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Heading the state

Andrew Blick explores the constitutional role of the monarch - and how we could ditch it

April 16, 2011
7 min read

The 19th-century political writer Walter Bagehot made a celebrated distinction between the ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ components of the British (or ‘English’, as he had it) constitution. The dignified parts were ‘those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population’, while the efficient portions were ‘those by which it [the constitution], in fact, works and rules’.

If we consider today’s monarchy using this distinction, what conclusions can be drawn? How far is the sovereign simply an ornament, or something more important?

Certainly, the more visible parts of the role of the monarchy (extending to the royal family as a whole) can be regarded as within the ‘dignified’ constitutional category – opening and addressing parliament, carrying out royal visits, taking part in public ceremonies such as weddings.

But should we be led to conclude, as Bagehot did, that ‘a Republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy’, and that the UK is, in his words, a ‘disguised republic’? Or does the sovereign possess powers that make the monarchy part of the ‘efficient’ constitution as well as the ‘dignified’?

The view from Whitehall

Late last year, the government published – in draft form – a document called the ‘Cabinet Manual’. It is likely to be the closest the UK has come to possessing something it famously lacks – a ‘written’ constitution.

The manual provides us with the Whitehall view of many different features of the UK settlement, including a portrayal of the role of the monarchy. We are told that:

‘The UK is a parliamentary democracy which has a constitutional sovereign as Head of State.’

In most democracies, a ‘constitution’ means a formally binding set of rules by which all institutions are limited. However, in the UK, there is no clearly defined body of constitutional law superseding all other; and many key features of the political settlement, including those regulating the monarchy, exist only as often vague understandings with little or no legal status, known as ‘conventions’. For instance, the manual states that:

‘By convention, the Sovereign does not become publicly involved in the party politics of government.’

While public political activism is restricted – albeit in a loose fashion – a behind-the-scenes role for the monarch is specifically provided for in the manual. It states that the sovereign:

‘is entitled to be informed and consulted, and to advise, encourage and warn ministers.’

However, it is not suggested that the government is required to act upon the views of the monarch. As well as these entitlements, there are other latent powers, held by the sovereign under the so-called ‘royal prerogative’. A relic of pre-democratic rule, most of the royal prerogative has either been abolished or passed in practice to ministers (for instance, the right to make war). But some of it remains personal to the monarch. The Cabinet Office tells us that:

‘Where a bill has completed all of its Parliamentary stages, it cannot become law until the Sovereign has formally approved it, which is known as Royal Assent.’

The idea that a monarch would refuse to grant royal assent to a bill that had passed through its proper parliamentary stages is all but unthinkable. However, the manual describes another set of personal prerogatives, which it is more plausible could come into play. It states:

‘Although they have not been exercised in modern times, the Sovereign retains reserve powers to dismiss the Prime Minister or make a personal choice of successor.’

The latter of these ‘reserve powers’, to ‘make a personal choice of successor’, could become relevant following a general election that does not produce a single-party majority in the House of Commons, as occurred in May last year. Normally, in recent decades, the exercise of the monarchical power to appoint the prime minister is a formality. However, if there is more than one possible prime minister, a decision has to be made. The manual explains that:

‘Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, discussions will take place between political parties on who should form the next government … The Sovereign would not expect to become involved in such negotiations.’

The word ‘expect’ leaves open the possibility of monarchical involvement, and the manual goes on to note that:

‘The political parties and the Cabinet Secretary would have responsibilities in ensuring that the Palace is provided with information on the progress of discussions…’

Since there are grounds for supposing that ‘no overall control’ parliaments could become more frequent in future than in the recent past, the expectation of non-involvement may be tested more often.

Fixed-term parliaments

The personal prerogative of the monarchy is about to be circumscribed in an important way, however. When the Fixed‑term Parliaments Bill becomes law, the requirement for the consent of the sovereign to dissolutions of parliament (ie general elections) will be removed.

When considering these features of the monarchy, some hold that the monarchy is a valuable institution, providing continuity and stability; and that the traditional way of regulating the office has, despite – or perhaps because of – its vagueness, proved effective so far, and can be expected to continue to do so. Others argue that, while the monarchy should be retained, there is a need for a more clearly defined constitutional framework, as operates in countries such as Holland.

But others still have concluded that some of the roles associated with the monarchy require a more democratic basis, and that an undisguised republic would be preferable to Bagehot’s disguised version. If this final option is preferred, certain decisions must be taken.

Having abolished the monarchy, would the UK need a head of state at all? International evidence seems to suggest that it would, with some kind of figure performing both ‘dignified’ and – to a limited extent – ‘efficient’ roles being the norm. If not a monarch, then this person is generally known as a president.

Presidents come in different forms, between which the UK would have to choose. They may be chosen by members of the national parliament, as in countries such as Italy and Germany. Heads of state appointed in this way are not leading political figures. The role would be comparable in its functions to that of the monarch in the UK, although probably more clearly defined and regulated, held only for limited terms, and subject to indirect democratic accountability.

The alternative means of filling a presidency is through direct election. This method tends to produce an office holder with a strong popular mandate for personal government: a political leader. If the UK opted for this model it would have to decide how far it wished the power of its presidency to be balanced by other institutions, such as the legislature and the courts. It could choose to establish a more limited president, as in the US, or a more hegemonic leader, as has existed in the French Fifth Republic.

Three steps to a republic

So how might either a more clearly constrained monarchy or a republic be brought about? There would probably be three key features to this process:

First, there would need to be a constitutional convention of some kind to consider the options and make a detailed proposal, or possibly a set of multiple options to be chosen between by the public. The convention might be elected, at least partially, and some participants could be selected at random from the public at large, a method known as sortition.

Second, there would have to be at least one referendum, possibly with two questions, one on whether to abolish existing arrangements, another on which system they should be replaced with if they were dropped.

Third, and finally, the new settlement, if adopted, would be encapsulated in a ‘written’ UK constitution, to which parliament and the reformed monarchy, or – in a republic – the president would be subject. The doctrine of the supremacy of the ‘Queen in Parliament’ would be replaced by that of popular sovereignty, expressing the aspiration that ultimate political authority would now formally reside with the people of the UK as a whole.

Andrew Blick is senior research fellow with Democratic Audit

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