How Much Power Did Queen Elizabeth Really Have?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II stands on the balcony of Buckingham Palace following the Platinum Pageant on June 5, 2022 in London, England. Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II, who died Sept. 8 at her home in Balmoral at age 96, ruled longer than any other monarch in British history. She just celebrated 70 years on the throne with her Platinum Jubilee weekend in early June 2022.

Now that's she's gone, some people are wondering whether she held any real political power. That turns out to be a complicated question. Even though the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, it doesn't have a single codified constitution like the United States. Instead, the power balance between the Crown (the monarchy) and Parliament (the elected officials) is mediated by a set of rules known as constitutional "conventions," some of which are written down and others that are based on custom and tradition.


According to some of the oldest traditions, the monarch is the ultimate source of power in the British government; the British legislature is formally known as "The Queen in Parliament." But as we'll see, while she was alive, the queen wielded no real political power to act independently of the wishes of Parliament or the prime minister.

The Queen's Reserve Powers

Technically, the queen retained certain political powers, known as her "personal prerogatives" or the "queen's reserve powers." Among those reserve powers were the power to appoint the prime minister, which she just did Sept. 6, to open and close sessions of Parliament, and to approve legislation.

But those powers, said Philip Murphy, have been heavily restricted by constitutional conventions. Murphy is director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at University College London and author of "The Empire's New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth." We spoke to him in 2020.


"The Queen has powers, but the question is how much discretion does she have within those powers," Murphy said.

According to Robert Hazell, co-author of a report on the changing role of the monarchy, the queen was effectively stripped of all personal discretion when it came to the use of reserve powers. She had no real choice about who became prime minister, for example, or which bills became law. The voters and elected officials make those decisions, and her only real job was to give a royal stamp of approval.

But that lack of true political power didn't mean that the Queen Elizabeth wasn't powerful. The 19th-century British constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot wrote that the monarch has three essential rights: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.

"What you're talking about there is not so much power as influence," Murphy said. And no one would argue that Queen Elizabeth wasn't influential.

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth greeted Liz Truss, the new leader of the Conservative Party, Sept. 6 at Balmoral, just two days before her death at age 96.
WPA Pool/Getty Images


Appointing the Prime Minister

One of the queen's most important reserve powers was to appoint a new prime minister. Queen Elizabeth appointed 15 prime ministers during her reign, starting with Winston Churchill in 1951 right up to Liz Truss, just two days before her death.

According to convention, the day after a general election, the queen normally invited the leader of the party that won the most seats in Parliament to Buckingham Palace. The queen would ask the leader whether he or she will form a government. The question was fully ceremonial, but Murphy said it underscores one of the monarch's main responsibilities — to ensure the continuity of the British government.


It was slightly different with Truss, though. Queen Elizabeth appointed her prime minister Sept. 6, 2022, in Scotland at Balmoral after Boris Johnson resigned and the ruling Conservative Party chose Truss as its leader. It was the first time in Queen Elizabeth's 70-year reign that the appointment took place there, rather than Buckingham Palace in London.

What if an election resulted in a hung Parliament, in which no party won a clear majority of the seats? It was still not up to the queen to pick a winner. Not that Elizabeth, who always took great pains to remain politically neutral, would have ever wanted to.

In 2015, when pundits widely predicted a hung Parliament, "the queen very pointedly left London for the weekend," Murphy said. "She was clearly saying, 'Look guys, I don't want to be involved in this. You make your decision and then you come to me.'"

The last time a monarch replaced a prime minister was 1834, when King William IV fired the Whig reformer Lord Melbourne and appointed Sir Robert Peel.

state opening of Parliament 2013
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip arrive for the state opening of Parliament at the House of Lords on May 8, 2013, in London.
Lewis Whyld - WPA Pool/Getty Images


Opening and Closing Parliament

Another of the queen's official powers was to open and close sessions of Parliament. She officially opened each State Opening of Parliament with the "Queen's Speech." However, in 2022, she did not attend the opening and instead, sent Prince Charles and Prince William in her stead, citing mobility issues. Prince Charles, now King Charles, read the Queen's Speech on her behalf. Of course, the Queen didn't write the speech; it's always written by the incoming government and was never written by her.

Sessions of Parliament can be ended in two ways: They can be dissolved, which only happens before a general election, or they can be "prorogued," which means that the Parliament goes into recess for a set time and can't pass any more bills.


The queen no longer had any power to dissolve Parliament. That was repealed with the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act that automatically dissolves Parliament every five years, or earlier if two-thirds of Parliament votes for a new election, or if there's a no confidence vote.

She could still technically prorogue (formally end) a session of Parliament, but even that was dictated by the will of the prime minister. In 2019, Boris Johnson asked the queen to prorogue Parliament so he could avoid opposition to his Brexit plans. The queen agreed, because convention dictated that she follow the prime minister's advice. But the U.K. Supreme Court later ruled that Johnson's move was unconstitutional.


Other Ceremonial Powers

As part of Britain's constitutional monarchy, the queen was obliged to give "Royal Assent" to all bills passed by Parliament before they could become law. Her approval was purely a formality since the last time Royal Assent was refused was 1707, when Queen Anne blocked a bill to send a militia to Scotland.

As the sovereign head of state, the queen was also the head of the Armed Forces, which gave her the power to declare war and sign treaties. But like her other reserve powers, she exclusively acted under the advice of government ministers, including the prime minister.


She also gave out knighthoods and other awards for exceptional achievement and service twice a year, at New Year and in June on her official birthday. (The monarch's birthday is always celebrated officially in June, regardless of when he or she was really born — it's a month guaranteed to have good weather.) But these honors were not hers to decide; committees of experts, along with government reps, presented her with the list of people to be honored via the prime minister.

Queen Elizabeth II
(From left) Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, laugh at their Balmoral team at the Braemar Games Highland tug of war competition Sept. 2, 2006 in Scotland.
Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images


The Perfect Constitutional Monarch?

Murphy pointed out that our conception of the role and powers of the monarch are wrapped up with the persona of the person sitting on the throne.

"In that sense, you can't distinguish between the functioning of monarchy in modern Britain and Queen Elizabeth II," said Murphy.


Still, she received so much praise for her encouraging address to the U.K. and the Commonwealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was only the fifth time in her 70-year reign that she ever addressed her nation apart from her annual Christmas message.

One could argue, said Murphy, that Queen Elizabeth II was the perfect constitutional monarch, an apolitical and beloved figure always careful not to cross the line of convention.

That may not be the case with future monarchs.

"Prince Charles has his pet issues which he's been quite active in preaching about," Murphy said. "He's notorious for writing long, rather hectoring letters to ministers."


Queen Elizabeth FAQ

How old was Queen Elizabeth when she took the throne?
Princess Elizabeth became queen at the age of 25 after the passing of her father, King George VI, in 1952. She was crowned Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and ruled the United Kingdom until her death Sept. 8, 2022.
What authority did the Queen have?
The Queen had some political power, but she rarely used these reserve powers. She did have influence though, and had the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.
Was the Queen the most power of all the rulers in England?
While you might think that the Queen was the most powerful ruler, this is not true. She could influence decisions in her favor, but more often than not, she refuses to exercise control over the government, as it would make the Royal family unpopular.
Was Queen Elizabeth a billionaire?
No, Queen Elizabeth was not a billionaire. However, she ruled England since 1952 and was considered the richest member of the Royal Family.