The Royal Family are a staple of British public life. Whilst many are familiar with the various exploits of the younger Windsors, the Queen’s constitutional role is less well-known.
Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy. This means that whilst the monarch fills the role of the Head of State, the power to create and pass legislation rests with an elected Parliament, which represents the interests of the people. This means the monarch cannot vote or stand for election.
Historically, the monarch played a greater role in the running of the country. Famously, King Henry VIII split from the Catholic church in 1534. Whilst Henry was able to fundamentally change the relationship between the monarch and the church, just over a century later in 1649, a commoner, Oliver Cromwell, led a short republic in Britain, known as the Commonwealth or Interregnum.
By the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the Catholic King James II was ousted by the English political elite and replaced by William III, a settlement emerged by which Britain had a monarch, but their political influence was limited by MPs in the House of Commons. This is the foundation for modern constitutional monarchy, in which the Queen does not hold an executive role, but plays an important part in public life.
Duties and Political Inﬂuence
The Queen’s role in Parliament is explicitly ceremonial. This includes opening and closing (proroguing) each parliamentary session. During the state opening of parliament, the Queen gives a speech in the House of Lords outlining the agenda of the sitting government for the given session. The speech is written by the government, not the Queen. The Queen’s speech is the only time when the three constituent aspects of government – the Queen, Lords, and Commons, meet.
That said, he Queen’s role regarding legislation and the formation of a government remains pivotal. The Queen must formally appoint a Prime Minister after a general election. Usually, this is done on the Prime Minister’s basis to command the confidence of the House of Commons, that is, hold a majority. In addition, before it can become law, the Queen must formally assent to every bill passed in parliament. Assent has not been refused since 1707.
Whilst the Monarch today has no direct influence upon government policy or law, and must remain neutral in political proceedings, the Queen regularly meets with the Prime Minister. Today, an audience is held once a week, during which time she can issue both warnings and advice. The Queen also has regular sessions with the Scottish First Minister, and, less frequently, the First Minster for Wales.
National Character and Controversy
Outside of any constitutional duties, the Monarch has always been a focus for national identity, and formed an important part of how the nation is regarded both by its own citizens, and by other countries. For example, foreign leaders are often hosted by the Queen during state visits. Royal weddings, royal births, and royal scandals have an unrivalled power to capture the imagination of the public. Indeed, it is the monarchy’s unique place in both British public life and history that makes it a magnet for tourists. It is estimated that the monarchy generates over £500 million a year through tourism.
However, calls have been made to reform the monarchy and its constitutional role. In particular, republicans have campaigned to abolish the monarchy all together on the basis a hereditary position of such influence is incompatible with a democratic political system, as is the financial burden on the taxpayer.
Hence, the principal question that concerns the monarchy today is whether it, with all its historical baggage, can be reconciled with a modern democracy, or indeed, should it?
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