To mark the celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday the Constitution Unit has published a new report that discusses the formal powers of the monarchy, and its wider role and functions. The report concludes by looking ahead to what further changes can be expected in the coming decades. It is summarised here by its authors, Robert Hazell and Bob Morris.
This week the Constitution Unit has published a report to mark the celebrations for the Queen’s 90th birthday, which discusses the formal powers of the monarchy, and its wider role and functions. The report also helps to set the scene for two new projects on the monarchy: the first, led by Bob Morris, is on the next accession and coronation, and the second, led by Robert Hazell, is to be a comparative study of the other monarchies of western Europe.
The changing role of the monarchy
The report records how much the constitutional powers of the monarch have changed during the Queen’s reign, and her lifetime. All the important prerogative powers remaining in the hands of the monarch have been removed or severely restricted. The most important of the personal prerogatives are the power to appoint the Prime Minister; to summon and dissolve parliament; and to give royal assent to bills. We found that in exercising each of these powers, the monarch no longer has any effective discretion:
- The constitutional conventions about the appointment of the Prime Minister have been codified in the Cabinet Manual, which explains that it is for the parties in parliament to determine who is best placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and communicate that clearly to the sovereign.
- The prerogative power of dissolution was abolished by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Parliament is now dissolved automatically after five years, or earlier if two thirds of MPs vote for an early election, or the government loses a no confidence motion. The power for the Prime Minister to ask the Queen for an early election has gone.
- Royal assent to a bill has not been refused since 1707. It would only be withheld now (as then) on the advice of ministers. That might happen with a minority government which could not otherwise prevent the passage of legislation against its wishes.
The Queen might still have to exercise discretion in very exceptional circumstances: for example, if the Prime Minister suddenly dies. So the monarch remains the ultimate constitutional longstop; but save in such exceptional circumstances, all effective discretion has been removed.
The next part of our report analyses the main prerogative powers exercised by ministers: to make war, to make treaties, to regulate the civil service, to make public appointments and to award peerages. We found that these have also been restricted or brought under tighter parliamentary control:
- The war making power has become subject to a new convention that the government will not deploy the armed forces overseas without parliamentary approval. Although new, this has quickly become recognised as an established convention.
- The civil service was previously regulated under the prerogative by orders in council. The core values of the civil service, and the Civil Service Commission have been put onto a statutory basis under Part 1 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.
- Part 2 of the same Act codified in statute the procedure for parliamentary scrutiny of treaties, and provides an enforcement mechanism if parliament believes that a treaty should not be ratified. The House of Commons can resolve against ratification, and make it unlawful for the government to ratify a treaty.
- Key public appointments are now regulated by the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, and the top 60 appointments are subject to pre-appointment scrutiny hearings with the relevant select committee. The committees have no power of veto; but in five cases where committees have raised doubts, two candidates withdrew, and one was not appointed.
- The prerogative power to appoint peers remains largely unregulated, in particular in terms of numbers, which have spiralled out of control. But there is now limited regulation through the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which makes nominations to the independent Crossbenches, and vets all nominations for propriety. The Commission successfully screened out seven party nominees in 2015.
The remainder of our report looks beyond the constitutional powers to the wider functions of the monarchy: to provide a focus for national identity and unity, and stability in times of change; recognize achievement and excellence; and encourage public and voluntary service. With the object of assessing these functions and identifying which features may require further review, we analysed these functions by looking at four principal aspects:
- The national monarchy – the most immediately visible aspect where the monarch carries out a wide range of constitutional and ceremonial functions. Collectively these help both to bind the nation at home and represent it abroad.
- The international monarchy – uniquely amongst monarchies, our monarch is the head of state in fifteen other countries (‘realms’) who are all members of the Commonwealth and were formerly British colonies. It is questionable how far the realms will wish to continue the relationship.
- The religious monarchy – the monarch is head, and must be a member of, the Church of England, cannot be a Roman Catholic and has to swear to support the Church of Scotland all under laws dating from the seventeenth century and before. Declining Christian religious observance, changes in the established churches themselves, and the pluralisation of religious belief challenge the nature of the current state religious model.
- The welfare or service monarchy – this has been one of the more visible and important changes which has transformed how the monarchy interacts with society at large. The monarchy’s encouragement and recognition of charities responding to interests and needs well beyond the limits of ordinary state activity have contributed significantly to the strengthening of civil society.
Looking ahead, the final part of the report discusses what further changes can be expected.
External factors driving change will come mainly from the Commonwealth and the realms, the 15 Commonwealth countries where the Queen is also the head of state. Whether Prince Charles succeeds the Queen as head of the Commonwealth will depend on the politics of the Commonwealth at the time, the dynamic between the leading member states, and the alternatives. Prince Charles’ accession may also provide a turning point for the 15 realms to consider introducing their own head of state in place of a distant British monarch. The Palace has always said it would readily accept the decision of any realm to become a republic.
Prince Charles’ accession will also provide an early test of the monarchy’s religious role. The accession oaths (which require the new monarch to maintain Protestantism and the established church in Scotland) and the coronation oath (which ties the monarch tightly to the Church of England) go back centuries, and may require updating for the modern age. This is something we will look at in our project on the next accession and coronation.
Change may also come from internal factors, from the changing preferences of individual monarchs. We face a gradual slide into gerontocracy, because of the longevity of individual monarchs. This year the Queen celebrated her 90th birthday. No one wishes her anything other than a long life; but if she lives as long as the Queen Mother, who died aged 101, Prince Charles will be 80 when he becomes King. If he in turn lived to 100, Prince William would succeed to the throne at the age of 67. We may be in for a series of elderly monarchs, succeeded by heirs apparent who have spent all their adult life in waiting, only to assume the throne in old age. It may reasonably be asked whether it is kind to our monarchs to expect them to go on like this; or whether it is kind to their people to have a succession of monarchs who are all very old.
This is the one remaining issue where the monarch has a clear individual choice. No government is going to advise a monarch to abdicate because of old age; but no government is going to prevent a future monarch from doing so. For the Queen abdication is unthinkable, because of the abdication crisis of 1936 and her own express, personal dedication; but for her successors it may be less taboo. If they want to look for a different model, they need look no further than the Netherlands, where the last three Queens have abdicated at around the age of 70, most recently Queen Beatrix who abdicated in 2013 at the age of 75.
A final threat to the monarchy is the self-sacrifice involved on the part of the monarch and those in direct line of succession. So long as abdication is unthinkable, the requirement is one of lifelong service, with no prospect of retirement. The second sacrifice is the loss of freedom. The Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William have to abandon freedoms which the rest of us take for granted. Freedom of privacy and family life; freedom of expression; freedom to travel where we like; free choice of careers; freedom of religion; freedom to marry whom we like. For the royal family these basic human rights are all curtailed. The question is whether future heirs are willing to make the self-sacrifices required of living in a gilded cage.
Bagehot observed of the monarchy, ‘Its mystery is its life. We must not let daylight upon the magic’. But we have, especially through relentless invasions of privacy by the press. Prince Charles and his sons have been the main victims, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are caught up in celebrity culture. But the press are insatiable, and also fickle; if the popularity of the monarchy comes to depend on the support of the press, that Faustian pact may prove in the long run to be the greatest threat to the future of the monarchy.
The full report by Robert Hazell and Bob Morris, The Queen at 90: The changing role of the monarchy, and future challenges, can be downloaded here.
About the authors
Robert Hazell is Professor of Government and the Constitution at the Constitution Unit.
Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant and a member of honorary staff at the Constitution Unit.