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Queen Elizabeth and Her Constitutional Monarchy

As she celebrates her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, you may ask what role does Queen Elizabeth play in British politics. Here’s a brief history lesson.

For much of Britain’s history, the monarch — not parliament — ruled the roost. For more than six centuries, successive kings and the odd queen were at the pinnacle of the political system and at the centre of what was recognised as the constitution.

The monarch controlled the army, made political appointments, called and dissolved the House of Commons whenever he or she liked and had all the high offices of state in his or her gift. From the 1540s onwards, the monarch even controlled the Church, appointing bishops and acquiring huge tracts of land which had formerly belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. In short, the monarch was No. 1.

However, during the 17th century, the Civil War resulted in parliament seizing some significant powers from the monarch. As a result, many of the powers to appoint government officials started to fall into the hands of politicians instead of the sovereign.

But unlike many other Western countries, Britain didn’t ditch its monarchy. Instead, the institution transformed into a constitutional monarchy. So, instead of exercising absolute political power, modern-day monarchs exercise their authority within the confines of the UK’s constitution – within certain limits set by accepted conventions of behaviour.

So what does Queen Elizabeth II do these days when it comes to governing Britain?

In practice the monarch performs several roles, but his or her power is largely ceremonial, such as:

  • Opening and dissolving parliament

  • Appointing the prime minister

  • Consenting to all bills passed by parliament (without this consent they can’t become law)

  • Appointing bishops and members of the House of Lords

These powers may seem pretty similar to those being exercised by monarchs way back in the 17th century before parliament took over. However, a crucial caveat applies to the power of the monarch: he or she must act with the advice of ministers. What this means, in effect, is that the monarch does as they’re told by the leaders of the government.

For example, the monarch dissolves parliament only when he or she’s been told to do it by the prime minister, who wants to call an election.

The power to appoint a prime minister is also illusory because, by constitutional convention, the monarch has to ask the leader of the party which holds a majority in parliament. The personal feelings or wishes of the monarch don’t come into it. The monarch’s job is to rubber-stamp what goes on in parliament.

Take the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and ex-Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for instance. It was widely rumoured that the Queen didn’t like Margaret Thatcher nor the policies that her radical, reforming government pursued. However, Her Majesty had to appoint Thatcher as prime minister three times because Thatcher kept winning elections. In reality, the monarch has no choice in who he or she appoints to the role of prime minister.

So what would happen if the monarch decided to disobey his or her ministers – the government – and appoint someone he or she liked to be prime minister or refused to give consent to bills passed by parliament? Well, the majority of MPs in parliament would possibly vote to either ask the monarch to abdicate or even abolish the institution of monarchy altogether.

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