Home > Monarchy, UK Constitution > The Role of the British Monarchy

The Role of the British Monarchy

“Parliamentary monarchy fulfils a role which an elected president never can. It formally limits the politicians’ thirst for power because with it the supreme office of the state is occupied once and for all.”

— Max Weber

The monarchy is most visibly a ceremonial, representative office, but the monarch carries out real day-to-day duties too. Above all, the monarch is meant to show impartiality in all she does, not only for symbolic purposes but also to ensure she can carry out her constitutional duties to the contentment of all political actors.

To borrow some of Walter Bagehot’s terminology, the British constitution is divided into ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ elements.  The efficient side makes and enforces the decisions that affect the lives of the governed, that is, the Commons and the Executive.  The dignified side expresses national identity and imparts the symbols of authority onto the efficient side.  This can be enormously beneficial to, say, a reforming, radical government, as to cloak itself in the dignified element can help to reconcile some to its aims and to render legitimacy to its policies.

It would not be appropriate for the monarch to get involved in the ‘efficient’ element as it would not be tolerated and fly in the face of democratic principles. The monarch would cease to represent the country and start to be associated only with those whose interests it would start to promote.

The monarchy is at the heart of British identity, and it’s difficult to imagine what could ever replace it (there’s an ongoing debate in the UK right now about what ‘Britishness’ is, and thus far nobody can come up with anything much beyond the monarchy and woolly ideas about freedoms and so on).

So in the absence of anything like a revolution or a war of independence to act as Britain’s symbol and narrative, the monarch, a person, is that symbol.  This brings some distinct advantages.  A concept as a symbol can be misinterpreted or misunderstood, or disagreed with.  A person is a concrete fact.  Also, by making the ‘efficient’ element constitutionally subordinate to this symbol and making all its actions done in the name of the monarch, it serves to humanise power.

In the absence of a major historical, nation-forming event, Britain’s symbol is a person. This carries with it some distinct advantages. It’s much easier to have allegiance to a person than a concept. It also humanises power by stressing that political power is subordinate to the national symbol, and all government actions are done in that symbol’s name.

Electing the Head of State would not change the role much from what the monarch does already (assuming Britain would remain a parliamentary state, not presidential), and those who complain about the dinners, receptions, visits and openings that the monarch has to attend fail to explain what a President would do differently.

“Monarchy is often criticised for being a lottery, but so is an elected presidency. Britain last had to play the regal lottery in 1952, when it won handsomely. It has not had to gamble again since then. In the past 45 years Ireland has had to vote in seven presidents, few of them memorable, most of them just grazing.”

— William Shawcross

To claim that it’s a ‘democratic’ right of the people to elect their Head of State ignores two things.  Firstly, presidential candidates would require huge resources to sustain a winning campaign, implying either great personal wealth (and hence, I would argue, not being of the type of ‘people’ that most republicans want to see as president) or being dependent upon political parties for their success.  Secondly, it ignores the fact that almost all parliamentary republics do not elect their presidents directly – their parliaments choose them.  The people have no direct involvement.

If we elected the Head of State, by and large, the winning candidate would represent a political party.  Even if they renounce party labels upon winning office, like the German Bundespräsident does, their past records as private citizens and as politicians cannot be rubbed out, and there will always be question marks about their impartiality.  The Queen, however, has no political history, and there is only the vaguest idea of what her political views are.

Inheritance also has an advantage in endowing upon the monarch a high degree of experience; serving for life, the Queen has seen many situations, met many people, encountered many similar problems and predicaments. Being the heir, the Prince of Wales has been the Queen’s understudy for many decades and is the most qualified to jump in and continue the role effectively upon the Demise of the Crown; and of course Prince William is ready to take his place when the time comes. A President, however, will be elected out of the blue and will be highly unlikely to have much experience of the role, regardless of the other positive qualities they may have. This will repeat itself every few years, just as the incumbent is getting to grips with the role; and some may use the time to focus on re-election than providing a service to the public.

This benefit extends to the Queen’s heirs – the Prince of Wales can be accused of ‘getting involved’ in some issues, but even the examples that can be found relate to the broadest of broad policy issues. Moreover, when he becomes King, he will be constitutionally bound to clamp up even further. He has also been heir to the Throne for over 60 years and is kept well involved with ministerial activities. When he becomes King, he’ll require little time to get to grips with it.

Over at The Lure, another WordPress Blog I stumbled upon, the poster has summed up better than I could why monarchy works out better as Head of State:

“First, in an hereditary monarchy, it is easy to train princes, from birth, to be kings. If the training is at all competent, they acquire both the habits of statesmanship and the requisite propositional knowledge to rule wisely. Maybe the training won’t be competent. But, in a representative system, no one even makes a serious attempt at such training. We are governed by amateurs.

The fact that kings are trained – even competently trained – to rule wisely doesn’t mean that they will do so. They might have all sorts of incentives to pursue policies detrimental to their subjects. Maybe. But (a) they aren’t as beholden to the people as representatives (and so needn’t succumb to rash popular pressures), (b) there is more of an opportunity to (from birth) inculcate in them a sense of civic duty and (c) they are materially secure. The second potential advantage of a hereditary monarchy, then, is that it is easier both to normalize an hereditary monarch into caring primarily about the good of his country, and to remove the main incentives – money and power – to govern poorly. (On the other hand, it is more difficult to counter another incentive – to be an historical figure of note – which might e.g. incline monarchs towards militarism.)

In short, it’s arguable that a monarch is more likely both to have the capacity to be a better ruler than a representative and to realize that capacity. So the two “potentially big advantages” monarchism has over representative systems imply that, potentially, monarchies are much better at promoting societal flourishing than their representative counterparts.”

As we all know, politicians spend half of their political life fighting for election, and then the other half of it fighting for re-election. They disparage the record of the predecessors and focus on putting their successors in impossible situations with scorched earth tactics. Admittedly I am being a bit cruel here. Politicians have their rightful place as supreme lawmakers in Parliament and representatives of the people, but their presence in the position of Head of State isn’t inherently desirable.

This is particularly imperative when we consider the actual powers normally conferred upon a Head of State. The function of the Head of State in a parliamentary state is to act as the final arbiter of constitutional questions in the last resort.  In order to best serve democratic principles and to ensure the broadest possible consensus in what the constitution says and does, the Head of State is and ought to be held at one remove from the hustle and bustle of party politics.  The monarchy is best placed to execute this role in Britain, not least for the Queen’s longevity on the Throne, but also because if she calls it wrong she could be without a job very quickly.  The risk with a president is that they will make a political decision to benefit their party, knowing that they cannot be removed from power unless they are defeated in an election.

A good example would be the President of Portugal, Jorge Fernando Branco de Sampaio, who in 2004 not only refused to grant new elections following the resignation of the Prime Minister, but infuriated most of the country when he appointed Pedro Santana Lopes as Prime Minister – who was sacked within 5 months for being, well, the Portuguese equivalent of Dan Quayle.  Sampaio was otherwise a popular President, but his handling of the situation tarnished the reputation of his office.

The monarch is also best placed to act as the final guarantor of the constitution.  This happens only exceptionally, as ministers tend to act responsibly, but there have been occasions when it could theoretically have been put to the test.  For example, if the government sought to bring in reforms that would subvert the democratic basis of the constitution, such as stipulating that ministers cease to be accountable to Parliament, or by gerrymandering the electoral system to benefit one party.  Indeed, it could be said in many occasions unconstitutional acts don’t happen because the ministers realise that the monarch would be obliged to decline the request in the interests of impartiality.

This impartiality is borne of the monarchy being set above and apart from the day-to-day political actors.  It’s for the same reason that most British people recoil in fear and suspicion at the proposal of elected judges or police officers – it flies in the face of our concept of impartial execution of power.

The monarch is bound to accept all other ministerial advice.  If she didn’t, the likely consequence would be the resignation of the government.  The monarch would then be unable to find an alternative government (as presumably the outgoing government had a majority) and would be forced to call an election.  The politicisation of the monarchy in this way would likely see the return of a hostile Parliament highly critical of the monarch’s actions and likely lead to a swift abolition of the Crown.

Just because she’s bound to follow ministerial advice, however, doesn’t make the monarch a mere nonentity in this area.  In Bagehot’s famous turn of phrase, the monarch has ‘the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn’.  Outright opposition to the will of an elected government would never work, but the monarch has a more useful role in acting as a sounding board, a conscience for the minister when considering his pet projects.  The monarch has the right to speak her mind to the minister in absolute confidentiality, but if the minister’s mind is made up, the monarch must concede.

The Queen’s life looks luxurious but it is certainly not idle.  Her ‘red boxes’ are as plentiful as any minister.  After all, her success as the government’s conscience, her success as Head of the Commonwealth, her success as constitutional umpire and her success as the national symbol requires her to be as on the ball as possible.  She receives diplomatic communiqués and some reports on domestic security before the Prime Minister does. If you’re interested, check out the following link on the website of the British Monarchy.


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

Categories: Monarchy, UK Constitution
  1. June 25, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Interesting post – raised some ideas I had not previously considered. Still not fully persuaded though 🙂

    • June 25, 2010 at 9:07 am

      Thanks Richard. Would you care to elaborate on what remains unconvincing to you, or what you’d need to be more convinced?

      It’s not so I can seek to ‘convert’ you 😀 more that I would favour making the post as ‘complete’ as possible.

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