Discover The Facts

Monarchy


This section contains non-partisan factual information about the Monarchy. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions


Should the monarchy be abolished? 

Arguments in favour of abolition of the monarchy:

  • The Monarchy is anachronistic and not in keeping with a modern society
  • The hereditary principle is abhorrent
  • The Monarchy is a waste of money
  • The privileges accorded to the Royal Family are incompatible with a modern democratic society

Arguments in favour of keeping the monarchy:

  • The Monarch is able to be a non-political head of state
  • The Monarchy is cost-effective More
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    On the costs of Monarchy, see House of Commons Library Standard Note:  “Finances of the Monarchy:” http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/SNSG-00819.pdf
    since any alternative would be just as expensive, if not more expensive, than the Monarchy
  • The longevity and collective memory of the Monarchy is invaluable in terms of international relations and relations between Parliament and the people at large
  • The Monarch is not just head of state in the UK but is also head of the Commonwealth More
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    The Statute of Westminster 1931 requires the consent of all members of the Commonwealth to any change in the laws relating to succession to the throne, since change to the British head of state necessarily affects them as well.

Those who argue for the abolition of the monarchy tend to do so on the grounds that the idea of a monarch being able to command her subjects is obnoxious and outdated for a 21st century democracy. The wealth of the royal family and the support which the monarchy is paid by the taxpayer is typically a source of criticism. Critics further observe that the concept of monarchy is inherently class-ridden, encapsulating the now unacceptable idea that some persons are of a higher social rank than others by right of their birth. 

Defenders of the monarchy point out that the powers of the monarch are more symbolic than real.  They argue that those public servants who swear allegiance to the monarch are in effect swearing allegiance to the state, in much the same way as American citizens swear allegiance to their flag.  Neither is an oath which is intended to be taken literally, but monarch and flag stand for the community of the people of the UK or the USA.  It is argued that if were we starting from scratch to make a template for a modern democracy, in all probability we would not opt to create a Kingdom with a monarch. Since we are not starting from scratch we should instead take advantage of the existing symbols of our historic political community.

Citizens have to owe allegiance to someone or something - either to a constitutional abstract (as in Germany), or to a symbol (as in the United States) or to a legal person.  So it would seem to follow that in the United Kingdom we can either have a written constitution, or a monarch or some other sort of a-political head of state.  When the Australian people were offered a referendum on their head of state in 1999, they preferred to keep the Queen in place rather than creating a new role of President. More

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Most Australians did not want a ‘presidential system’, in which the head of state was also the head of government (as in the US): they wanted to retain the parliamentary system, in which the government is drawn from the legislature. Thus, there were basically two choices:

  • a directly elected president = a president directly elected by the people
  • indirectly elected president = a president elected by Parliament

Both choices present problems, but perhaps the key problem is choosing an uncontroversial candidate.

 


Should the roles of certain members of the royal family be cut back?

Even some of those who agree in principle with the constitutional monarchy believe that the roles played in public life by members of the extended royal family should be curtailed.  HM the Queen and HRH Prince Philip perform numerous public engagements every year and play an important role in our relations with foreign nations and other heads of state, many of whom hold the estate of the monarchy in high esteem.  However, the involvement of other members of the royal family in public engagements is not always welcomed by the general public.  Some regard the extended royal family as a spoilt elite, taking advantage of the taxpayer.  It is not clear to what extent those feelings are based on an assumption that the public purse is maintaining the entire extended family.  More

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Prince Andrew has recently started to publish a corporate-style annual report, seeking in part to justify his effectiveness as UK's Special Representative for International Trade and Investment.  However, controversy continues to dog his claims for reimbursement for travel expenses at a level which many consider disproportionate to his effectiveness. Prince Andrew's personal suitability as a trade representative has become the focus of increased media scrutiny following a series of stories involving his ex-wife's attempting to exploit his position.
 


Is the Monarchy truly accountable to the public for the public funds it receives?

The Queen publishes annually an account of how the money which comprises the Civil List has been spent.  The Civil List is the amount of money provided by Parliament to meet the official expenses of The Queen’s Household, so that The Queen can carry out her role as Head of State and Head of the Commonwealth. 

The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh are the only members of the Royal Family to receive a direct annual parliamentary allowance. The Queen makes allowances out of the Civil List for certain members of the extended royal family in recompense for public engagements which they attend.  So although technically only the Queen and Prince Phillip are in receipt of public funds, in fact other members of the royal family can be seen to benefit from this money, which some people regard as less than satisfactory in terms of value for taxpayer. More

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Head of State expenditure is the official expenditure relating to The Queen's duties as Head of State and Head of the Commonwealth.

Head of State expenditure has reduced significantly over the past decade, from £87.3 million in 1991-92 (expressed in current pounds) to £41.5 million in 2008-09. In the year 2008-09 The Queen cost the taxpayer just 69 pence per person. Since 1993 the Queen has paid income tax and capital gains tax on her income and gains in the same way as every other citizen. 


Head of State expenditure is met from public funds in exchange for the surrender by The Queen of the revenue from the Crown Estate. In the financial year to 31 March 2009 the revenue surplus from the Crown Estate paid to the Treasury amounted to £211 million. http://www.royal.gov.uk/TheRoyalHousehold/Royalfinances/Sourcesoffunding/TheCivilList.aspx

Whilst the Queen has considerable personal wealth, the royal palaces are not part of her private property, but instead are held by her on behalf of the nation.  Whilst many of the facilities within the palaces are used for events such as state banquets and the entertainment (at the request of the Government) of dignitaries, the royal family may nevertheless be considered to have exclusive use of the private facilities within the palaces.  For this reason controversy can accompany funding from the public purse for the upkeep of the palaces.  


If Britain was to remove the Monarchy, what would replace it?

If Britain were not a constituitonal Monarchy, it would be a republic.  A republic is a country in which all the key public offices—and in particular, the head of state—are elected by the people.  The principle difficulty which appeared to confront the republicans in the Australian campaign for a republic was who would make a suitable candidate to take over the role of head of state from the Queen.  A unique blend of diplomatic skills, political knowledge and impartiality are required.  A president would require at least the same level of staff and support as the Monarch requires in the performance of her state duties.  The question would also arise as to whether abolition of the monarchy would also lead to the abolition of state pomp (such as the Trooping of the Colour) which is part of our national tradition.  


Should the royal prerogative and the conventions surrounding the Monarchy be codified?

All of the prerogative powers noted above, both ‘general’ and those personal to the Monarch, remain part of the royal prerogative. As noted, many are now by convention exercised by ‘responsible ministers’—that is, our elected representatives.  But almost none of these powers are regulated by law: they are not defined, confined or constrained by statute; and the courts have been very unwilling to examine the exercise of these powers.  Some scholars argue these rules ought to be ‘codified’—written down - to prevent misunderstandings.  Against this, others argue that writing these rules down may prohibit natural evolution of the rules.

 


 

 


What you need to know


The Monarch – sometimes called the Sovereign - is the United Kingdom’s non-executive head of state.  Unlike the President of the United States (who is an executive head of state), the Queen does not govern the country.  Most of the powers which the Monarch had in earlier centuries are now exercised by the Government.

However, there are a small, but important, number of ‘reserve’ powers which remain personal to the Monarch, including the power to appoint the Prime Minister and the government, and the power to dissolve Parliament.  There is some debate over how much discretion a Monarch really has in using these powers, and for the most part they are exercised by government ministers in the name of the Monarch.

Independently, the British Monarch is also the head of state of a number of former British overseas possessions.  These include former Dominions like Australia, Canada and New Zealand and some former colonies, mainly in the Caribbean, which after independence became members of the Commonwealth and retained the British Monarch as head of state. 


Why does it matter?


The Queen is sometimes thought of as merely a figurehead, but she retains personal powers which are controversial.  As head of state, the Queen represents the nation as a whole and a wide range of public servants pledge allegiance to the Queen, instead of to a politically oriented Government.

 

The fact that Britain is a Constitutional Monarchy rather than a Republic sets us apart from most other developed democracies and has a significant influence on the way we think about national identity, our history and our heritage.  


What are the key dates?


1215
Magna Carta, King John accepts that he could be bound by the law.
1534
Henry VIII breaks from Rome and establishes the Church of England in order to get an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.
1536-42
The Union of England and Wales.
1642
Outbreak of the English Civil War.
1646
Charles I surrenders to the parliamentarians.
1649
Charles I executed. Parliament abolishes the monarchy. Oliver Cromwell chairs the New English Commonwealth.
1658
Oliver Cromwell dies and appoints his son Richard as his successor.
1659
Richard Cromwell resigns.
1660
General Monck marches to London, dissolves Parliament and Charles II is invited to resume the throne ('the Restoration').
1685
Charles II dies and is succeeded by his brother, James II, a Catholic.
1689
James II overthrown in the 'Glorious Revolution'. William and Mary invited to become joint sovereigns. William and Mary accept the Bill of Rights, which includes a prohibition on the Monarch suspending laws or levying taxes without the consent of Parliament.
1701
the Act of Settlement sets out the conditions by which the Crown can be held: no Catholic or no one married to a Catholic may become the Monarch.
1707
Queen Anne is the last Monarch to reject a bill.
1707
the Union of England and Scotland.
1772
Royal Marriages Act specified that no royal descendant could marry into foreign families without the consent of the reigning Monarch.
1800
the Union of England and Ireland.
1854
Queen Victoria becomes the last Monarch to give royal assent in person.
1931
Statute of Westminster enacted, suggests that any change to the royal succession requires the consent of the Commonwealth.
1936
The Abdication Crisis - King Edward VIII abdicates in response to opposition to his proposed marriage to a divorcee.
1951
Queen Elizabeth II crowned.
1953
Queen Elizabeth formally becomes Head of the Commonwealth.
1957
(Also 1963) Queen Elizabeth chooses the leader of the Conservatives (as they had no formal electoral machinery themselves) and thus who would take the office of the Prime Minister.
1974
the last time a general election in the UK resulted in a hung parliament (before 2010).

What are the key facts?


The ‘Crown-in-Parliament’—that is, Parliament and the Crown together— is sovereign in the British constitution.  Laws passed by Parliament and signed by the Monarch cannot, at least in theory, be overturned by any other body. More

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The Crown is a term which is used interchangeably to refer to the state, the Monarch herself, or the government. The State refers to the set of institutions which govern Britain; the offices of the state are occupied by the government.

Until the political upheavals of the 17th century, sovereignty vested exclusively in the Monarch who was chosen by God. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 represented a compromise in which power was shared between Parliament and the Monarch and his advisors.

Political elites retained the fiction that it was the Monarch who was the source of all state power; but in practice it was those elites who exercised state power, not the Monarch. This was, however, a gradual process: even in the 19th century, some Monarchs considered themselves at least coordinate in authority to Parliament.  Over time, and particularly with the expansion of the right to vote, the Monarch’s role in British politics became limited to a few ‘reserve’ powers, with ministers themselves exercising the most important royal prerogatives.  However, in constitutional theory, government ministers in the present day continue to exercise authority in their capacity as advisors to the Monarch. 

The monarchy retains a prominent position in British public life, despite its essentially marginal constitutional role.  While it is generally understood that the Monarch is no longer sovereign, there is still a social consensus that the Queen plays an important, if rather nebulous, role in the workings of the state.  This consensus is not of course unanimous, and depends in part on the personal popularity of the incumbent, but it unlikely that the institution of monarchy could survive without it.

Queen Elizabeth II’s longevity (she has reigned since 1953) has encouraged the perception – arguably a misleading perception – that Britain’s constitutional order is essentially stable, in spite of vast social, economic and political changes.  In her time, the United Kingdom has shrunk from empire to nation-state; gone from standing outside Europe to being a member of the EU; from a unified multinational state to a state of devolved nations; from Churchill to Cameron.

By the rules of succession the Monarch’s eldest son will take the office of head of state on the death of the Monarch. If there is no son, the office passes to the eldest daughter. The Commonwealth is understood to have been involved in ongoing discussion regarding the law favouring male offspring, which has also been challenged in the Commonc in 2011 by Keith Vaz. As things stand, the Monarch must also be a Protestant, a member of the Church of England, and cannot be a Roman Catholic or married to a Roman Catholic.  More

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Sources:

House of Commons Library Standard Note: “The Act of Settlement and the Protestant Succession”:

http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-00683.pdf

Functions

The Monarch of Britain has a number of functions:

  • Constitutional Monarch
  • Head of State for the United Kingdom and national symbol
  • Defender of the Faith
  • Head of State for many Commonwealth countries (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) More
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    Since the 1960s many former British colonies have become republics, but the ‘British’ Monarch remains the head of state for 16 countries, including the UK (although for these countries, the Monarch is their Monarch, not Britain’s). Source: http://www.royal.gov.uk/MonarchAndCommonwealth/Overview.aspx
  • Head of the Commonwealth More
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    This was an innovation made in 1949, allowing countries who did not wish to retain the Monarch as the head of state to retain a formal association with Britain as part of the Commonwealth.  Two African states, which were not former colonies, Rwanda and Mozambique, elected to join the Commonwealth.  Rwanda joined on 28 November 2009.

Of these, the functions of Head of State, Constitutional Monarch and supreme governor of the Church of England are most important.

Constitutional Monarch

A constitutional Monarch is one who acts according to constitutional principle.  In Britain, this means the Monarch obeys the democratically-elected government of the day, following the government’s advice and remaining entirely neutral.

Head of state and national symbol

The Monarch is the head of state for the United Kingdom.  She may represent the UK in state events both in the UK and outside it.  She is also a symbol which stands for the United Kingdom: an easily identifiable, non-political figure whom Britons can point to as a symbol of national unity.

As head of state, the Monarch is, in theory, ‘above’ politics: thus many national institutions such as the judiciary and the army swear an oath of allegiance to the Monarch.  Their loyalty is said to be to the United Kingdom and the head of state rather than to Parliament, or the government of the day. More

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Although a great deal of power has been devolved to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the Queen remains their head of state. Royal assent is still required for legislation of the Parliament and Assemblies, and in fact it may be as a result of devolution that the Queen is expected to appear more often in the 4 nations, as she is now the key symbol holding the UK together.

Defender of the Faith

The British Monarch is the head of the Church of England and a member of the Church of Scotland, both of which are by law the official churches of the two respective nations. More

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Archbishops and bishops of both churches are appointed by the Monarch (although in practice by the Prime Minister, and then on advice of the Ecclesiastical Appointments Commission)
Perhaps the most important aspect of this role is that descendants of the Monarch who are Catholic or are married to Catholics cannot succeed to the throne; and the Monarch is required to be a member of the Church of England.

Powers

In theory, the Monarch can exercise all powers under ‘the royal prerogative’: a body of powers needed for executive government, and which are not set out in statute.  In practice, these are powers all exercised by the Government—the Prime Minister and Cabinet.  The royal prerogative includes:

 

There are a small number of powers which are ‘personal’ to the Monarch: these are powers which, because of their nature or because of circumstances, cannot be exercised by anyone other than the Monarch alone.  However, most scholars argue that even though these powers are personal to the Monarch, she has very little room for discretion, and these ‘personal’ powers are exercised at the request and in accordance with the wishes of the incumbent Prime Minister.

These ‘reserve powers’, or ‘personal prerogatives’, are:

  • The right to advise, encourage and warn
  • The power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister
  • The power to prorogue or to dissolve Parliament (in certain circumstances)
  • The power to assent to legislation

The right to advise, encourage and warn

There is a weekly meeting between Monarch and Prime Minister, in which the Prime Minister will discuss his or her plans.  The Monarch in turn has the right to ‘advise, encourage and warn’.  The extent of the Monarch’s influence over Prime Ministers is unknown, but a number of former Prime Ministers have pointed to the present Queen’s influence, as she has been Monarch for almost 60 years, and can draw on a deep well of political experience.

The power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister

By convention, the Monarch is expected to appoint the leader of the party which gains a majority of the seats in the House of Commons: this leader will become ‘the Queen’s chief adviser’—the Prime Minister.  This is considered a personal prerogative because there is no advisor to advise the Queen, but there is no real ‘choice’ here: the Queen simply appoints the leader of the successful political party. More

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This has been emphasised by the Cabinet Office in the 'Cabinet Manual', which is currently being drafted.   Chapter 6 on 'Elections and Government Formation' makes it clear that the monarch no longer has discretion over who is to be appointed as Prime Minister, but merely validates the decision already made by the political parties.

The first-past-the-post electoral system usually produces clear winners in a general election, so that the Monarch’s decision is entirely uncontroversial.  However, it is possible that no party will gain an overall majority in the Commons: this is known as a ‘hung parliament’.  In this situation, the role of the Monarch may become more important.  Generally speaking, it is up to the political parties themselves to work out a solution, but if the parties cannot decide between themselves, there may be pressure for the Monarch to act to resolve the situation.  The key point is that such a situation throws the Monarchy into the public spotlight: any decision the Monarch makes will be seen as political. More

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One example of this was the 1974 election, which produced the following results:

  • Labour: 301 seats
  • Conservatives: 296 seats
  • Liberals: 14 seats
  • United Ulster Unionists: 11 seats

This was made more complicated by the fact that the Conservatives won more votes, but Labour more seats.  The incumbent Prime Minister, the Tory Party leader Edward Heath, was unable to form a coalition government, and so resigned.  Harold Wilson’s Labour Party then became a minority government, ultimately calling another election at the end of the same year.  At all times the Queen was kept informed, but remained silent.

It is worth noting that there have been only 4 hung parliaments in the last hundred years: in 1923, 1927, 1974 and 2010. 

The power to prorogue or to dissolve Parliament

The power to dissolve Parliament is said to be the key power of the Prime Minister: this gives the Prime Minister and the ruling political party an advantage over the other parties, who must make do with the date the Prime Minister sets.  However, this assumes that the Prime Minister has the ‘confidence of the House’.  A dilemma may arise for the Monarch where the Prime Minister has publicly lost the confidence of the House—in such a case, the prerogative is ‘personal’ to the Monarch: it is no longer clear that the Monarch ought to listen or follow such a Prime Minister’s advice. More

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In the 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper, it was suggested that a Prime Minister seeking a dissolution ought to seek the approval of the House of Commons first, but nothing yet has happened to take this further.

The power to dissolve Parliament is likely to be altered by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, should it pass into law. In this case all general elections will be subject to fixed dates, whilst the dissolution of Parliament before then would only occur when there was a vote of no confidence or a vote for immediate dissolution by 2/3 of MPs.

For more on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill

The power to refuse assent to legislation

Statutory law in Britain can only be made by the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’, meaning the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarch must all assent to a proposed bill before it can become law.  By convention, the Monarch always assents to all bills passed by the Houses of Parliament.  But commentators wonder: if the Monarch were to be given legislation which violated some fundamental tenet of the British constitution could she refuse assent?  This has never been tested.  In the crisis over the Home Rule bill in 1912-1914, King George V did threaten to use his veto to encourage a settlement, but this is now almost a century-old precedent. The last recorded example of a Monarch refusing assent was in 1707.

In the 20th century Monarchs have very rarely had to make a public exercise of their personal ‘reserve’ powers.  The most obvious recent example of this was in 1957 and again in 1963, when Queen Elizabeth II was required to exercise her royal prerogative and choose a leader for the Conservative party at the time.  This was because the Conservatives had no formal means of electing a new party leader.  But the effect was that Queen Elizabeth was in fact choosing a Prime Minister for Britain.


What do others think?


The Governance of Britain Green Paper

http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm71/7170/7170.pdf

This paper updates the progress of the 2007 proposals:

http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-04703.pdf

 

A review of the ancient royal prerogative powers available to UK government ministers conducted by the Ministry of Justice and published on 15 October 2009

http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/docs/royal-prerogative.pdf

 

A website for a group wishing to replace the Monarchy with a written constitution.

http://www.republic.org.uk/

 

Website of the International Monarchists’ League and the Constitutional Monarchy Association.

http://www.Monarchy.net/

 

Website advocating a republic of Australia.

http://www.republic.org.au/

 

Article by Vernon Bogdanor defending the Monarchy.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/dec/06/monarchy.comment8


References and Links


Research papers


Useful websites


Further reading

Research papers

Finances of the Monarchy, House of Commons Library

Useful websites

The British Monarchy official website

House of Commons Library: Parliament and the Constitution

Further reading

- Peter Hennessy Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain (Victor Gollancz, London, 1996)

- Frank Prochaska The Republic of Britain 1760-2000 (Penguin, London, 2001)

- Rodney Brazier “The Monarchy” in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Vernon Bogdanor The Monarchy and the Constitution (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997)

- Colin Turpin and Adam Tomkins British Government and the Constitution (sixth edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007)

- Rodney Brazier Constitutional Reform: Reshaping the British Political System (third edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

- Bob Morris Church and State in 21st Century Britain: The Future of Church Establishment (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009)