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The Prerogatives of the Crown


“A sovereign must constantly heed the will of his people and at the same time care for the poor and humble; he is the servant of the law, and the mainstay of social peace and security.”

— King Albert I of the Belgians

The Royal Prerogative is the powers of decree that the British monarch may use without consent of Parliament. They are wide ranging and used frequently.

This is, of course, in theory. In practice, the Royal Prerogative is exercised only on the advice of the Government, which is held to account to Parliament for the advice it gives to the monarch. The following will describe the established prerogative powers and I will attempt to explain why they are held by the Crown. I’ll start with the easiest ones first.

The monarch issues passports, creates royal charters, mints coinage, authorises the mining of precious metals, is the State guardian of orphans, awards the allocation of treasure, bestows copyrights and franchises, and other similar functions. The monarch also has the power of Mercy (pardoning of criminals), can requisition ships for State use, can prohibit aliens from leaving UK territory, and can permit hearings before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Officially, these are done by the monarch without consent of Parliament. This is, however, only half the story. The Queen, in order keep her job, only exercises these prerogatives on the advice of her ministers. For example, the prerogatives relating to passports, Mercy, and restraining aliens are exercised on the advice of the Home Secretary (Britain’s Minister of the Interior), and decisions regarding the Judicial Committee would be under the remit of the Lord Chancellor. The Home Secretary, being an MP in the House of Commons, is accountable to Parliament – Parliament can express displeasure at the advice the Home Secretary gave the Queen and censure him as it sees fit.

The monarch grants Royal Assent to Bills before Parliament. Withholding Assent is essentially a legislative veto.

Theoretically powerful, this hasn’t actually been used in over three hundred years and is principally a formality. The last time was by Queen Anne in 1708, against the Scottish Militia Bill. It is highly unlikely the monarch would ever find cause to reactivate this prerogative, unless the government sought to pass a bill which would attack the democratic core of the constitution.

The monarch signs treaties, declares a state of emergency, and declares war and peace.

Again, half the story. Since the 1920s the Ponsonby Rule has meant that Parliament has seen all treaties before they are signed. It is utterly inconceivable that the monarch could exercise these particular prerogatives if Parliament were to object to them. As before, she can only use them on ministerial advice, who are subject to Parliament. One of the last acts of the Brown Ministry was to transform the Ponsonby Rule from a convention to an explicit legal requirement, and gives Parliament the express right to vote down treaties. This is a welcome development.

On war and peace powers, again, the monarch cannot use them without the government’s advice. And in turn, no government would dare go ahead with a military campaign in the face of Parliamentary opposition. Parliament’s absolute power here is obvious, even if it isn’t formally written. In 2003, Parliament debates and voted on whether British forces should participate in the invasion of Iraq. The House of Commons took a vote and narrowly approved the action.

Imagine that the vote had gone the other way. In theory, the government could have advised the Queen to declare war anyway, but in reality the most likely outcome if they had tried it would have been a successful no-confidence motion against the government.

The monarch appoints ministers, judges, peers, bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England.

The monarch only appoints them on the advice of her ministers. To do otherwise would have the government resign and the Queen unable to raise an alternative one from the House of Commons. Again, the government is accountable to Parliament and so must ensure it doesn’t take it for granted.

The monarch creates and confers knighthoods and other honours.

Honours are a mixture – the lower degrees of the orders of knighthood tend to be dispensed on the advice of the government, as a means of honouring people who do service for the country (and the breadth of fields honoured is, well, broad). The higher degrees however, including the most elite Orders – such as the Garter, Thistle and the Bath – are purely in the gift of the monarch without input from the government.

The monarch is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Crown.

This is chiefly a symbolic function, the deployment of troops decided by the government, but the Queen is known to take a deep personal interest in the welfare of servicemen and meets regularly with senior commanding officers. The servicemen in the Armed Forces all pledge allegiance to the monarch – not the government. A great many British servicemen take pride in this distinction and their direct connection to the Crown is taken seriously as a symbol of the Forces’ non-intervention in politics.

The monarch legislates by Order in Council/letters patent.

The refers to legislative decrees carried out by the Privy Council. Again, while in theory the Privy Council’s actions are not subject to Parliament, in reality the government’s control of the Council ensures that Parliament in turn holds its actions responsible.

The monarch summons, prorogues, and dissolves Parliament, and appoints the Prime Minister.

Here the importance of the monarch as impartial constitutional umpire starts to become more apparent.

In many ways the two-party system of the past 70 years has made the need for such impartiality less clear by limiting the need for royal oversight.  But in the periods of multi-party tension the British monarch has often played a key role.  Queen Victoria and George V sought to bring the parties together to discuss Irish Home Rule; Victoria again sought to bridge the divides over Irish disestablishment in 1869 and in 1884 over the Reform Act.

Ironically, reform of the electoral system in Westminster could see a resurgence in the monarch’s role.  We can look to examples in Europe for the key role monarchies in Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium have in facilitating cross-party agreement.

For example, the Queen rarely refuses a dissolution of Parliament because the government, comprised of one party, governs alone.  Refusing a dissolution would handicap the Queen’s government as the Opposition would not have sufficient seats in the Commons to sustain themselves.  Opposition to a dissolution here would be lunacy.

Right now of course, Britain is experiencing its first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s.  The negotiations between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiating teams in May 2010 were carried out by and large without the monarch’s involvement.

There’s a lot of what-ifs about the coalition, though.  What if the talks had collapsed, and Cameron was installed a PM of a minority government?  What if Brown had refused to quit Downing Street?  Theoretically, he could have asked the Queen for another dissolution immediately, but the Queen would have been duty-bound to refuse it even if Brown had even thought about it.  The fact that the Queen has not had cause to use her Prerogatives much isn’t a sign that they’re defunct, but that Government and Opposition have tended to act constitutionally.

There are older examples and other theoretical cases the monarch would be crucial in deciding.  For example, if the PM were to lose the support of their party or cabinet, then the PM would not be automatically granted a dissolution.  An election requires political camps to close ranks in order to pursue votes; calling an election would in effect be used by the PM as a means of stifling parliamentary accountability.  For example, Harold Wilson threatened to call an election in 1969 over highly controversial trade union reform, and Major did the same over rebels in his party opposed to the Maastricht Treaty.  In 1990, having performed less than expected in her party’s leadership election, Thatcher considered going on to the second round and calling a General Election if she lost.  The Queen would have had no choice but to disappoint her.

Sources:

Bogdanor, V (1997) The Monarchy and the Constitution, Oxford University Press

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