Robert Saunders argues that the UK cannot rely on a ceremonial monarchy that seeks to remain apart from politics to protect the constitution from attack in times of crisis. For that, he concludes that other instruments will be needed, without which both monarchy and the constitution will suffer. This post is based on material from the Unit’s new report, The British Monarchy, co-published yesterday by the Unit and the UK in a Changing Europe.
For much of British history, it was hard to imagine a constitutional crisis without the monarch at its core. From the barons at Runnymede imposing Magna Carta on King John to the expulsion of James II in 1688, the English (and, later, British) constitution was forged in the collision between Crown and parliament. As late as the nineteenth century, suspicion of royal power pulsed through progressive politics. Victorians may have revered ‘Her Little Majesty’, but they also celebrated a ‘Glorious Revolution’ against royal tyranny and erected a statue of Oliver Cromwell outside Westminster.
With the decline of constitutional politics in the twentieth century, the political functions of the Crown slipped from public debate. Yet recent controversies have redirected attention to the role of the monarch at times of constitutional crisis. More specifically, they have reopened a question that deserves greater public discussion: who wields the historic powers of the Crown once the monarch is no longer politically active? Should there be any limit on their use by a Prime Minister?
An emergency brake
Some of the highest powers of the British state still technically reside with the Crown, including the right to declare war, conclude treaties and suspend parliament. By convention, those powers are exercised ‘on the advice of the Prime Minister’. But they do not belong to the Prime Minister, and might, in theory, be withheld.Continue reading