Monarch and Monarchy: The Queen at Seventy

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On the twenty-first of this month the Queen will celebrate her seventieth birthday. She has requested that there be no special celebrations and this request reflects the difficulties now encompassing the British Monarchy. At no time since the 1780s or possibly 1936 has the Royal Family faced more criticism and more problems than now and this inevitably reflects on the Monarchy. The Labour party talks vaguely about 'modernising' the Monarchy, whatever that means, and about 'reforming' the House of Lords, something which to many observers heralds an attack on the hereditary basis of the Crown itself. Part of this may be traced to a general public dissatisfaction with politics: people are bored with, and therefore disillusioned by, seventeen years of unbroken Conservative government. Also the United Kingdom is reaping the harvest of the spirit of egalitarianism - the 'I'm as good as you are' mentality - often associated, by Englishmen in the past, with America. This has lead to a degree of cynicism.

Again, it is in the nature of politicians and political commentators to exalt the office of Prime Minister This leads to talk of the Prime Minister's dissolving Parliament (something he cannot do), of 'his government' and 'his ministers'. It is now common for the Prime Minister to be referred to in an almost presidential role. Whereas in the past it was 'Her Majesty's Government believe that . . .', it is now 'The Prime Minister believes . . .'. With this type of talk many wonder what is the Queen's role. Also, of course, the average Briton's understanding of his own constitution is pathetically limited. Finally, Christian morals, family life and belief are collapsing at an unprecedented rate and this collapse, combined with cynicism and boredom, has meant that those who claim to speak for 'the people' feel more free to criticise traditional institutions like the Monarchy than ever before. The age of deference is over.

In addition, there is much confusion of terms whenever people, even intelligent people, discuss 'the Monarchy'. Do they mean the Monarchy as part of the executive of the British Constitution? Do they mean the work and character of Elizabeth II as the 'holder' of that 'office'? Do they mean the Royal Family? While the first two are inherently joined, like Siamese twins, the third - the Royal Family - is a fairly recent creation in British history. The monarchy and the personality of the monarch can be divided for the sake of discussion although in practice this is impossible. (The same is true of any executive, whether it is the Queen, the American President, the Pope or the President of the French Republic.) Within constitutional bounds the office is, to a surprising degree, what the holder makes of it. It is essential to distinguish among the three.

The government of the United Kingdom is Her Majesty's Government: this is not a mere formality but an expression of a constitutional truth. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others in the Government only enter the executive because they hold office under the Queen's mandate, not because they are Members of Parliament. To understand the Queen's role in government one must always remember first that she is part of the executive: what her role, duty, powers and responsibilities are therein form the basis for our understanding of her as a Constitutional Monarch.

The latest academic study of the Queen as executive is Vernon Bogdanor's The Monarchy and the Constitution (Clarendon Press, Oxford. [pounds]19.99. 0-19-827769-5). Vernon Bogdanor's examination of the British Monarchy is the first serious study of the most ancient part of the British Constitution since Frank Hardie's Political Influence of the British Monarchy 1868-1952. Hardie's book cannot compare in depth of understanding and has been woefully out of date for years. Mr. Bogdanor, a Reader in Government and a Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, excels in his study of the Monarchy as a functioning part of the modern constitution. …