A list of some of the frequently asked questions about the British monarchy.
- What role does monarchy perform?
- What does the monarch do as head of state?
- What does the monarch do as head of the nation?
- Aren’t all European monarchies bound to become republics?
- Won’t the Commonwealth monarchies become republics?
- If Scotland becomes independent, what will happen to the monarchy?
- What present factors affect whether the UK will become a republic?
- Could Charles III abdicate to allow his son (Prince William), to succeed?
- Don’t other European monarchs abdicate on a regular basis?
Monarchy provides automatically a non-partisan head of state, thus avoiding politicisation of the highest office of the state. ‘A constitutional monarchy settles beyond argument the crucial question of who is to be the head of state, and it places the position of the head of state beyond political competition. In doing so, it alone can represent the whole nation in a satisfying way; it alone is in a position to interpret the nation to itself.’ (Bogdanor Monarchy and the Constitution 1995: 301).
European monarchs no longer have any real political power: the Monarch reigns but does not rule. The constitutional role as head of state has become to support liberal democracy and to help legitimise the political process. The ceremonial role as head of the nation has been to support public service, to recognise and reward excellence, to speak to and for the nation in times of celebration and in times of crisis.
What does the monarch do as head of state?
As head of state the monarch has an impressive array of formal powers (see pp.16-18 of Unit report, The Queen at 90). The Monarch appoints the Prime Minister and all the other Ministers, summons parliament, and gives royal assent to the laws passed by parliament. He or she receives incoming and outgoing ambassadors, and visiting heads of state, and makes state visits abroad. The monarch is Commander in Chief of the armed forces, and formally makes the appointment to many senior positions, such as the judges.
Bagehot in 1867 said the monarch had the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn the government of the day. But overall the King is a constitutional monarch, and everything he does is on the advice of the government of the day.
What does the monarch do as head of the nation?
Personifying an idea of government beyond politics, the monarchy’s political impartiality is the key: ‘The nation is divided into parties, but the Crown is of no party.’ (Bagehot The English Constitution 1867: Chapter II). This enables the monarch to represent the nation at times of national celebration and national mourning, and to speak for and to the nation at times of crisis. For example, all the European monarchs gave a special broadcast at the start of the Covid pandemic to reassure their people, and to support their governments. And all the European monarchs broadcast a Christmas or New Year message.
The monarchy represents stability and continuity in times of change. The royal family exemplifies the national family, and different age groups in the population can relate to different generations in the royal family, old or young.
Through royal visits and award ceremonies the monarchy recognises and draws attention to public service and achievement in all walks of life. The Queen was Patron of hundreds of charities and voluntary organisations, as are other royals. Through its patronage and support the monarchy nurtures voluntary action and civil society, reaching parts of the population beyond the reach of politicians. As Prince of Wales, the King established the Prince’s Trust and actively oversaw the work of many charitable initiatives. As King he will be required to relinquish direct, ‘hands on’ connections to be sure to preserve his public impartiality, especially over financial issues.
There are eight constitutional monarchies in western Europe. Although the number of European monarchies has declined, it does not follow that the remainder will inevitably become republics. Modern monarchies already possess most of the attributes of republics and are perfectly compatible with democracy. According to the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, in their 2020 survey seven out of the top ten democracies in the world were monarchies.
Monarchies have survived through commanding the support of their governments, and their people. The most formal way of testing support for the monarchy is through a referendum. Since 1900 there have been 18 referendums on the monarchy in Europe. In Italy and Greece the result went against the monarchy; in Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Spain it went in favour.
A less formal test of popular support is through opinion polls, which regularly show that between 50 and 80 per cent of people wish to retain the monarchy. Support has been highest in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK, at 60 to 80 per cent; and a little lower in Belgium, Spain and Sweden, at around 60 per cent, with Spain recently lower still. While continuous polling support can be reassuring, such polling charts essentially volatile popular feeling. For a detailed analysis of polling about the monarchy, see Roger Mortimore in Chapter 9 of Hazell and Morris, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy.
The UK sovereign is head of state in fourteen Commonwealth states (the ‘realms’) in addition to the UK. It has been anticipated that a number will review their constitutional status upon the death of Elizabeth II. This is a decision that the monarchy and successive British governments have made clear is entirely a matter for the countries themselves to determine.
Some former monarchies became republics a while ago – for example, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ghana, South Africa and the Gambia. Australia and Jamaica have considered becoming republics. Some states have held unsuccessful referendums to change – Australia, Tuvalu, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Australia’s 1999 referendum was defeated by 45:55. The co-founder of the Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull, was Prime Minister from 2015 to 2018. In 2016 he said the issue would be raised again after the Queen’s death; but republicans would need first to decide whether the new head of state should be directly elected by the people, or selected by parliament (divisions on this issue led to defeat in the 1999 referendum). Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has appointed a minister to study how such a change might be made. In New Zealand where there are perhaps the fewest constitutional impediments to change, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she expects that her country will eventually become a republic but she does not intend to initiate any process for change.
In all cases, change can be regarded as tending to be an elite - politicians, lawyers, journalists - project if it struggles to show what the practical benefits would be for the population at large. There is also the reinforcing point that, like the UK, all the realms have already most of the attributes of republics.
Barbados in November 2021 has been the latest realm to become a republic and, as Prince of Wales, the King attended the ceremony to wish the new republic well. In Jamaica successive Prime Ministers have long advocated that Jamaica should become a republic, and several have committed to achieving that. Both major parties want Jamaica to become a republic. The difficulty lies in the Jamaican constitution, which has very high thresholds for constitutional change: two thirds majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and a referendum.
SNP policy is to retain the monarchy in an independent Scotland. Scotland would become one of the realms, like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, where the monarch is also head of state. The King’s title in Scotland would be King of Scotland. His title in the remaining UK would be King of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- There is no serious constitutional impediment to making the change. It would be for parliament to legislate following endorsement by a referendum.
- In Britain support for a republic has rarely exceeded 15-20 per cent, and support for the monarchy has rarely dropped below 60-80 per cent.
- The lack of support for a republic may be associated with the fact that, for most intents and purposes, the UK already possesses most of the attributes of a republic and it can be difficult to show what real benefits or even change an elected head of state would bring.
- It is difficult to foresee the circumstances in which the UK might become a republic. In modern times monarchies have been overthrown following revolution (France, Portugal and Russia), catastrophic loss or devastation in war (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy and Yugoslavia) or as the result of military coup (Greece).
- Recent Constitution Unit research on the other European monarchies stressed that for the monarchy to survive depends on continuing consent. Individual monarchs who step out of line risk losing their thrones: as has happened in Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and the UK.
- As John Adams, who became the second President of the United States, observed in 1787: ‘The constitution of England is in truth a republic, and has ever been so considered by foreigners, and by the most learned and enlightened Englishmen.’
- The poet Tennyson called Britain a ‘crowned republic’ in 1863, and Walter Bagehot in his still read study of 1867 – The English Constitution - pointed out that ‘A republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy’.
None of these steps is in the gift of the monarch. At present, retirement could be attained only by resort to regency or abdication, both of which would require commensurate action in all fifteen of the Commonwealth realms where the King is head of state.
Under the Regency Acts 1937-53, a regency would become possible only where the King was judged ‘by reason of infirmity of mind or body incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions’. Prince William would then become Regent. (The same procedure would apply should he in turn be declared infirm and unable to act as Regent). The people who can make a declaration of incapacity are at least any three of the monarch’s consort, the Lord Chancellor, Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Chief Justice, and Master of the Rolls. Any declaration of incapacity needs to be supported by medical evidence.
Granted the present good health of the King, no resort to regency seems imminent. In practice, granted particularly the King’s age on his succession (73), there may develop an informal, ‘soft’ regency where other members of the ‘working’ royal family take on more of the his non-constitutional duties. There may come a point at which the King can no longer undertake long journeys abroad, in which case the Prince of Wales would deputise, as was the case towards the end of the Queen’s life.
Towards the end of her reign, the Queen undertook fewer visits, and did less for those charities of which she is patron, or moved the patronages to other family members. We might expect the same of her son, should he reach a similar age.
The Regency Acts also provide for delegation by the sovereign to Counsellors of State nominated from those next in line to the throne to act jointly for the monarch; but only during temporary absences abroad or a passing illness. Delegation may not include power to assent to a dissolution of parliament (and subsequent general election) without the express consent of the monarch. Nor may any ability to grant honours or peerages be delegated. The arrangements are not available to facilitate retirement, being triggered only by illness or absence abroad.
The accession of King Charles draws attention to limitations of the Regency legislation. This is because eligibility for appointment to Counsellor of State is confined to the sovereign’s spouse (who.if the sovereign is abroad, will normally travel with the sovereign) and the next four in line of succession who are 21 or over. At present the four are Princes Wiliam, Andrew and Harry plus Princess Beatrice who is not otherwise a ‘working’ royal. Because one Prince remains in disgrace and another is ineligible because he lives abroad (though may not yet be so domiciled) some expansion of eligibility is necessary to be sure to provide for at least two Counsellors. Legislation would be necessary which might, for example, include Princess Anne and Prince Edward, and the Princess of Wales until her children reach the right age.
Prince William could only normally become King if Charles chose to abdicate. Although at his accession King Charles indicated that he expected to serve for the whole of his remaining life, it is possible that, after reigning for a few years as an increasingly elderly monarch, King Charles could choose to invite parliament to hand on the throne to Prince William. This would require legislation, as happened with the Declaration of Abdication Act 1936. The line of succession is regulated by parliament (as in the Act of Succession 1700, and the Succession to the Crown Act 2013); it can be changed only by parliament and cannot be unilaterally altered by the monarch of the day.
Whether the sovereign might be allowed to ‘retire’ in some way quite outside the Regency Acts’ limited provisions would be a matter for the government and parliament. The solution recently in Japan when the then 83 years old Emperor asked to retire was special legislation which enabled him to do so and his heir succeed. The retiree was designated ‘Emperor emeritus’.
Some do, some don’t. In the Netherlands the last three Queens have abdicated when they reached the age of around 70. In Belgium, King Albert II abdicated in 2013, at the age of 79, handing on the throne to his son King Philippe (53). In Spain, King Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014, at the age of 76, to be succeeded by his son Felipe (46). Emperor Akihito of Japan (84) - where the issue was framed as facilitating retirement – abdicated under a new law in April 2019.
But the Scandinavian monarchies do not practise abdication. King Harald of Norway, who reached the age of 80 in 2017, said ‘I took an oath on the Norwegian constitution. For me, this oath applies to my entire life’. Similarly, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark (aged 82, and recently widowed) has said ‘I will remain on the throne until I fall off’. None of the Swedish Bernadotte monarchs has abdicated. (It is possible that the difference of practice between these monarchies and the rest may be related to the fact that all the Scandinavian monarchs have to be – as in the UK - members of the national Protestant church. There is no similar formal religious requirement, and its implication that may be taken of life-long commitment, in the other monarchies.)