Why It Matters

The Queen is sometimes thought of as merely a figurehead, but she retains personal powers which are controversial. As head of state, the Queen represents the nation as a whole and a wide range of public servants pledge allegiance to the Queen, instead of to a politically oriented Government.

The fact that Britain is a Constitutional Monarchy rather than a Republic sets us apart from most other developed democracies and has a significant influence on the way we think about national identity, our history and our heritage.  

The Essentials


The Monarch – sometimes called the Sovereign – is the United Kingdom’s non-executive head of state.

The Important Debates

Should the monarchy be abolished?

Arguments in favour of abolition of the monarchy:

  • The Monarchy is anachronistic and not in keeping with a modern society – the concept of monarchy is inherently class-ridden, encapsulating the now unacceptable idea that some persons are of a higher social rank than others by right of their birth. 
  • The hereditary principle is abhorrent
  • The Monarchy is a waste of money
  • The privileges accorded to the Royal Family are incompatible with a modern democratic society

Arguments in favour of keeping the monarchy:

  • The Monarch is able to be a non-political head of state
  • The Monarchy is cost-effective since any alternative would be just as expensive, if not more expensive
  • The longevity and collective memory of the Monarchy is invaluable in terms of international relations and relations between Parliament and the people at large
  • The Monarch is not just head of state in the UK but is also head of the Commonwealth
  • The powers of the monarch are more symbolic than real. Those public servants who swear allegiance to the monarch are in effect swearing allegiance to the state, i.e. the community of the people of the UK.

Citizens have to owe allegiance to someone or something – either to a constitutional abstract (as in Germany), or to a symbol (as in the United States) or to a legal person. So it would seem to follow that in the United Kingdom we can either have a written constitution, or a monarch or some other sort of a-political head of state. When the Australian people were offered a referendum on their head of state in 1999, they preferred to keep the Queen in place rather than creating a new role of President.

Change in the Succession Laws

Following criticism of the succession laws favouring the men over women in the line of succession, it was agreed in principle by the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October 2011 that the succession based on gender would be ended.

This became law in April 2013 as the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, and will come into force following the approval of the 15 Commonwealth countries where the Queen is head of state. In principle this move was generally welcomed, however it does question those other institutions where succession or inheritance is based on gender, such as hereditary peerages.

The Succession to the Crown Act also removes the restriction on members of the Royal Family marrying a Catholic; whereas as before they would have lost their place in line to the throne, this is no longer the case. However the monarch still cannot be Roman Catholic, and must be, as the head of the Church of England, defender of the faith.

Should the roles of certain members of the royal family be reduced?

Even some of those who agree in principle with the constitutional monarchy believe that the roles played in public life by members of the extended royal family should be curtailed. HM the Queen and HRH Prince Philip perform numerous public engagements and arguably  play an important role in our relations with foreign nations and other heads of state, many of whom hold the estate of the monarchy in high esteem.

However, the involvement of other members of the royal family in public engagements is not always welcomed by the general public.  Some regard the extended royal family as a spoilt elite, taking advantage of the taxpayer. It is not clear to what extent those feelings are based on an assumption that the public purse is maintaining the entire extended family. The Statute of Westminster 1931 requires the consent of all members of the Commonwealth to any change in the laws relating to succession to the throne, since change to the British head of state necessarily affects them as well.

Is the Monarchy accountable to the public for the public funds it receives?

The Queen publishes annually an account of how the money which comprises the Civil List has been spent. The Civil List is the amount of money provided by Parliament to meet the official expenses of The Queen’s Household, so that The Queen can carry out her role as Head of State and Head of the Commonwealth.

The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh are the only members of the Royal Family to receive a direct annual parliamentary allowance. The Queen makes allowances out of the Civil List for certain members of the extended royal family in recompense for public engagements which they attend. So although technically only the Queen and Prince Phillip are in receipt of public funds, in fact other members of the royal family can be seen to benefit from this money, which some people regard as less than satisfactory in terms of value for the taxpayer.

Head of State expenditure is the official expenditure relating to The Queen’s duties as Head of State and Head of the Commonwealth.

Head of State expenditure has reduced significantly over the past decade, from £87.3 million in 1991-92 (expressed in current pounds) to £38.2 million in 2009-10. In the year 2009-10 The Queen cost the taxpayer just 62 pence per person. Since 1993 the Queen has paid income tax and capital gains tax on her income and gains in the same way as every other citizen.

Head of State expenditure is met from public funds in exchange for the surrender by The Queen of the revenue from the Crown Estate. In the financial year to 31 March 2010 the revenue surplus from the Crown Estate paid to the Treasury amounted to £210.7 million.

Whilst the Queen has considerable personal wealth, the royal palaces are not part of her private property, but instead are held by her on behalf of the nation. Whilst many of the facilities within the palaces are used for events such as state banquets and the entertainment (at the request of the Government) of dignitaries, the royal family may nevertheless be considered to have exclusive use of the private facilities within the palaces. For this reason controversy can accompany funding from the public purse for the upkeep of the palaces.

If Britain was to remove the Monarchy, what would replace it?

If Britain were not a constituitonal Monarchy, it would be a republic. A republic is a country in which all the key public offices—and in particular, the head of state—are elected by the people. The principle difficulty which appeared to confront the republicans in the Australian campaign for a republic was who would make a suitable candidate to take over the role of head of state from the Queen. A unique blend of diplomatic skills, political knowledge and impartiality are required. A president would require at least the same level of staff and support as the Monarch requires in the performance of her state duties. The question would also arise as to whether abolition of the monarchy would also lead to the abolition of state pomp (such as the Trooping of the Colour) which is part of Britain’s national tradition.

Should the royal prerogative and the conventions surrounding the Monarchy be codified?

All of the prerogative powers noted above, both ‘general’ and those personal to the Monarch, remain part of the royal prerogative. As noted, many are now by convention exercised by ‘responsible ministers’—that is, our elected representatives. But almost none of these powers are regulated by law: they are not defined, confined or constrained by statute; and the courts have been very unwilling to examine the exercise of these powers.  Some scholars argue these rules ought to be ‘codified’—written down – to prevent misunderstandings. Against this, others argue that writing these rules down may prohibit natural evolution of the rules.


Magna Carta, King John accepts that he could be bound by the law.


Henry VIII breaks from Rome and establishes the Church of England.


The Union of England and Wales.


Outbreak of the English Civil War.


Charles I surrenders to the parliamentarians.


Charles I executed. Parliament abolishes the monarchy. Oliver Cromwell chairs the New English Commonwealth.


Oliver Cromwell dies and appoints his son Richard as his successor.


Richard Cromwell resigns.


General Monck marches to London, dissolves Parliament and Charles II is invited to resume the throne (‘the Restoration’).


Charles II dies and is succeeded by his brother, James II, a Catholic.


James II overthrown in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. William and Mary invited to become joint sovereigns. William and Mary accept the Bill of Rights, which includes a prohibition on the Monarch suspending laws or levying taxes without the consent of Parliament.


The Act of Settlement sets out the conditions by which the Crown can be held: no Catholic and no one married to a Catholic may become the Monarch.


Queen Anne is the last Monarch to reject a bill.


The Union of England and Scotland.


Royal Marriages Act specified that no royal descendant could marry into foreign families without the consent of the reigning Monarch.


The Union of England and Ireland.


Queen Victoria becomes the last Monarch to give royal assent in person.


Statute of Westminster enacted, suggests that any change to the royal succession requires the consent of the Commonwealth.


The Abdication Crisis – King Edward VIII abdicates in response to opposition to his proposed marriage to a divorcee.


Queen Elizabeth II crowned.


Queen Elizabeth formally becomes Head of the Commonwealth.


(Also 1963) Queen Elizabeth chooses the leader of the Conservatives (as they had no formal electoral machinery themselves) and thus who would take the office of the Prime Minister.


Female heirs given succession rights equal to their male counterparts.

Find out more