Comparing European monarchies: a conference first

sketch.1541418351959com-google-chrome-j5urj9IMG_1120.jpgIn early March the Constitution Unit convened a conference of 25 leading experts on the monarchies in Europe. It had been two years in preparation, and was the first of its kind: monarchy is not a fashionable subject in academia. The conference was organised by Robert Hazell and Dr Bob Morris, the Unit’s longstanding expert on Church and State, together with their research volunteer Olivia Hepsworth. Here they explain the background, and some of the main findings from the conference.

Monarchy as an institution does not get much academic attention. This is surprising when one considers that one third of the population of the EU live in states which are monarchies. These include some of the most advanced democracies in the world, countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. And far from being regarded as an anachronism, monarchy in these countries enjoys popularity ratings which politicians would die for. So there is a conundrum worth exploring: is the survival of monarchy in northern Europe the product of historical accident or constitutional inertia, or does it add something to the institutions of representative democracy? And if so, what is its added value? Continue reading

What are coronations for?

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When the next monarch accedes to the throne, there will likely be a coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Yet the UK is unique in western Europe in having a coronation. What purpose does such an event serve? Bob Morris looks back at past coronations to provide an answer to that question. 

Last summer the Constitution Unit published two reports: one on updating the Accession and Coronation oaths, and a second on Planning the next Coronation. In the course of our work we learned that the UK is alone amongst European monarchies in retaining a coronation. Belgium and the Netherlands have never held them; nor from the end of the medieval period has Spain. There have not been coronations in Denmark, Sweden and Norway since 1849, 1873 and 1906 respectively.

That prompted the question, what is the coronation for? It is a question also put to us by journalists when we launched our reports. This blog post attempts to address the question. At the outset, however, one point needs to be emphasised. In law the coronation does not ‘make’ the sovereign. The monarch succeeds to the throne automatically immediately on the decease of their predecessor. The courts affirmed this position as long ago as 1608 concerning King James I’s succession to Elizabeth I:

‘..the title is by descent; by Queen Elizabeth’s death the Crown and kingdom of England descended to His Majesty, and he was fully and absolutely King, without any essential ceremony or act to be done ex post facto, and that coronation was but a Royal ornament, and outward solemnization of the descent.’

The nature of the rite

The Westminster Abbey coronation is an Anglican religious service centred on the communion. At the same time, it is a great national pageant of costly display and celebration controlled by the government of the day. It is a political as well as a religious event. Not surprisingly, it has been imbued with different meanings by different participants and observers. Continue reading

Reflecting on HRH The Prince of Wales’s Role as Heir to the Throne

sketch.1541418351959To mark the Prince of Wales’s 70th Birthday, Robert Hazell reflects on the difficult role of Heir to the Throne, with reference to the roles of heirs apparent in other Western European monarchies. This comparative material has been assembled as part of our preparation for a forthcoming conference on monarchies in western Europe, to be held next March.

The Prince of Wales is 70 years old today. At an age when most people are comfortably enjoying their retirement, Prince Charles is still preparing to assume the role for which he has been waiting almost all his life. He became heir to the throne in 1952, and so far his apprenticeship has lasted 67 years. In 2011 he became the longest serving heir apparent in British history, overtaking King Edward VII, who spent 59 years in the role.

That is one of the difficulties of being heir apparent: a very long and uncertain period of waiting. Another is that the role is unspecified. The constitution is silent about the role; so it is left to each heir apparent to make of it what they can. Some, like Edward VII, have pursued wine, women and song (and gambling, shooting and racing); others like Prince Charles have a more serious bent, and want to make a contribution to the public good. The difficulty is to find a way of contributing to public life without becoming embroiled in political controversy. Continue reading

The Crown: What does Netflix’s dramatisation and the celebritisation of an evolving monarchy mean for the royal family in 2018?

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With Prince Philip now retired from his public role and Prince Harry set to marry an American actor in the spring, the royal family has entered 2018 in the midst of a period of change. Yet change is nothing new; the monarchy is constantly evolving. Bob Morris asks where does it now stand and what further changes may be expected? He also discusses the historical accuracy and cultural impact of the popular Netflix drama, ‘The Crown’. 

As the monarchy enters 2018, unavoidable demographic effects are becoming more apparent. The Queen is now 91 and Prince Philip has announced his retirement from official duties at the age of 96. The Queen remains commendably diligent in her public duties, notching up nearly 300 engagements in 2017, although none of those took place abroad. There it is evident that the Prince of Wales (himself close now to 70) has increasingly taken up the burden, assisted principally by the Duke of York and the Princess Royal. As in recent years, the latter continues to be the busiest member of the family for domestic engagements.

There continue to be small, mostly low-voiced susurrations of speculation about whether the Queen will herself ‘retire’ in some way when, for example, she reaches her husband’s age; whether she will be succeeded by Prince William rather than by Prince Charles; whether the new king would remain Head of the Commonwealth; and at what point any of the fifteen Commonwealth states where the Queen remains monarch (known as the realms) will turn themselves into fully-fledged republics. Continue reading

The Queen at 90: the changing role of the monarchy, and future challenges

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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

0806161The 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.

Continue reading

The Queen’s Sorpasso

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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.

Continue reading

Purring – Mr Cameron, the Queen and the British Constitution

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Bob Morris reflects on what the Prime Minister’s recent transgression might tell us about the constitutional status of the UK sovereign.

Speaking recently to a former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg – the nearest to Yankee royalty – David Cameron spilled the beans on his own sovereign’s reaction to the Scottish referendum decision to stay in the United Kingdom: ‘She purred down the line’. Does this incident tell us anything about the current state of the British constitution or is it best written off as a trivial prime ministerial gaffe?

For the gaffe view is that the conversation was intended to be entirely private and was picked up by a journalist’s microphone by accident. One might get hoity-toity about whether a relationship of personal confidentiality was transgressed by some immature behaviour. On the other hand, as a Times columnist (Carol Midgley, 27 September) put it ‘indiscretions show politicians at their most human’. David Cameron apologised publicly and vowed to do so personally at his next regular audience with the Queen. Nothing otherwise will eventuate.

Precisely – the incident on the other view illustrates an important, largely unrecognised fact: the UK sovereign has no significant constitutional powers left. The most important – discretion to choose the Prime Minister and the power to grant (and, by implication, withhold) dissolutions of Parliament – have been lost. The first was lost when all political parties adopted internal rules to appoint their own leaders, and post-electoral manoeuvring was rather later made subject to procedures now publicly set out in the Cabinet Manual, which excluded/shielded the sovereign from participation short of recognising the outcome. The second, the power to grant or withhold dissolution, went following 2011 legislation for fixed term Parliaments.

The latter’s significance for the Palace falls to be judged against the view of a former Queen’s private secretary observing that the dissolution power was one that kept politicians respectful:

The power to grant or deny a dissolution in certain circumstances … adds enormously to the wariness with which British Prime Ministers approach the sovereign. (Sir W. Heseltine, ‘The Fabian Commission on the future of the monarchy’, Constitutional Law and Policy Review, February 2004, 84-92 at pp. 86-7).

No doubt David Cameron’s relationship with the current sovereign remains personally respectful, but does the incident show that constitutional respect has now gone? And, if so, what does this bode for the monarchy in the longer term? And what also for prime ministers no longer obliged to show deference?

In other words, far from his remarks being simply a careless gaffe, was David Cameron in fact making an unconscious statement about current constitutional realities? Discuss.

 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.