Volume Five, December 2004

home » articles » Andreea Dijmarescu


It is an extraordinary fact, often overlooked, that Britain’s representative democracy evolved over a thousand years out of an all-encompassing monarchy underpinned by the religious notion of the divine right of kings. The monarchical shell remains intact but the inner workings have been taken over by party political leaders and civil servants. The shell itself has been the subject of critical comment, especially in recent years. This chapter analyses the modern monarchy and considers its still important functions together with the arguments of the critics.
The crown is the symbol of all executive authority. It is conferred on the monarch. The monarchy is the oldest secular institution in England and dates back at least to the ninth century. In Anglo-Saxon and Norman times, the formal power that the crown conferred – executive, legislative and judicial – was exercised personally by the monarch. The king had a court to advise him and, as the task of government became more demanding, so the various functions were exercised on the king’s behalf by other bodies. Those bodies now exercise powers independent of the control of the monarch, but they remain formally the instruments of the crown. The courts are Her Majesty’s courts and the government Her Majesty’s government. Parliament is summoned and prorogued by royal decree. Civil servants are crown appointees. Many powers – prerogative powers – are still exercised in the name of the crown, including the power to declare war. The monarch exercises few powers personally, but those powers remain important. However, the importance of the monarchy in the twentieth century derives more from what it stands for than from what it does.
The monarchy has been eclipsed as a major political institution not only by the sheer demands of governing a growing kingdom but also by changes in the popular perception of what form of government is legitimate. The policy making power exercised by a hereditary monarch has given way to the exercise of power by institutions deemed more representative. However, the monarchy has retained a claim to be a representative institution in one particular definition of the term. It is this claim that largely defines the activities of the monarch today.
The claim of the monarch to be ‘representative’ derives solely from the symbolic sense of the term. The monarch stands as a symbol. The strength of the monarch as symbol has been earned at the expense of exercising political powers. To symbolise the unity of the nation, the monarch has had to stand apart from the partisan fray. The monarch has also had to stand aloof from controversy. When controversy has struck – as during the abdication crisis in 1936 and during periods of marital rift between members of the royal family in the early 1990s – it has undermined support for the institution of monarchy and called into question its very purpose.
Two primary tasks can be identified when talking about the contemporary role of the monarchy. One is essentially a representative task: that is, symbolising the unity and traditional standards of the nation. The second is to fulfill certain political functions. The weakness of the monarch in being able to exercise independent decisions in the latter task underpins the strength of the monarchy in fulfilling the former. If the monarch was to engage in partisan activity, it would undermine her claim to symbolise the unity of the nation.
The functions fulfilled by the monarch under the first heading are several. The most important ones, which are going to be discussed in this subchapter, are: to represent the United Kingdom at home and abroad, to set standards of citizenship and family life, to unite people despite differences, to ensure that the armed forces owe allegiance to the Crown rather than to the government, to maintain the continuity of British traditions and to preserve a Christian morality. The extent to which these functions are actually fulfilled by the members of the royal family has become a matter of considerable debate.

Representing the UK at home and abroad
More than nine out of ten people questioned considered this to be very or quite important. As a symbolic function, it is a task normally ascribed to any head of state. Because no partisan connotations attach to her activities, the sovereign is able to engage the public commitment of citizens in a way that politicians cannot. When the president of the United States travels within the USA or goes abroad he does so both as head of state and as head of government; as head of government, he is a practising politician. When the Queen attends the Commonwealth prime ministers’ conference, she does so as symbolic head of the Commonwealth. The British government is represented by the prime minister, who is then able to engage in friendly or not so friendly discussions with fellow heads of government. The Queen stays above the fray. Similarly, at home, when opening a hospital or attending a major public event, the Queen is able to stand as a symbol of the nation. Invitations to the prime minister or leader of an opposition party to perform such tasks run the risk of attracting partisan objection.
At least two practical benefits are believed to derive from this non-partisan role, one political, the other economic. Like many of her predecessors, the Queen has amassed considerable experience by virtue of her monarchical longevity. In 1993, she celebrated her fortieth year on the throne. During those forty years, she had been served by nine separate prime ministers. Her experience, coupled with her neutrality, has meant that she has been able to offer prime ministers detached and informed observations. As an informed figure who offers no political challenge to the premier, she also offers an informed ear to an embattled premier who may feel he cannot unburden himself or herself to anyone else
The political benefit has also been seen in the international arena. By virtue of her experience and neutral position, the Queen enjoys the respect of international leaders, not least those gathered in the Commonwealth. During the 1980s, when relations between the British government of Margaret Thatcher and a number of Commonwealth governments were sometimes acrimonious (on the issue of sanctions against South Africa, for example), various Commonwealth heads attested to the unifying influence of the Queen. There were fears that, without her emollient influence, the Commonwealth would have broken up or that Britain would have been expelled from it.
In terms of economic benefit, some observers claim – though a number of critics dispute it – that the Queen and leading members of the royal family (such as the Prince of Wales) are good for British trade. The symbolism, the history and the pageantry that surrounds the monarchy serve to make the Queen and her immediate family a potent source of media and public interest abroad. Royal visits are often geared to export promotions, though critics claim the visits do not have the impact claimed or are not followed up adequately by the exporters themselves. Such visits, though, normally draw crowds that would not be attracted by a visiting politician or industrialist.

Setting standards of citizenship and family life
This in 1988 remained an important task in the eyes of all but a small percentage of those questioned. The Queen in particular and members of her family in general, are expected to lead by example in maintaining standards of citizenship and family life. As head of state and secular head of the established church, the Queen is expected to be above criticism. She applies herself assiduously to her duties; she lends her names to charities and voluntary organisations. Other members of her family also involve themselves in charitable activities. The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) is president of the Save the Children Fund. The Prince of Wales sponsors several charitable trusts.
During the 1980s, the Queen was held to epitomise family life in a way that others could both empathise with and emulate. (Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother – widow of George VI – was popularly portrayed as ‘the nation’s grandmother.’) Significantly, during the national miners’ strike in 1984, the wives of striking miners petitioned the Queen for help. However, the extent to which this role is fulfilled by the Queen has been subject of debate in the 1990s. By 1992, the Queen was head of a family that had not sustained one successful lasting marriage. This has proved an important element in contemporary debate about the role and future of the British monarchy.

Uniting people despite differences
The monarch symbolises the unity of the nation. The Queen is head of state. Various public functions are carried out in the name of the crown, notably public prosecutions, and as the person in whom the crown vests the monarch’s name attaches to the various organs of state: the government, courts and armed services. The crown, in effect, substitutes for the concept of state and the monarch serves as the personification of the crown. Nowhere is the extent of this personification better demonstrated than on British postage stamps. These are unique: British stamps alone carry the monarch’s head with no mention of the name of the nation. The monarch provides a clear, living focal point for the expression of national unity, national pride and, if necessary, national grief.
The effectiveness of this role is facilitated by the monarch transcending political activity. Citizens’ loyalties can flow to the crown without being hindered by political considerations. The Queen’s role as head of the Commonwealth may also have helped create a ‘colour-blind’ monarchy, in which the welfare of everyone, regardless of race, is taken seriously. At different points this century, members of the royal family have also shown concern for the economically underprivileged and those who have lost their livelihoods – raging from Edward VIII’s “something must be done” remark in the 1930s to the Prince of Wales’s attempt to help disadvantaged youths in the 1980s and 1990s. The extend to which this role is effectively fulfilled, though, does not go unquestioned. Critics claim that the royal family occupies a socially privileged position that symbolises not so much unity but rather the social divisions of the nation; and they also draw attention to the fact that the royal family itself employs few black workers or employees from other minority groups.
Allegiance of the armed forces
Ensuring that the armed forces give their allegiance to the crown rather than to the government is an important function, though it is interesting – and perhaps surprising – that respondents to the 1988 poll accorded it the importance they did; more than 75 per cent judged it to be very or quite important, ahead of maintaining continuity of tradition and preserving a Christian morality. The armed forces are in the service of the crown. Loyalty is owed to the crown, not least by virtue of the oath taken by all members of the armed forces. It is also encouraged by the close links maintained by the royal family with the various services. Members of the royal family have variously served in (usually) the Royal Navy or the Army. Most hold ceremonial ranks, such as colonel-in-chief of a particular regiment. The Queen takes a particular interest in military matters, including awards for service.
Such a relationship helps emphasise the apolitical role of the military and also provides a barrier should the military, or more probably sections of it, seek to overthrow or threaten the elected government. In the 1970s, there were rumours – retailed in the press and on a number of television programmes – that a number of retired officers favoured a coup to topple the Labour government returned in 1974. In the event of an attempted military coup, the prevailing view – though not universally shared – is that the monarch would serve as the most effective bulwark to its realisation, the Queen being in a position to exercise the same role as that of King Juan Carlos of Spain in 1981, when he forestalled a right-wing military take-over by making a public appeal to the loyalty of his army commanders.

Maintaining continuity of British traditions
The monarch symbolises continuity of affairs of state. Many of the duties traditionally performed by her have symbolic relevance: for example, the state opening of parliament and – important in the context of the previous point – the annual ceremony of trooping the colour. Other traditions serve a psychological function. The awarding of honours and royal garden parties are viewed by critics as socially elitist but by supporters as helping break down the social barriers, rewarding those – regardless of class – who have contributed significantly to the community. Hierarchy of awards, on this argument, is deemed less important than the effect on the recipients. The award of an MBE to a local health worker may mean far more to the recipient, who may never have expected it, than the award of a knighthood to an MP after twenty years’ service in Parliament who may regard such an award as a natural reward for services rendered. Investiture is often as important as the actual award. To some it is a rather tiresome ordeal but to most a moving and memorable occasion. Each year 30,000 people are invited to royal garden parties. Few decline the invitation.

Preserving a Christian morality
The Queen is supreme governor of the Church of England and the links between the monarch and the church are close and visible. The monarch is required by the Act of Settlement of 1701 to “join in communion with the Church of England as by law established.” After the monarch, the most significant participant in a coronation ceremony is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who both crowns and anoints the new sovereign. Bishops are appointed by the crown, albeit acting on service. National celebrations led by the Queen will usually entail a religious service, more often than not held in St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. The Queen is known to take seriously her religious duties and is looked to, largely by way of example, as a symbol of a basically Christian morality.
Preserving what are deemed to be high standards of Christian morality has been important since the nineteenth century, though not necessarily much before that: earlier monarchs were keener to protect the Church of England than they were to practise its morality. The attempts to preserve that morality this century have resulted in some notable sacrifices. Edward VIII was forced to abdicate in 1936 because of his insistence on marrying a twice-divorced woman. In 1955 the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend because he was a divorcée. She announced that “mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others.”1 However, two decades later, with attitudes having changed to some degree, the Princess herself was divorced. Her divorce was followed by that of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips and by the separations of the Duke and Duchess of York and the Prince and Princess of Wales. Though attitudes towards divorce may have changed, divorces and separations in the royal family have none the less raised questions about the royal family’s capacity to maintain a Christian morality.

Exercise of formal powers
Underpinning the monarch’s capacity to fulfill a unifying role, and indeed underpinning the other functions deemed important, is the fact that she stands above and beyond the arena of partisan debate. This also affects significantly the monarch’s other primary task: that of fulfilling her formal duties as head of state. Major powers still remain with the monarch: The choice of prime minister, the right to withhold assent to legislation, the dispensing of ministerial portfolios, the dissolution of Parliament, and the declaring of war being among the most obvious. All such prerogative powers are now, as far as possible, governed by convention. By convention, the monarch assents to all legislation passed by the two Houses of Parliament; by convention, she calls the leader of the party with an overall majority in parliament to form a government. Where there is no clear convention governing what to do, the Queen acts in accordance with precedent (where one exists) and, where a choice is involved, acts on advice. By thus avoiding any personal choice – and being seen not to exercise any personal choice – in exercise of powers vested in the crown, the monarch is able to remain ‘above politics.’ Hence the characterization of the monarch as enjoying strength through weakness. The denial of personal discretion in the exercise of inherently political powers strengthens the capacity of the monarch to fulfill a representative – that is, symbolic – role. However, it could be argued that the exercise of prerogative powers is, by virtue of the absence of personal choice, a waste of time and something of which the monarch could be shorn. There are two principal reasons why the powers remain vested in the sovereign.
Firstly, the combination of the symbolic role and the powers vested in the crown enable the monarch to stand as a constitutional safeguard. A similar role is ascribed to the House of Lords, but that is principally in a situation where the government seeks to extend its own life without recourse to an election. But if the government sought to dispense with Parliament, or, to return to an earlier example, if there was a military coup the House of Lords could not effectively act to prevent it. It is also doubtful if a Speaker vested with formal powers could do much to prevent it. The monarch could. As head of state and as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the monarch could deny both legitimacy and support to the insurgents. This may or may not be sufficient ultimately to prevent a coup, but the monarch is at least in a stronger position than other bodies to prevent it succeeding. Thus, ironically, the unelected monarch – successor to earlier monarchs who tried to dispense with Parliament – serves as an ultimate protector of the political institutions which have displaced the monarchy as the governing authority.
Secondly, retention of the prerogative powers serves as a reminder to ministers and other servants of the crown that they owe a responsibility to a higher authority than a transient politician. Ministers are Her Majesty’s ministers; the prime minister is invited by the sovereign to form an administration. The responsibility may, on the face of it, appear purely formal. However, though the monarch is precluded from calling the prime minister (or any minister) to account publicly, she is able to require a private explanation. In The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot offered his classic definition of the monarch’s power as being “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”2 The Queen is known to be an assiduous reader of her official papers – she receives all Cabinet papers and important Foreign Office communications – and is known often to question the prime minister closely and, on other occasions, the relevant departmental ministers. More significantly, there are occasions when the Queen is believed to have made her displeasure known. In 1986, for example, it was reported – though not confirmed – that the Queen was distressed at the strain that the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was placing on the Commonwealth as a result of her refusal to endorse sanctions against South Africa; she was also reported to have expressed her displeasure in 1983 following the US invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth country (Cannon and Griffith, 620). Indeed, relations between the Queen and the first female prime minister were rumoured to be correct rather than close. Mostly, the Queen is a considerable help rather than a hindrance to prime ministers – offering a private and experienced audience – but she none the less serves as a reminder of their responsibility to some other authority than political party. She also stands as the ultimate deterrent. Though her actions are governed predominantly by convention, she still has the legal right to exercise them. When the government of John Major sought a vote of confidence from the House of Commons on 23 July 1993 (following the loss of an important vote the previous evening), the prime minister made it clear that in the event of the government losing the vote, the consequence would be a general election. By convention, a government losing the vote of confidence either resigns or requests a dissolution. However, the government took the precaution of checking in advance that the Queen would agree to a dissolution.
The present Queen, who has already dealt with six prime ministers, will by the end of her reign have accumulated a formidable quantity of information with which to buttress her arguments. But her power to persuade rests only on her personality, and the social power of her surroundings. However much the prime minister may nod, bow and hover, he knows that he is the embodiment of parliament’s power, and that in theory if a Bill were passed for the execution of the Queen, the Queen would have to sign it.
The elaborate pretence that the Queen is the real ruler of Britain still decorates the machinery of British government. Politicians, particularly when harassed, like to refer to Her Majesty’s government in tones of special reverence, as if it was nothing to do with them. The charade reaches its climax in the state opening of parliament each year, when the Queen sits on her throne in the House of Lords, surrounded by her peers, and summons the Commons to hear the Queen’s Speech, written by the Prime Minister, in which she solemnly talks about ‘my government,’ as if presenting her own ideas. This grand deception, it is often argued, serves an important psycho-political purpose as a ritual of unification and continuity: after a ferocious general election and painful change of government, the two leaders are compelled to walk side-by-side down the aisle, followed by the rival ministers and ex-ministers, as loyal subjects of her majesty.
Various functions are thus fulfilled by the monarch and other members of the royal family. There has tended to be a high level of support for the monarchy and popular satisfaction with the way those functions are carried out. However, a high level of support for the institution of monarchy has not been constant in British political history. It dropped during the reign of Queen Victoria, when she hid herself away from public gaze following the death of Prince Albert. It dropped again in the 1930s as a result of the abdication crisis, which divided the nation. It increased significantly during the Second World War because of the conduct of the royal family and remained high in the post-war decades. It dipped again at the beginning of the 1990s; 1992 was described by the Queen as her annus horribilis (horrible year). The monarchy was no longer the revered institution of the preceding decades and its future became an issue of topical debate. Even at times of high popular support, it has never been free of criticism. In recent years, the criticisms have been fuelled by the activities of various members of the royal family. But these will be dealt with in another article.

1 Ben Pimlott, The Queen. A Biography of Elizabeth II (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 86.
2 Anthony Jay, Elizabeth R. The Role of the Monarchy Today (London: BCA by arrangement with the BBC Books, 1992), 56.

 Webmasters: Neic Rãzvan and Crăciun Bogdan