Chapter 2

How the Monarchy Works

In This Chapter

● Finding out how today’s constitutional monarchy works

● Introducing the monarch’s duties

● Looking at the work of the royal family

● Examining the sovereign’s role in key institutions

You’re used to seeing Britain’s queen on the television and in the newspapers. But what does she actually do? What is the role of a monarch in 21st-century society? The ruler of Britain actually has several roles - some are to do with being head of state, some are to do with a position as national figurehead. The sovereign also has a special position as head of the Church of England, not to mention roles in the armed services and the justice system.

If that all sounds like a long list of duties, it is. A British monarch has a very full diary. Luckily, the sovereign isn’t the only person who fulfils all these duties. Other members of the royal family help, too, not just by standing in for the monarch when she’s busy, but also by pursuing their own specialised parts of the royal agenda, whether helping others through charitable works or going on state visits to represent Britain overseas.

Understanding a Constitutional Monarchy

People often think of kings and queens behaving like dictators. It seems that monarchs aren’t accountable to anyone for their power; you can’t vote them out of office if you don’t like them, and they can do virtually anything they like in their kingdom. They’re rich, powerful, and privileged, and their subjects have to obey them, no matter what.

The monarchy in Britain used to be like that description. It was an executive monarchy in which rulers made laws. Some kings claimed that they ruled by divine right - in other words, they were God’s representatives, and what they said went.

These days, the British monarchy’s not like that. It’s what is called a constitutional monarchy, where the king or queen governs according to a constitution or set of rules. In Britain, these rules make it very clear exactly how much power the monarch has and how he or she can act in virtually any situation.

So where's the constitution, then?

One of the oddest things about Britain’s constitutional monarchy is that, unlike the United States, Britain has no one written document that forms the constitution. The British constitution consists of a set of rules, some unwritten, some written down in laws passed in Parliament, and some forming documents such as the Magna Carta (see Chapter 7). These rules have been established over a long period of time. The constitutional monarchy has evolved since 1689, the year after William III and Queen Mary came to the throne as joint monarchs (see Chapter 14).

The Bill of Rights of 1689 started the ball rolling. It set down some key principles to protect the rights of Parliament and limit the power of the ruler, including:

The law should be free from royal interference.

People can petition the ruler.

The ruler can’t levy taxes by royal prerogative alone.

Elections of Members of Parliament should take place without royal interference.

In addition, many more rules have developed that limit the power of the monarch. For example, the monarch:

Can’t make or pass legislation.

Must always be neutral politically.

Doesn’t vote in elections.

In matters of government, always acts on the advice of his or her ministers and may not enter the House of Commons.

The monarch in Parliament

In Britain, new laws are made by the monarch in Parliament - in other words, by the three-headed creature made up of the two houses of Parliament - the House of Commons and House of Lords - plus the sovereign. The most powerful of these three parts is the House of Commons, the elected chamber of Parliament where new laws are made and debated. The House of Lords revises and debates the new laws. The monarch merely approves new laws on the advice of his or her ministers, who themselves are members of the House of Commons or Lords.

Because the ministers come up with the new laws in the first place, and these laws are passed by a majority in Parliament, it stands to reason that the ministers advise the monarch to give her assent to them. And the sovereign hasn’t refused his or her assent for more than 200 years. It sounds as if the king or queen’s role is purely formal.

So is the monarch just a rubber stamp? Well, not quite. The British king or queen still has the right to advise the ministers. Monarch and ministers meet regularly, and the sovereign may encourage or warn them about any new law they’re thinking of passing. Generations of Prime Ministers have said how helpful it is to get the advice of monarchs, who after all are often people who have been around far longer than they have. The Prime Minister and ruler meet regularly, and even if the ruler doesn’t have any tangible power, he or she has a lot of influence.

The monarch also has two formal roles in relation to Parliament. These roles are more symbolic, but they show that the ruler is still very much at the forefront of government. These roles relate to the opening and closing of Parliament:

● The monarch opens each session of Parliament personally, and a key part of the opening ceremony is the Queen’s or King’s Speech, which outlines the programme of new laws to be debated during the coming session. Of course, the queen doesn’t write this speech herself. It’s put together by her ministers. But this ceremony still shows that the queen is at the heart of government.

● When the time comes for Parliament to be closed - when an election is due - the Prime Minister travels to Buckingham Palace and asks the monarch for permission to close Parliament. Again, the sovereign is at the heart of things, even if his or her role is ceremonial.

One thing a reigning British monarch never does is cast a vote in an election. In theory, nothing stops the king or queen from voting. But in practice, casting a vote would be unconstitutional, because the sovereign is outside politics and able to function whatever the political colour of the government. The same goes for the heir to the throne, who will one day have to play the same politically neutral role. Other members of the royal family, such as the Duke of Edinburgh, are theoretically able to vote, but they don’t. For them to put their weight behind a political party would compromise the neutrality of the monarch. And as far as the monarchy is concerned, whatever the personal political views of the members of the royal family, neutrality is all.

The power: Ruler and Prime Minister

One of the monarch’s jobs is to appoint the Prime Minister. In practice, of course, the senior member of the government has to work with Parliament, and so the Prime Minister is the leader of the party that holds the majority in Parliament. The real power is with Parliament.

The monarch and Prime Minister meet once a week (or speak on the telephone, if they’re not within easy travelling distance of one another). During these meetings, as in other dealings with Parliament, the sovereign’s duty is to ‘encourage or warn’, but, ultimately, to respect the advice of the minister of the day.

The current queen, Elizabeth II, has reigned during the governments of ten Prime Ministers. The discussions she’s had with these varied political figures (seven Conservative and three Labour leaders), together with her wide experience of talking to political leaders around the world, makes her one of the best-informed people in the country. Prime Ministers value her opinions, which are given in the strictest confidence.

The advantages

The constitutional monarchy puts Britain’s kings and queens in a strange position - they seem to have lots of influence, and they certainly have a lot of privileges, but they don’t have very much real power. To the citizens of many of the world’s republics, where you can vote for the head of state you want and kick them out if they don’t do their job properly, the British system seems archaic and unfair.

So what’s so special about the constitutional monarchy? It does have a few advantages:

Continuity: Elected governments come and go, but the king or queen remains. This continuity makes for a more stable regime.

● Political neutrality: There are benefits from keeping the head of state out of party politics - the crown is above the temporary squabbles of the political parties.

● Experience: A monarch who’s reigned for more than a few years can have a valuable perspective and deeper knowledge of affairs than a politician who’s only been in power for months.

● Overview: Both the continuity of the monarchy, and its involvement in the world outside Britain, gives it a valuable overview that is often lacking with other kinds of government.

Of course, there are drawbacks, too. Any monarchy relies on the accidents of birth, and while some kings and queens have excelled at their role, just as many would never have made it in a democratic system. And there’s the ultimate drawback - however good or bad a hereditary ruler, you’re stuck with him. Other than a revolution, you have no way of deposing a hereditary monarch.

Figuring Out the Monarch's Duties

Apart from talking to ministers and approving new legislation, what does the monarch actually do? British sovereigns have a wide range of duties. Most important is the work they do as head of state - all the official duties through which they represent Britain. But monarchs have a second group of duties, the less formal ones, through which the king or queen becomes a national figurehead for Britain.

Head of state

First and foremost, the monarch is the head of the British state and has to fulfil all the functions, ceremonial and governmental, that go with the job. Monarchs have many in-house, jobs, including:

Opening Parliament and giving the monarch’s speech.

Approving Acts of Parliament and other government measures. Reading briefing papers on all kinds of government business.

Meeting with the Prime Minister.

The monarch also has to perform other kinds of duties when representing Britain to other nations, such as:

Holding receptions for the ambassadors and other officials of foreign countries.

Receiving overseas heads of state.

Going on state visits to other countries.

It’s an impressive list of activities, and the receptions, state visits, and similar functions are major events that are meticulously planned with the help of a large staff and - when the ruler is playing host to foreign dignitaries - the backdrop of the sovereign’s large official residences. Britain, with all her history as a great power and heritage of ceremony and protocol, likes to do this kind of thing well.

National figurehead

The monarch has another heap of duties that are less easy to define, but represent the side of the monarchy that provides a national figurehead - a person who acts as a focus for the nation. Once upon a time, in the plays of Shakespeare, for example, kings used to refer to each other as if they were named for their countries: ‘My brother France,’ ‘My cousin England,’ and so on. Kings and queens don’t talk in this way today, but they still seem to embody their realms.

A modern monarch can still stand for his or her country in a number of ways:

Rewarding special achievements or successes by handing out awards and honours.

Supporting the needy and less well-off by all kinds of voluntary and charitable work.

Leading the nation in showing grief or compassion after bad news or tragedy or when commemorating those who have died in war.

Making contact with people through visits to different areas, walkabouts during which the sovereign meets ordinary people, and other occasions.

Each of these jobs is the tip of a very large iceberg. For example, giving out honours means a long and careful selection process and many investiture ceremonies for the monarch; the present queen’s charitable work involves being patron of more than 600 different organizations; and the visits and walkabouts may be the culmination of months of planning.

Exploring the Royal Family's Responsibilities

With the British monarchy, you don’t just get one royal; you get a whole bunch of them - the spouse of the ruler, their children, and very often a number of cousins, aunts, and others, who are all part of the deal. Antimonarchists often pillory the royal family. The monarch’s children and the minor royals are criticised as hangers-in who contribute little while taking a lot in terms of privilege and money. In fact, the situation isn’t quite as simple as the critics say.

The royal family has several roles in helping the ruler in their work. They can also take the effectiveness of the ruler into new directions. As the 19th-century writer Walter Bagehot put it, ‘A family on the throne is an interesting idea also. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life.’

Helping the monarch

The other members of the royal family help the monarch in all sorts of ways, official and unofficial. The senior royals, the sovereign’s closest family members, help on official duties, from state visits to award presentations. The rest of the family - and the senior royals, too - supplement the monarch’s work with all kinds of extra activities of their own.

Official duties

The British monarch has to cope with a vast and expanding diary of engagements. As well as the events that are a regular part of the royal calendar, these engagements include all sorts of functions to which the sovereign is invited every year. One person can’t handle them all, so close family members often step in. Under the present queen, Elizabeth II, close family means the queen’s children, their spouses, and the queen’s cousins. Here are some official palace figures that give you an idea of the workload the royals undertake:

Attending 2,000 official engagements per year.

Entertaining 70,000 people per year at royal parties, dinners, lunches, and receptions.

Answering 100,000 letters per year.

These jobs vary a lot in size and complexity. Some engagements are state visits that take years of planning, while some are brief ceremonies - such as opening a hospital or visiting a factory - that still have to be done with care and dignity. Having a large family back-up team to do some of this work makes sense.

The family can help in emergencies, too. Heads of state sometimes have to attend events that can’t be scheduled in advance - funerals of other rulers, for example. If the monarch is busy - perhaps tied up on a state visit on the other side of the world - another family member can go instead.

Extra duties

One way the monarch leads the country is in support of charities and voluntary organizations. The royal family helps, too, with each member supporting specific charities. Thousands of charities would like a member of the royal family to be their patron or president, and all together the royals play this role for about 2,000 charities in Britain.

The current Prince of Wales is particularly known for his charitable work, taking a lead by setting up his own charities in fields in which he has a special interest, from education to the environment. (For more information, see Chapter 18.) Other royal family members have also set up charities. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers are among the best known.

Family benefits

Activities like these duties spread the work of the royal family into all kinds of areas and therefore make the monarchy still more effective as a symbol of the nation. A lot of the work - both with charities and with engagements - takes the family all over the country and enables people to see the monarchy and its activities first hand. And there’s also an opposite, but equally beneficial effect. Travelling around allows the sovereign and her relatives to meet many different people, making the royal family less remote and more understanding of the country and its diverse population.

Bonding with the Church

The British monarchy is unusual in that the monarch has a religious role as well as a governmental one. In 1521, the Pope gave Henry VIII the title Defender of the Faith. When Henry broke with Rome, the Pope took away this title, but Henry persuaded Parliament to vote it to him and his successors in 1543, as defender of the English church. Henry was also styled Supreme Head of the English church, and his daughter, Elizabeth I, took the title Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Since then, all monarchs (even the Catholic James II) have held the title. This title has had important consequences for both the Church and the sovereign.

The Church of England

The link between the monarch and the Church means that the Church of England is the official, or established, church in England, and a number of other connections between the Church and state have evolved:

● The archbishops and senior bishops sit in the House of Lords, the second chamber of the British Parliament. This group is known as the Lords Spiritual, and they take part alongside the other lords in the debates about new legislation.

● The Lords Spiritual swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch.

● Parish priests also swear an oath of allegiance.

● Bishops and Archbishops may not resign without the permission of the sovereign.

Defender of the Faith

So, what does this religious connection mean for the monarch? It doesn’t mean that the sovereign is an active church leader or a priest. The Church of England is effectively led by its General Synod, a Church body that includes bishops, representatives of the clergy, and lay church members. But the monarch’s role does come with several duties and requirements:

● Appoints bishops and archbishops. The monarch makes appointments based on the advice of the Prime Minister, who in turn bases his advice on lists of candidates supplied by the Church. The Church actually has a big say in the choice of leaders, but the monarch has the final say.

● Opens the General Synod every five years.

● Gives assent to measures passed by the Synod, in the same way that assent is given to laws passed by Parliament (see the preceding section).

● Promises to maintain (or ensure the survival of) the Church.

● Is a full member of the Church of England who has been confirmed and who takes Holy Communion.

In addition to these duties, the sovereign also has several obligations to the Church of Scotland, promising to preserve it. But the monarch isn’t head of the Church of Scotland. The special relationship of Defender of the Faith is the one between ruler and Church of England.

Conflicts with the Church

The role of the ruler in the Church of England has brought some complications in the personal lives of kings and princes. In the past, trouble occurred when the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, wanted to marry a Catholic. In the 20th century, even more trouble happened when Edward VIII wished to marry Wallis Simpson, who had been twice divorced.

Edward's marriage, which was against the principles of the Church, cost him his crown. The current Prince of Wales, whose wife the Duchess of Cornwall was divorced, has been allowed to marry with the blessing of his mother. The church and monarchy have moved slowly with the times.

Checking Out Other Royal Roles

The modern monarch, concerned with everything from opening buildings to doing charitable work, from state visits to royal garden parties, seems a far cry from the rulers of old. Back in the Middle Ages, and even in the Tudor period, the crown had much simpler priorities. In those days, much of the king’s time was taken up with two very basic activities: dispensing justice and going to war. Even today, the monarchy still has a role to play in the justice system and the armed services.

The monarch and the courts

Once upon a time, the phrase the royal court meant two things: the circle of people around the monarch and the court of justice where the ruler sat as judge. Kings and queens were justices for centuries, from the Anglo-Saxon period until the time of the Stuarts. Rulers became known as founts of justice, and if they didn’t sit in court themselves, their judges were closely identified with the ruler.

In 1689, with the beginning of constitutional monarchy, this setup changed. Rulers were no longer allowed to sit on the bench and dole out justice. That responsibility became the job of the specialists; the judges, magistrates, and similar officials who still preside over courts today.

Even so, the monarch is still closely identified with the justice system. When crowned, a king or queen swears to uphold the law and justice, and to see that justice is administered to all. And the sovereign is involved directly in the system in various ways, such as appointing senior judges - as usual, in response to the advice of ministers. The sovereign is also expected to be merciful and can grant pardons to convicted criminals, again with the advice of ministers.

Today, the ruler is still closely identified with the justice system, a fact that can be seen through the kind of language that is used to describe the courts, the cases tried there, and the prisons:

Many courts are called Crown Courts, and the judges are known as Her Majesty’s Judges.

● The prisons are known as Her Majesty’s Prisons.

● Criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the crown, and when cases are referred to, they’re given the name Regina (Latin: the Queen) v X, where X is the name of the defendant.

There’s a twist in the tail, though. As fount of justice and head of the justice system, the monarch can’t actually be prosecuted in either a civil or a criminal case. It’s just as well that the current monarch is careful to keep on the right side of the law!

The monarch and the military

Monarchs no longer lead their troops into battle as they used to. The last British ruler to do so was George II, who led his forces to victory against the French in 1743. But the sovereign is still the head of the armed forces, and the British royal family has a long tradition of involvement with the Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force.

Many modern royals have been active soldiers, sailors, or airmen. The Duke of Edinburgh had a distinguished career as a naval officer when he was a young man, and the Prince of Wales followed his father into the Navy after a brief period in the Royal Air Force. Whereas Prince Charles’s time in the Navy was seen primarily as part of his preparation for his other roles in the royal family, his brother, Prince Andrew, had a long career in the Royal Navy, spending 20 years as an officer and seeing active service in the Falklands War in 1982. And the tradition continues, with both of Prince Charles’s sons, Princes William and Harry, training as Army officers at Sandhurst. In addition, many members of the royal family hold appointments and honorary ranks in various military units.

However, the British sovereign no longer has the power to raise an army. This ancient right was removed when the constitutional monarchy came into being in 1689 and now Parliament raises and maintains armies.

But just as the monarch keeps close links to government through regular briefings from ministers, so she keeps up to speed with the country’s military forces. The ruler’s Defence Services Secretary (who is both a member of the royal household and an officer in one of the services) acts as the liaison person between the ruler and the government minister responsible for defence.

To ordinary servicemen and women, the monarch is more than someone keeping a remote but benevolent eye on their progress. Members of the Army and Royal Air Force swear an oath of allegiance to the sovereign when they join up. (Traditionally, this oath doesn’t happen in the Navy, but it’s called the Royal Navy, so sailors are always reminded of the importance of the monarch.) And all soldiers know that if they have to go into battle, they’re fighting ‘for queen and country,’ not for any specific government or political party.

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