A Brief Guide: What Power Do They Have?
"From divells and Kings Good Lord deliver me. Its now high time, up and be doing, I desire any government rather than that of the King"
Thomas Wroth, 17th century MP
"I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."
The oath required of 21st century Members of Parliament. Read the others here
Members of Parliament are required to swear an oath of loyalty to the queen, not to the people who elected them and not to a constitution. Those who have refused have been barred from taking their seats in the legislature. Bishops of the Church of England also swear their allegiance to the monarch, rather than to their god or their church. Police officers and soldiers likewise swear loyalty to the Queen, not to the government or their country.
At the start of every session of Parliament the government's programme of legislative business is read to the assembled legislators in what is known as "The Queen's Speech." It is a bizarre spectacle, this queen in a crown and spectacles, uttering words written by another in a monotone voice that has the peculiar accent of her family. But the government is said to be her government and, therefore, it is her programme. If this seems of little consequence, think how it reinforces the notion still strong in Britain that government is rightly the expression of the will of the mighty, rather than of the will of the people.
The Royal Prerogatives
The monarchy has made citizens the victims of something called "crown prerogatives". These were described by the Financial Times as "vestigial powers once derived from the rights and privileges of monarchs to do as they wished". They have become the "rights and privileges" of the executive to do as it wishes.
These "vestigial powers" are now used by the executive in the name of the monarch to bypass the representatives of the people in Parliament. Because the UK has an unwritten pretend constitution royal prerogative powers are ill defined. But they are used mostly in matters of foreign affairs. They have survived in part because we have kept a monarchy that is based on the principal that political authority comes from above, not up from a sovereign people.
The monarch has the power to:
"Prorogue" parliament, i.e. close parliament for a time and stop it functioning.
Choose the Prime Minister.
Dismiss ministers and governments.
Refuse to agree to legislation passed by Parliament.
Dismiss the governments of other countries of which she is monarch.
Pardon convicted criminals.
Declare a state of emergency.
Command the army and raise a personal militia.
The risk to democracy from the prerogative powers was made very clear in 2019. Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked queen Windsor to prorogue parliament for an extended period prior to the date on which he said that the UK must leave the European Union (EU) with or without an agreement with the EU. This was widely understood to be a way of preventing parliament from effectively challenging his plan. Johnson claimed that the prorogation was only meant to allow for the presentation of his new programme of legislation.
Windsor rubber-stamped Johnson's decision. She is on the payroll of the executive branch of government (Johnson is one of three who will decide if she is to have an increase in pay), is expected by convention to do as she is "advised" by the executive, and has no democratic legitimacy. So it is hard to see how she could have done otherwise. But she thereby demonstrated both the uselessness of an hereditary head of state in defending democracy and the threat posed to democracy by "royal" prerogatives.
Parliament does not have the power to overturn the prerogative decisions of the queen. So it was left to the Supreme Court to stand up for democracy. It ruled that the prorogation had been unlawful.
David Allen Green, the law commentator for the Financial Times, wrote of the Supreme Court's decision that it "in effect recasts the British constitution. It did not matter to the judges that the source of the executive power being reviewed was the residual powers of the Crown rather than an act of parliament. Such messy artificial distinctions had no legal purchase. Courts should now be able to review any exercise of executive power, even if it is a use of the royal prerogative. There are no "no-go" areas in judicial review".
Appointing the Prime Minister
The monarch's power to appoint the Prime Minister is supposed to be exercised after consultation with leading political personages. So once again a vital decision is not made by the people, nor according to a procedure clearly set out in a written constitution or other law. It is true that more often than not a party has a definite majority in the House of Commons and that party has chosen its leader. It is most unlikely that the monarch would choose another person in such circumstances. But when the position has been less clear cut the monarch has exercised a quite undemocratic discretion in choosing which candidate should head the government. In 2019 queen Windsor appointed Boris Johnson as prime minister on the basis of his election as leader of the Conservative Party by just 160,000 members of that party.
Until the passing of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 the monarch dissolved Parliament at the request of the Prime Minister. Constitutional experts said that it would be difficult for the monarch to refuse such a request because to do so would be to become a partisan figure. However, in the absence of a written constitution there was nothing but convention to prevent it.
The Queen's Consent
Research by the Guardian newspaper has revealed a little-known power called "Queen's consent" According to the Guardian this is "an obscure parliamentary mechanism through which the monarch grants parliament permission to debate laws that affect her and her private interests." It was used by Windsor to shape a new law on race discrimination allowing the monarchy to continue to practice racial discrimination.
The report may be found here.
And the same is true of all powers that the monarch holds. We have no guarantee as to how they will be used. What we are sure of is that they deny the people the primacy of regard and power that they should have in a democracy.
The right the monarch has to declare a state of emergency when there is civil disorder or she believes that the government is acting unconstitutionally is potentially a very powerful one. Through the un-elected privy council she could issue proclamations which would not be subject to parliamentary approval and which would be enforced by the police and magistrates.
Read here how new members are inducted into the Privy and the oath that makes them servants of the monarch instead of the people.
The High Court Steps InOne way in which these feudal powers might be used became clear after the referendum in favour of the UK leaving the European Union (EU). The executive branch of our government then decided that it would decide when to start the process of withdrawal. And it also would determine how to negotiate the terms of the departure, without the authority of parliament.
In November 2016 the High Court ruled that the government could not do that as it was parliament that had enacted the law that allowed the UK to join the EU. The constitution did not allow the executive to abrogate that law. Only parliament could do so. Rather than ask parliament to do what was required the government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
As there is no written constitution setting out the rights of a supposedly supreme Parliament or of the executive (and still less the status of a referendum vote) the decision could be challenged only by citizens who believed that Parliament had a right to make these decisions starting proceedings in the High Court.
So it was a court that will decided what the constitution requires. And it is a court that may reduce or strengthen the rights of the people.
Representing the Nation
As head of state the monarch is the chief representative of Britain at home and abroad. The present queen is however the least representative figure one could imagine. Her experience of life is quite unique and unhealthily limited in scope. Her family can never give expression to the social and ethnic variety of the country and nor could any single family. To the rest of the world she portrays a nation that is trapped in a feudal time warp.
The Monarch Takes Sides
The monarch is supposed to be impartial and to do as the government wishes. Walter Bagehot, the nineteenth century economist and author of the influential text on Britain's pretend constitution, The English Constitution, declared that the functions of the monarch were to be consulted, to encourage and to warn the government.
However, the access to information about government business that is denied to the average citizen, and a continuity in office while the elected representatives of the people come and go, certainly provide the potential for a very unfair influence. In 2014 former prime minister John Major admitted to the BBC that he had "changed policies" as a result of discussions with the hereditary head of state.
The monarch is allowed to read a wide range of confidential government documents that are not in the public domain until many years later. These include intelligence service reports that are not shown to other ministers of the government. She or he has frequent visits from the Prime Minister and is consulted on major policy changes and other matters by request.
Elizabeth Windsor has twice come down on one side of a contentious political issue when the future path of the country was at stake. In 2014, before the referendum on the secession of Scotland from the UK, she stopped after a church service in Scotland to say to a group of people she met outside that "I hope people will think very carefully about the future". This was widely understood to be a warning against independence for Scotland. In 2019 David Cameron, who had been prime minister at that time, admitted that, in the words of the BBC, he had "sought the queen's help over Scottish independence" He had asked her for "just a raising of the eyebrow" to show her her opposition to independence.
Then in 2015, just as negotiations on the country's relationship with the European Union were beginning, Windsor intervened again. At a banquet in Berlin she said that "division in Europe is dangerous". Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party was not the only one to see this as Windsor expressing support for the campaign for the UK to stay in the EU. As a loyal monarchist he blamed the Prime Minister, not Windsor. And the press did report that she had consulted with the government as usual before making her speech.
All the while the feudal head of state and the other members of her family are exempt from the Freedom Information Act. The Act is intended to keep those in power honest. But Britain's feudal rulers are exempt from a requirement usually considered essential in a modern democracy.
Son Given Access to State Secrets
In 2015 it was revealed that the son of the head of state, like his mother, is allowed to read all cabinet memoranda. These include secret proposals for legislation and discussion documents that are kept secret from most citizens for thirty years.
Mr. Windsor is on the "standard circulation" list for these memoranda. The "precedent book" that contains this list had been kept in a locked cupboard in a locked office in a secure corridor at the Cabinet Office. For three years the Cabinet Office fought a freedom of information application from Republic in an attempt to stop the people of Britain knowing what was in it.
That was not surprising. For the disclosure made clear that although Mr. Windsor has no official state position, he has the privilege of access to information only known to the prime minister, cabinet ministers and very senior civil servants. He and his principal private secretary are shown information that even junior government ministers are not allowed to see.
The precedent book is a guide to cabinet procedures. A chapter on relations with the Windsors and examples of communications between Ms. Windsor and the cabinet secretary are still secret.
Son of Monarch Vetoes Laws He Does Not Like
And Cannot Be Punishied for Breaking Others
And it is not just the hereditary head of state who interferes in the government of the country. Charles Windsor, who is to be imposed as the head of state on the death of his mother, has made numerous attempts, as a report in the Financial Times put it, to "shape policy". During the time of the last Labour Party government he attempted to have his way on government policy on genetically modified crops, relations with China and fox hunting, among other topics. Hand written letters to government ministers were one of his methods. Apparently the Prime Minister did not object so much to that but was unhappy that Windsor used the news media when he could not get his way by such direct approaches.
Between the change of government in 2010 and mid-2013 Windsor met with ministers at least 36 time to discuss such matters as climate change, the health of trees and fishing. The details of these discussions are secret. He also inserted three of his staff into government departments for periods from six months to two years. One was seconded to the Cabinet Office, another to a department dealing with constitutional issues and a third to the department responsible for food and rural affairs, all key issues for Windsor.
More of his tactics were revealed when Windsor used his “royal” status and his friendship with the feudal rulers of Qatar to block a property development that he disliked and which the Qataris were financing. Legal proceedings forced into the light of day just how Britain's feudal system allows him to use hereditary privilege to get what he wants. Qatar is classified by Freedom House as "not free".
In 2011 a report by the Guardian newspaper revealed that Mr. Windsor has a right that few had known about before. The head of state's son is able to veto proposed legislation if it affects his private interests, particularly those to do with the Duchy of Cornwall. Under the country's pretend constitution the son of the head of state receives an annual income of £20.5m from the property and investments owned by the Duchy.
According to the newspaper, Mr. Windsor has been asked for his permission for the passing of "at least a dozen government bills". These bills have covered road safety, gambling, the Olympic Games , co-operative societies, economic development, housing, energy and planning reform.
Both the government and the Windsor family have refused to reveal details of the laws or the reasons for asking Mr. Windsor's permission, apart from this statement by a Downing Street spokesperson. But the Guardian reported that in one case a government minister wrote to Windsor asking for his agreement to a law on planning reform because it was "capable of applying to (Windsor's) private interests".
In 2015 John Kirkhope, a fellow of Plymouth University, published research suggesting that Charles Windsor, as the Duke of Cornwall, cannot be punished for breaking a number of laws. Those laws include the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the Nuclear Explosions Act. He also has greater protection for his property rights, according to Dr. Kirkhope
Windsor Legislators Removed
Five members of the family had until 1999 a right to a seat in the second chamber of the legislature, the House of Lords. They were the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of Edinburgh, York, Gloucester and Kent. The reform of the House of Lords ended that right. However, the government offered to make these five men life peers in order that they might continue to be legislators-for-life. They refused the offer.
The monarch is the ceremonial head of the British commonwealth. She is also the queen of a number of Commonwealth nations which have not become republics.