In Detail


The ‘Crown-in-Parliament’—that is, Parliament and the Crown together— is sovereign in the British constitution. Laws passed by Parliament and signed by the Monarch cannot, at least in theory, be overturned by any other body.

The Crown is a term which is used interchangeably to refer to the state, the Monarch herself, or the government. The State refers to the set of institutions which govern Britain; the offices of the state are occupied by the government.

Until the political upheavals of the 17th century, sovereignty vested exclusively in the Monarch who was chosen by God. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 represented a compromise in which power was shared between Parliament and the Monarch and his advisors.

Political elites retained the fiction that it was the Monarch who was the source of all state power; but in practice it was those elites who exercised state power, not the Monarch. This was, however, a gradual process: even in the 19th century, some Monarchs considered themselves at least coordinate in authority to Parliament. Over time, and particularly with the expansion of the right to vote, the Monarch’s role in British politics became limited to a few ‘reserve’ powers, with ministers themselves exercising the most important royal prerogatives. However, in constitutional theory, government ministers in the present day continue to exercise authority in their capacity as advisors to the Monarch.

The monarchy retains a prominent position in British public life, despite its essentially marginal constitutional role. While it is generally understood that the Monarch is no longer sovereign, there is still a social consensus that the Queen plays an important, if rather nebulous, role in the workings of the state. This consensus is not of course unanimous, and depends in part on the personal popularity of the incumbent, but it unlikely that the institution of monarchy could survive without it.

Queen Elizabeth II’s longevity (she has reigned since 1953) has encouraged the perception – arguably a misleading perception – that Britain’s constitutional order is essentially stable, in spite of vast social, economic and political changes. In her time, the United Kingdom has shrunk from empire to nation-state; gone from standing outside Europe to being a member of the EU; from a unified multinational state to a state of devolved nations; from Churchill to Cameron.

By the rules of succession the Monarch’s eldest son will take the office of head of state on the death of the Monarch. If there is no son, the office passes to the eldest daughter. The Commonwealth is understood to have been involved in ongoing discussion regarding the law favouring male offspring, which has also been challenged in the Commonc in 2011 by Keith Vaz. As things stand, the Monarch must also be a Protestant, a member of the Church of England, and cannot be a Roman Catholic or married to a Roman Catholic.

Source: The Act of Settlement and the Protestant Succession, House of Commons Library Standard Note.


The Monarch of Britain has a number of functions:

  • Constitutional Monarch
  • Head of State for the United Kingdom and national symbol
  • Defender of the Faith
  • Head of State for many Commonwealth countries (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) [More+]
  • Head of the Commonwealth [More+]

Of these, the functions of Head of State, Constitutional Monarch and supreme governor of the Church of England are most important.

Constitutional Monarch

A constitutional Monarch is one who acts according to constitutional principle. In Britain, this means the Monarch obeys the democratically-elected government of the day, following the government’s advice and remaining entirely neutral.

Head of State and National Symbol

The Monarch is the head of state for the United Kingdom. She may represent the UK in state events both in the UK and outside it. She is also a symbol which stands for the United Kingdom: an easily identifiable, non-political figure whom Britons can point to as a symbol of national unity.

As head of state, the Monarch is, in theory, ‘above’ politics: thus many national institutions such as the judiciary and the army swear an oath of allegiance to the Monarch. Their loyalty is said to be to the United Kingdom and the head of state rather than to Parliament, or the government of the day.

Although a great deal of power has been devolved to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the Queen remains their head of state. Royal assent is still required for legislation of the Parliament and Assemblies, and in fact it may be as a result of devolution that the Queen is expected to appear more often in the 4 nations, as she is now the key symbol holding the UK together.

Defender of the Faith

The British Monarch is the head of the Church of England and a member of the Church of Scotland, both of which are by law the official churches of the two respective nations.

Archbishops and bishops of both churches are appointed by the Monarch (although in practice by the Prime Minister, and then on advice of the Ecclesiastical Appointments Commission)

Perhaps the most important aspect of this role is that descendants of the Monarch who are Catholic or are married to Catholics cannot succeed to the throne; and the Monarch is required to be a member of the Church of England.


In theory, the Monarch can exercise all powers under ‘the royal prerogative’: a body of powers needed for executive government, and which are not set out in statute. In practice, these are powers all exercised by the Government—the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The royal prerogative includes:

  • The power to prorogue and dissolve parliament
  • The power to appoint ministers
  • The power to create and dismantle government departments
  • The appointment and regulation of the civil service
  • The power to declare war and peace


There are a small number of powers which are ‘personal’ to the Monarch: these are powers which, because of their nature or because of circumstances, cannot be exercised by anyone other than the Monarch alone. However, most scholars argue that even though these powers are personal to the Monarch, she has very little room for discretion, and these ‘personal’ powers are exercised at the request and in accordance with the wishes of the incumbent Prime Minister.

These ‘reserve powers’, or ‘personal prerogatives’, are:

  • The right to advise, encourage and warn
  • The power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister
  • The power to prorogue or to dissolve Parliament (in certain circumstances)
  • The power to assent to legislation

The Right to Advise, Encourage and Warn

There is a weekly meeting between Monarch and Prime Minister, in which the Prime Minister will discuss his or her plans. The Monarch in turn has the right to ‘advise, encourage and warn’. The extent of the Monarch’s influence over Prime Ministers is unknown, but a number of former Prime Ministers have pointed to the present Queen’s influence, as she has been Monarch for almost 60 years, and can draw on a deep well of political experience.

The Power to Appoint and Dismiss the Prime Minister

By convention, the Monarch is expected to appoint the leader of the party which gains a majority of the seats in the House of Commons: this leader will become ‘the Queen’s chief adviser’—the Prime Minister. This is considered a personal prerogative because there is no advisor to advise the Queen, but there is no real ‘choice’ here: the Queen simply appoints the leader of the successful political party.

This has been emphasised by the Cabinet Office in the ‘Cabinet Manual’, which is currently being drafted. Chapter 6 on ‘Elections and Government Formation’ makes it clear that the monarch no longer has discretion over who is to be appointed as Prime Minister, but merely validates the decision already made by the political parties.

The first-past-the-post electoral system usually produces clear winners in a general election, so that the Monarch’s decision is entirely uncontroversial. However, it is possible that no party will gain an overall majority in the Commons: this is known as a ‘hung parliament’. In this situation, the role of the Monarch may become more important. Generally speaking, it is up to the political parties themselves to work out a solution, but if the parties cannot decide between themselves, there may be pressure for the Monarch to act to resolve the situation. The key point is that such a situation throws the Monarchy into the public spotlight: any decision the Monarch makes will be seen as political.

One example of this was the 1974 election, which produced the following results:

  • Labour: 301 seats
  • Conservatives: 296 seats
  • Liberals: 14 seats
  • United Ulster Unionists: 11 seats

This was made more complicated by the fact that the Conservatives won more votes, but Labour more seats. The incumbent Prime Minister, the Tory Party leader Edward Heath, was unable to form a coalition government, and so resigned. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party then became a minority government, ultimately calling another election at the end of the same year. At all times the Queen was kept informed, but remained silent.

It is worth noting that there have been only 4 hung parliaments in the last hundred years: in 1923, 1927, 1974 and 2010.

The Power to Prorogue or to Dissolve Parliament

The power to dissolve Parliament is said to be the key power of the Prime Minister: this gives the Prime Minister and the ruling political party an advantage over the other parties, who must make do with the date the Prime Minister sets. However, this assumes that the Prime Minister has the ‘confidence of the House’. A dilemma may arise for the Monarch where the Prime Minister has publicly lost the confidence of the House—in such a case, the prerogative is ‘personal’ to the Monarch: it is no longer clear that the Monarch ought to listen or follow such a Prime Minister’s advice.

In the 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper, it was suggested that a Prime Minister seeking a dissolution ought to seek the approval of the House of Commons first, but nothing yet has happened to take this further.

The power to dissolve Parliament is likely to be altered by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, should it pass into law. In this case all general elections will be subject to fixed dates, whilst the dissolution of Parliament before then would only occur when there was a vote of no confidence or a vote for immediate dissolution by 2/3 of MPs.

[More+] on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill.

The Power to Refuse Assent to Legislation

Statutory law in Britain can only be made by the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’, meaning the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarch must all assent to a proposed bill before it can become law. By convention, the Monarch always assents to all bills passed by the Houses of Parliament. But commentators wonder: if the Monarch were to be given legislation which violated some fundamental tenet of the British constitution could she refuse assent? This has never been tested. In the crisis over the Home Rule bill in 1912-1914, King George V did threaten to use his veto to encourage a settlement, but this is now almost a century-old precedent. The last recorded example of a Monarch refusing assent was in 1707.

In the 20th century Monarchs have very rarely had to make a public exercise of their personal ‘reserve’ powers. The most obvious recent example of this was in 1957 and again in 1963, when Queen Elizabeth II was required to exercise her royal prerogative and choose a leader for the Conservative party at the time. This was because the Conservatives had no formal means of electing a new party leader. But the effect was that Queen Elizabeth was in fact choosing a Prime Minister for Britain.

References and Further Reading

What do others think?

Republic – “Campaigning for a democratic alternative to the monarchy”

The Constitutional Monarchy Association

Australian Republic

The Guardian has got it wrong: Future of the Monarchy – Vernon Bogdanor, The Guardian


Research Papers

The Governance of Britain – Green Paper, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor

Governance of Britain: An Update, House of Commons Library Standard Note

The Governance of Britian – Review of the Executive Royal Prerogative Powers: Final Report, Ministry of Justice

Finances of the Monarchy, House of Commons Library


Useful Websites


Further Reading

- Peter Hennessy Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain (Victor Gollancz, London, 1996)

- Frank Prochaska The Republic of Britain 1760-2000 (Penguin, London, 2001)

- Rodney Brazier “The Monarchy” in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Vernon Bogdanor The Monarchy and the Constitution (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997)

- Colin Turpin and Adam Tomkins British Government and the Constitution (sixth edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007)

- Rodney Brazier Constitutional Reform: Reshaping the British Political System (third edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

- Bob Morris Church and State in 21st Century Britain: The Future of Church Establishment (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009)