The Queen’s Sorpasso


9 September 2015 marks the day Elizabeth II becomes the UK’s longest reigning monarch. Bob Morris takes this milestone as an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the monarchy in relation to the constitution in recent years.

Today Queen Elizabeth II’s term exceeds Victoria’s and she becomes the nation’s longest reigning monarch. The institution she heads is not subject to any current serious challenge. Indeed, it is now probably as popular as it has ever been.

Milestones like this prompt reflection and the following attempts to consider what the present reign tells us about the monarchy and the constitution.

Resisting republicanism

To state the obvious first, the monarchy has survived. That should be regarded as an achievement in itself and not assumed to be a constitutional given. The very concept of monarchy is hardly attuned to the spirit of the times – increasingly egalitarian, democratic, undeferential, worldly, multicultural, secular. Some maintain that monarchy represents a vanished feudal worldview of fixed hierarchy, deference, social immobility and religious uniformity.

Despite these claims there is, apart from small sections of the chattering classes, no serious pressure to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a republic. With the possible exception of Australia, this appears to be the position too in the other former ‘settler’ dominions of Canada and New Zealand. Nor does a concerted move against the monarchy seem likely in the twelve other Commonwealth ‘realms’ of which the Queen is head of state. Polling support in the UK for a republic has only ever once – and in evanescent special conditions – just exceeded 20 per cent. Republicanism has yet to establish any real political traction.

One of the reasons for the lack of republican enthusiasm is that the UK state already possesses most, if not quite all, the attributes of a republic. We have a sovereign who reigns but does not rule and who functions – constitutionally – as an hereditary head of a de facto republic. Even in 1867, Bagehot observed: ‘A republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of Monarchy’. The sovereign is not a party political figure and there is indeed political agreement to shield the office from any credible allegation of partisanship. The Cabinet Manual published in 2011 in response to the experience of handling the uncertain outcome of the 2010 election was designed specifically to list the rules of engagement for any future absence of a clear overall majority winner. It was grounded in the belief that it was for the politicians to sort out the position and for the sovereign to acknowledge the outcome without being involved in the process.

The monarchy and the media

At the same time, the monarchy itself has not been passive. Its own ‘Way Ahead Group’ has kept its functioning under review. One outcome has been effectively to shrink the ‘working’ size of the royal family pretty well to the Queen’s own immediate offspring – something recognised in the much smaller group (up to the sixth in line of succession) now required under the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 to secure the sovereign’s permission for marriage.

Initial hostility to the Prince of Wales’s marriage to Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles – the occasion when polling in favour of a republic most recently peaked – has been largely overcome by careful media management of the Duchess of Cornwall’s entry into public life. At the time of the marriage, an attempt was made to respond to Camilla’s apparent unpopularity by suggesting that, on her husband’s accession, she would be known as princess consort rather than queen. It now seems likely that there will be little substantial objection to her assuming the latter rather than the former title.

Manoeuvring in the bear pit of modern media attention has, on the other hand, its drawbacks. Courting favourable publicity risks exposure to unfavourable publicity. Whilst the kind of ‘celebritisation’ centred on William and Kate might help make the monarchy popular on one level, it also trivialises it on another. An ‘Hello’ monarchy is not likely to be taken very seriously, especially when the House of Lords’ membership appears to be entering a phase of risible decline in ways that may rub off by association adversely on the monarchy’s character.

Succession planning

Traditionally, this is expected to look after itself. Historically, most problems have concerned minorities when heirs on succession have not been adults. The first modern regency legislation in 1937 was necessary because George VI had two minor daughters. But the present problem is the reverse: longevity means that heirs, let alone the monarch, can be very old. The Queen’s present heir is already 66 and, if the queen lives as long as her mother, could well be in his late 70s when succeeding. Moreover, William (now 33) could himself be getting on by the time he succeeded his father thus confirming a cycle of gerontocratic future successions.

Other monarchies deal with these things differently. Notably, the Dutch have used abdication in effect to preserve the relative privacy of early married life for heirs who then succeed for a generation of service themselves giving way to their successor to repeat and sustain the cycle. Whilst it is understood that the present sovereign feels bound by dedicatory oath to serve for life, it does not seem in the public – or, indeed, heirs’ private – interest for such a practice to continue.

Constitutional functions

Whilst monarchy remains the organising principle of the UK state, sovereigns themselves have decreased direct personal constitutional functions and the prerogative powers taken over by ministers have been progressively tamed. The fact that all modern political parties have for fifty years appointed their own leaders has removed the sovereign’s role in choosing the party member most likely to be able to form a government where a party has an overall majority. Where there is no such majority, the 2011 Cabinet Manual drafted sets out the processes for politicians to follow in order to identify a government without involving the sovereign other than to acknowledge the outcome. The former prerogative of dissolution is now legislated in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Does this mean the sovereign has little if any constitutional significance at all?

Bagehot distinguished between the dignified and the efficient parts of the constitution. It is evident that, more than in the past, the monarchy functions principally nowadays in the dignified area. This means it functions less, if at all, than Bagehot thought to ‘disguise’ the actual workings of quotidian politics. The implacable media gaze relentlessly exposes political actions and processes, confining politicians’ breathing and thinking spaces. Like the royal family, politicians both gain and lose from the relationship.


There is much to be said for a dignified monarchy that can symbolise society’s continuity whatever the community’s fortunes. Its association with good works and the conferment without condescension of intelligent interest and encouragement on otherwise unnoticed endeavour is always welcome. As the national family, it has a representative power even when – sometimes perhaps because – its members misbehave. On the other hand, its roles are attenuating and dignity alone is not enough for younger members trying to identify life roles. Increasingly, those outside the immediate range of accession are opting against assuming titles and instead moving into commoner (in both the senses) lives. Where these forces will ultimately lead is not foreseeable.

Meanwhile, there is much to celebrate. Typically, Elizabeth II has not encouraged any special acts of recognition of the mere efflux of time, though hers stands as a real personal achievement nonetheless.

About the Author

Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant. At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, particularly FOI. Latterly he has tended to lead on ecclesiastical and royal issues, for example on the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, at the same time contributing to the recent study on Commons Public Bill Committees led by Meg Russell.

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