What is a Constitutional Monarchy?

A Constitutional Monarchy, such as exists in the United Kingdom, is a highly complex form of government devoid of legal rules where historical hereditary privilege permits a hereditary king or queen to act as Head of State without in theory participating in the exercise of government. Usually associated with such systems is an aristocratic social layer, and the granting by the king or queen of titles of nobility to some citizens of the state.

The theoretical notion as taught to students of Constitutional Law that the Monarch as Head of State does not participate in the governance of the United Kingdom is a false one. In the United Kingdom, the system of Constitutional Monarchy requires that before any person can receive high office in the state they must first swear an oath of allegiance to the Monarch. This applies to members of the legislature, judiciary, the clergy, senior members of the armed forces, the police, and indeed the Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet. An elected MP who does not swear allegiance to the Monarch can be fined and will not be allowed to sit as an MP. The fact that he or she has been elected by the people is irrelevant. The (elected) Prime Minister is obliged to meet with the Monarch regularly and must. No law can be enacted without the assent of the Monarch. Most would say that no Monarch would dare withhold assent, but it is possible. Each new parliament is opened with a ceremonial speech of the government’s policy proposals given not by the Prime Minister but by the Monarch who begins each significant statement of policy with the words “My Government”. This somewhat top-down form of government contrasts dramatically with We the People, the first three words of the preamble to the US Constitution. Far from being ceremonial, in the United Kingdom the Monarch is very much a real Head of State. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet may determine policy, and the Civil Service implement most of it, but real power lies with the Monarchy. It is “My Government”, not the peoples’ government, as indeed it must be, as everyone is compelled to swear allegiance to the Monarch. If that is not participating in the governance of the state it is difficult to imagine what is.

There are other characteristics of the British system of Constitutional Monarchy which also call into question the notion that the Monarch’s role as Head of State is merely ceremonial. By the Royal Prerogative, only the Monarch may declare war, not the elected politicians. The Monarch is also not subject to the same taxation rules as the people nor subject to the same restrictions of property use and enjoyment. By the principle of Sovereign Immunity, the Monarch may do no wrong (in the same way as the Pope is deemed infallible) and is not subject like everyone else to the Rule of Law. Put crudely, a deranged British Monarch may cut the throat of their spouse, watch them die, and get away with it.

Those who criticise the British system of Constitutional Monarchy offer rationales founded on justice, equality, and fairness, and less so on rationales concerned with political governance. They argue that such a system is an anachronism abandoned centuries ago by mature societies such as America and France, and that it tends to corrupt those who gain from it. They point to the millions of children in the United Kingdom who are malnourished due to poverty, while the Monarch moves with ease in Bentleys from Buckingham Palace to Sandringham thence to Balmoral in perpetual luxury. Supporters of the British system of Constitutional Monarchy argue that accidents of birth are what they are, that fairness in any society is not achievable, that the current system promotes social stability and cohesion in times of crisis, and that tradition and ceremony in which the English excel brings valuable tourist revenue into the country. Neutral observers, less concerned with Constitutional theory and practice, nor indeed issues of hereditary privilege, argue that management of the British economy is the domain of the Executive in successive Governments, all of whom have sufficient political autonomy to eliminate poverty but who have failed to do so, that this is a political failure, and not one attributable to the complex conventions of an unwritten constitution nor indeed the British system of Constitutional Monarchy.