Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

If the Queen Has No Reserve Powers Left, What Is the Modern Monarchy For?

Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

If the Queen Has No Reserve Powers Left, What Is the Modern Monarchy For?

Article excerpt


Ever since the English Civil War, which determined that the Monarch reigned subject to Parliament, the powers of the Monarchy have gradually been reduced. In each century, those powers have grown less, and this process of attrition has continued into modern times, so that Queen Elizabeth II has less power than she did on her accession in 1952. As this paper will show, all the important prerogative powers remaining in the hands of the Monarch in the UK have been removed or diluted in recent years. In particular, the power to choose a prime minister and the power to dissolve Parliament have been significantly curtailed. So, if the Queen has no reserve powers left, what is the modern Monarchy for?

This article goes on to discuss the answers traditionally given by Buckingham Palace about the role of the Monarchy by looking at four principal current aspects: the national Monarchy, the international Monarchy, the religious Monarchy, and the welfare or service Monarchy. To anticipate the remainder of our argument, we conclude that the loss of the Monarchy's "hard" constitutional functions has not necessarily depleted its standing; indeed, its acceptance by the political class may well depend on its powerlessness and complete neutrality. But for the general public, its popularity will depend on its wider roles, in particular the welfare Monarchy, and its contribution to celebrity culture, which may prove a double-edged sword.

I. The loss of the Monarch's reserve powers

In writing about the royal prerogative, it is customary to distinguish between those powers still remaining in the hands of the Monarch and those powers which are now exercised directly by government ministers. The majority of prerogative powers now come into the latter category. But the Queen still exercises some prerogative powers herself, known variously as her reserve powers, constitutional powers, or the personal prerogatives (a term first coined by Sir Ivor Jennings). (1) The most important powers are:

* to appoint and dismiss ministers, in particular the prime minister

* to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament

* to give Royal Assent to bills passed by Parliament.

The appointment of the prime minister

The appointment and dismissal of ministers is made on the advice of the prime minister. The last time a prime minister was dismissed was in 1834: few would maintain that this power could be exercised today. (2) As the Cabinet Manual records, "Historically, the Sovereign has made use of reserve powers to dismiss a prime minister or to make a personal choice of successor, although this was last used in 1834 and was regarded as having undermined the Sovereign" (the episode was William IV's dismissal of Lord Melbourne and replacement by Sir Robert Peel). (3)

The power to appoint a prime minister retained a discretionary element for longer, but that too is now gone. In 1931, King George V persuaded Ramsay MacDonald not to resign, but to head a National government dominated by the Conservatives after his Labour government had broken up. (4) A small discretionary element remained in the case of a mid-term change of prime minister (such as Churchill being succeeded by Eden in 1955, or Macmillan by Douglas-Home in 1963), with the Monarch taking advice from the outgoing prime minister and party grandees, in the days when Conservative party leaders were anointed rather than elected. But that ended when the political parties introduced elections for the party leader: the Conservatives introduced election of the leader by the parliamentary party in 1965, and the Conservative and Labour parties have since extended voting rights to all party members. (5)

When a party wins an overall majority in a general election, the result is clear and the Queen appoints the party's leader as prime minister. When the result is unclear because no party has an overall majority, the convention is that the Queen will appoint that person who is most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.