Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 94 on April 21, has ruled longer than any other monarch in British history. But at this point, is the British monarch's role purely ceremonial, or does she or he hold 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 queen 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, in modern practice the queen wields no real political power to act independently of the wishes of Parliament or the prime minister.
The Queen's Reserve Powers
Technically, the queen still retains certain political powers, known as her "personal prerogatives" or the "queen's reserve powers" (makes her sound like a superhero). Among those reserve powers are the power to appoint the prime minister, to open and close sessions of Parliament, and to approve legislation.
But those powers, says 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."
"The Queen has powers, but the question is how much discretion does she have within those powers," says Murphy.
According to Robert Hazell, co-author of a report on the changing role of the monarchy, the queen has been effectively stripped of all personal discretion when it comes to the use of her reserve powers. She has no real choice when it comes to who is appointed prime minister, for example, or which bills are made into law. The voters and elected officials make those decisions, and her only real job is give a royal stamp of approval.
But that lack of true political power doesn't mean that the queen isn'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," says Murphy. And no one would argue that Queen Elizabeth isn't influential.
Appointing the Prime Minister
One of the queen's most important reserve powers is to appoint a new prime minister. Queen Elizabeth has appointed 14 prime ministers starting with Winston Churchill in 1951 through Boris Johnson in 2019. The ceremony is called "kissing hands," but there's no actual kissing anymore.
According to convention, the day after a general election, the queen invites the leader of the party that won the most seats in Parliament to Buckingham Palace. The queen asks the leader whether he or she will form a government. The queen's question is fully ceremonial at this point, but Murphy says it underscores one of the monarch's main responsibilities — to ensure the continuity of the British government.
Once the prime minister is chosen, the official royal register will say that "the prime minister Kissed Hands on Appointment," but that's not really true. The hand-kissing used to happen later in a private council meeting, but even that has gone away a royal spokesperson told The New York Times back in 2007.
What if the election results in a hung Parliament, in which no party wins a clear majority of the seats? It's still not up to the queen to pick a winner. Not that Elizabeth, who takes great pains to remain politically neutral, would ever want to.
In 2015, when pundits widely predicted a hung Parliament, "the queen very pointedly left London for the weekend," says Murphy. "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.
The queen may remain stoically neutral in her public comments, but no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. The queen has a standing weekly meeting with the prime minister in which they presumably discuss the kingdom's most pressing political issues. We say "presumably" because the meetings are completely confidential.
"No one is taking minutes," says Murphy. "Even the queen's private secretary isn't there."
Opening and Closing Parliament
Another of the queen's official powers is to open and close sessions of Parliament. She officially opens each new session of Parliament with the "Queen's Speech." For a telling example of the queen's lack of real political power, the speech is written by the incoming government, not 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 has 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 can still technically prorogue a session of Parliament, but even that is 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 went along with it, because convention dictates 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 is obliged to give "Royal Assent" to all bills passed by Parliament before they can become law. The queen's approval is purely a formality at this point 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 is also the head of the Armed Forces, which gives her the power to declare war and sign treaties. But like her other reserve powers, she exclusively acts under the advice of government ministers, including the prime minister.
She also gives 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 are not hers to decide; committees of experts, along with government reps, present the list of people to be honored to her via the prime minister.
The Perfect Constitutional Monarch?
Murphy points 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," says Murphy. "She's been there so damn long. She's of a particular kind of character. She's very discreet. She isn't given to expressions of emotions. She isn't keen to tell everyone her views."
Still, she has received 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 68-year reign that she had addressed her nation apart from her annual Christmas message.
One could argue, says Murphy, that Queen Elizabeth II has been 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," says Murphy. "He's notorious for writing long, rather hectoring letters to ministers."
Originally Published: Apr 7, 2020