 Parliament won that struggle, because it controlled most of the national wealth. It agreed to allow the Crown to continue to function within certain limits, and subject to Parliament’s control. No constitution was written down either then or since, and the relationship between Crown, government, Parliament and people – and their respective constitutional powers – has been one of gradual development in three vital respects:
an independent judiciary;
and consolidation of the rule of the law.
Various elements of what is usually considered ‘the constitution’ appear in different laws and conventions, but they are not specified as such. The state – itself sometimes called the Crown – operates on precedent, custom and conventions, and on unwritten rules and assumptions. Operating on precedent, custom and common sense is a very British arrangement, and the British have traditionally felt uncomfortable with a constitution based either on logic or theory.
The reigning monarch is not only the head of state but also a symbol of the unity of the nation. The monarchy is Britain’s oldest secular institution, its continuity for over 1,000 years broken only once by a republic that lasted a mere 11 years (1649-60). The monarchy is hereditary, the succession passing automatically to the oldest male child, or in the absence of males, to the oldest female offspring of the monarch. By Act (or law) of Parliament, the monarch must be a Protestant. Succession is automatic on the death of the monarch, confirmed later by a formal coronation ceremony. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, for example, took place over a year after she became queen.
· The House of Windsor. Windsor is the family name of the British royal family. The press sometimes refers to its members as the ‘the Windsors’. Queen Elizabeth is only the fourth monarch with this name. This is not because a ‘new’ royal family took over the throne of Britain four monarchs ago; it is because Georg V, Elizabeth’s grandfather, changed the family name. It was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, but during the First World War it was thought better for the king not to have a German-sounding name.
In law the monarch is head of the executive and of the judiciary, head of the Church of England, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. However, since 1689, the monarch’s sovereign powers have been formally limited by the idea that the national sovereignty resides in ‘the Crown in Parliament’ – the idea that the Crown is only sovereign by the will of Parliament.
The remaining powers of the monarch are basically to summon, suspend until the next session and dissolve Parliament; to give royal assent to legislation passed by Parliament; to appoint government ministers, judges, officers of the armed forces, governors, diplomats and bishops of the Church; to confer honours, such as peerages and knighthoods; to remit sentences passed on convicted criminals; and finally to declare war or make peace with an enemy power. In practice, of course, with the exception of a few honours she is free to decide herself, the monarch discharges all these functions on the direction of the government. In most matters of state, the refusal of the Queen to exercise her power according to the direction of her Prime Minister would risk a serious constitutional crisis.
In fact, the Queen cannot just choose anyone to be Prime Minister. She has to choose someone who will command majority support in the House of Commons. This is because the law says that ‘her’ government can only collect taxes with the agreement of the Commons, so if she did not choose such a person, the government would stop functioning. In practice, the person she chooses is the leader of the strongest party in the Commons. Similarly, it is really the Prime Minister who decides who the other government ministers are going to be (although officially the Prime Minister simply ‘advises’ the monarch who to choose).
It is the same story with Parliament. Again, the Prime Minister will talk about ‘requesting’ a dissolution of Parliament when he or she wants to hold an election, but it would normally be impossible for the monarch to refuse this ‘request’. Similarly, while in theory the Queen could refuse the royal assent to a bill passed by Parliament, no monarch has actually done so since the year 1708. Indeed, the royal assent is so automatic that the queen doesn’t even bother to give it in person. Somebody else signs the documents for her.
· In reality, the Queen has almost no power at all. When she opens Parliament each year, the speech she makes has been written for her. She makes no secret of this fact. She very obviously reads out the script that has been prepared for her, word for word. If she strongly disagrees with one of the policies of the government, she might ask the government ministers to change the wording in the speech a little beforehand, but this is all. She cannot actually stop the government going ahead with any of its policies.
The real importance of the British monarchy is probably less to do with system of government and more to do with social psychology and economics. The monarchy gives British people a symbol of continuity, and a harmless outlet for expressions of national pride. Occasions such as the state opening of Parliament, the Queen’s official birthday and royal wedding, as well as everyday ceremonial events such as the changing of the guard, help to make up for the lack of pageantry in people’s lives. (There is no countrywide tradition of local parades in Britain.) In addition, the glamorous lives of ‘the royals’ provide a source of entertainment for the public.
· It is impossible to estimate exactly how much the British royal family and the events and buildings associated with the monarchy help the tourist industry, or exactly how much money they help to bring into the country, but most people working in tourism think it is an awful lot.
THE FUTURE OF THE MONARCHY
The British monarchy as an institution has not been a burning issue in British politics for several hundred years. There is almost no public debate about the existence of the monarchy itself. There is, however, much debate about what kind of monarchy Britain should have. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, there was a general cooling of enthusiasm. The queen herself remained popular. But various marital problems in her family lowered the prestige of royalty in many people’s eyes. But there is nothing personal about this cooling of enthusiasm. The Queen herself is widely admired.
· For the last two centuries, the public have wanted their monarch to show high moral standards. In 1936, Edward VIII, the uncle of the present queen, was forced to abdicate (give up the throne) because he wanted to marry a woman who had divorced two husbands. (On top of that, she was not even an aristocrat – she was an American!) The government and the major churches in the country insisted that Edward could not marry her and remain king. The couple then went to live abroad. In spite of the constitutional crisis that he caused, the Duke of Windsor (as Edward later became) and his wife were popular celebrities in Britain all their lives, and in popular history the king’s abdication is an example of the power of romance.
The one aspect of the monarchy about which most people feel consistently negative is how much it costs. In 1992, a fire damaged Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s favourite homes. There was public sympathy for the Queen, but when the government announced that public money was going to pay for the repairs, the sympathy quickly turned to anger. The Queen had recently been reported as the richest woman in the world, so people didn’t see why she shouldn’t pay for them herself! In the same decade, public opinion forced her to decide that she would start paying taxes on her private income and some members of the royal family were dropped from the Civil list. (This is the money which the Queen and some of her relatives get from Parliament each year so that they can carry out various public duties.)
People continue to believe that the royal family gets too much money. Nevertheless, the monarchy remains broadly popular. The Queen herself is aware of the public perception. After the fire at Windsor Castle, parts of the Buckingham Palace (her official London residence) were opened to public visitors for the first time. The intention was to use the money raised to pay for the repairs. But in fact, the palace, and some other royal residences, have remained open to the paying public ever since. Since that time, the queen has also cooperated in the making of several TV documentaries about her everyday life. These changed are perhaps an indication of the future royal style – a little less grand, a little less distant.
1. What are the powers of the monarch?
2. What are the main elements of the British system of government?
3. Explain the saying ‘the queen reigns but does not rule’.
4. Why is the monarchy still popular with the British people?
5. What does the monarchy symbolize?
6. What aspect of the monarchy do most people criticize?
7. The attitude of the British people towards the royal family has changed over the last thirty years or so. Why do you think this has happened?
I I I
THE HOUSE OF LORDS - THE GOVERNMENT - THE HOUSE OF COMMONS