The Constitution Unit


The British Monarchy: FAQs

A list of some of the frequently asked questions about the British monarchy.

FAQs on Accession and Coronation

What role does monarchy perform?

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 Queen reigns but she does not rule. The constitutional role has become to support liberal democracy and to help legitimise the political process.

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 Queen appoints the Prime Minister and all the other Ministers, summons parliament, and gives royal assent to the laws passed by parliament. She receives incoming and outgoing ambassadors, and visiting heads of state, and makes state visits abroad. The Queen is Commander in Chief of the armed forces, and formally makes the appointment to many senior positions, such as the judges. 

Informally, Bagehot in 1867 thought the monarch had the right to be consulted by, to encourage and to warn the government of the day. But overall the Queen is a constitutional monarch, and everything she 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 and other royals are Patrons of hundreds of charities and voluntary organisations. Through its patronage and support the monarchy nurtures voluntary action and civil society, reaching parts of the population beyond the reach of politicians.

Aren’t all European monarchies bound to become republics?

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 60 and 80 per cent of people wish to retain the monarchy. Support is highest in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK, at 70 to 80 per cent; and a little lower in Belgium, Spain and Sweden, at 60 to 65 per cent. Arguably the expectation to respond to intense media scrutiny is a form of continuous accountability.

Won’t the Commonwealth monarchies become republics?

The UK sovereign is head of state in fifteen Commonwealth states (the ‘realms’) in addition to the UK. It is likely that a number will review their constitutional status when Elizabeth II dies. 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, Barbados and Jamaica have considered becoming republics.  Some others 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).

Whereas in Barbados most of the necessary legislation is reported to be in place though not finally activated, 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.

 If Scotland becomes independent, what will happen to the monarchy?

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 Queen is also head of state. Her title in Scotland would be Queen of Scotland. Her title in the remaining UK would be Queen of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

What present factors affect whether the UK will become a republic?

  • 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 70-80 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:
  • 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’.
  • 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.
  • 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).

The Queen is now 96: shouldn’t she abdicate to allow her 73-year-old son, or even his son (Prince William), to succeed?

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 Queen is head of state.

Under the Regency Acts 1937-53, this would become possible only where the Queen was judged ‘by reason of infirmity of mind or body incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions’. Prince Charles 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 Queen, no resort to regency seems imminent. In practice there may develop an informal, ‘soft’ regency where other members of the ‘working’ royal family take on more of the Queen’s non-constitutional duties. The Queen no longer undertakes long journeys abroad and the Prince of Wales deputises. Investitures are now commonly undertaken by the Prince of Wales, Princess Royal and Prince William.  The Queen may undertake fewer visits, and do less for those charities of which she is patron, or move the patronages to other family members.

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.

For the Queen, abdication is said to be unthinkable, for two reasons. The first is the bad example of Edward VIII: his abdication brought the Queen’s father onto the throne, unexpectedly and most reluctantly.  The second is her declaration on her twenty-first birthday that she would serve for her whole life whether it be long or short. She is also said to regard her oath at her coronation as imposing a sacred duty to reign as long as she shall live. 

Would Prince Charles abdicate in favour of his son, Prince William?

That would be a matter for Prince Charles, and for parliament. Under common law, Prince Charles will automatically become King the moment the Queen dies. Prince William could only become King if Prince Charles chose to abdicate. That 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.

That said, having waited over 60 years as heir apparent, it would be natural for Prince Charles to want to assume the throne and perform the royal duties for which he has spent so long preparing. But it would be equally natural if, after reigning for a few years as an increasingly elderly monarch, he chose to invite parliament to hand on the throne to Prince William.

Don’t other European monarchs abdicate on a regular basis?

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 78, 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.)