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Throughout the centuries the British monarchy has always been involved with the governance of the realm. Yet some would argue that due to its age it has become far too undemocratic to be included and hold a representative government. Is the British constitutional monarchy too old and undemocratic to rule effectively? Or does its embedded tradition maintain a strong and stable system of government?
As a constitutional monarchy the monarch is our head of state. The whole of government is held in currently the Queen’s name, yet she holds no real power over the governance of the country. Apart from the ability to pirogue and re-open parliament the various checks and balances that belong to the monarch’s position have remained out of use for the past 300 years.
Under a democratic form of government there are two offices whose places must be filled: the head of state and the head of government. These two offices can be joined such as in the United States. However, most countries have these offices separated and the head of state can be a president or a monarch. In the UK our head of state is the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, and our head of government is the Prime Minister. Britain is particularly unique compared to other modern constitutional monarchies; it has a monarchy but no codified constitution. The only other country to share the same system is that of New Zealand which shares the same head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.
The word democracy comes from the Greek demos kratos meaning citizens rule or power and therefore a democracy is where the people elect representative to govern on their behalf. So, the concept of an unelected monarch as the head of state of a democracy is contradictory in itself. Many republicans argue that an individual should not be allowed to represent British democracy if they themselves are not elected and receive their position through a process of hereditary inheritance. The monarch is unable to be held accountable to the nation they apparently represent. And because of this many people in the UK question what the sovereign’s role is and what having monarch as head of state really means.
The development of the British constitution over the centuries has led to the reduction of royal power and its transfer to government ministers. As such, one of the main purposes of the constitution is to limit the powers of the sovereign and ensure that they act in accordance with the democratic values of government. Therefore, the monarch, according to the constitution, does not act as a threat to democracy but instead as a guardian of it. If for any reason the constitution appeared to be under threat then the monarch, according to the constitution, can act as a custodian to protect democracy through ensuring the conservation of the constitution. Yet, in the extremely rare occurrence (so rare that it has not happened for 300 years) that such an event would happen the monarch must do so upon the advice of the government and not completely of their own accord.
Although the head of state’s duty is to protect it, the symbol of Britain as state is not the constitution itself. Unlike the republics of the USA or France, Britain’s symbol of state and nation is a person. It is argued that this is better for the state as a whole because it is easier for its people to feel a sense of allegiance to a living, breathing individual who embodies the core values of the state rather than a piece of paper that just defines them. Yet as a constitutional monarchy it is paramount that no decision-making power at all lies with the monarch. This is done so that firstly, rule is in no way whatsoever left in the hands of one individual like a dictator. And secondly, so that power is humanized; that the forces of it are subordinate to the symbol of that state – of which the monarch embodies.
So, the monarch as head of state can be viewed as a protector of democracy. But some argue that although this maybe be the case there are still many elements that surround the Queen’s position that make it wholly undemocratic: Queen Elizabeth II, is not only our head of state but also our head of the executive, under what is known as the Crown. The Crown with its prerogative powers can declare war or endorse treaties without parliament’s permission. The Queen is also part of the legislature and is able consent to or stop all legislation. As well as this the Queen is also the source of justice and can exercise this in her courts across the country. Yet for a state to be completely democratic it must have a separation of powers. The legislature, executive and judiciary must all operate in separate; this is to prevent one becoming more powerful than the others. But in Britain the head of state plays strong roles in all three and accordingly a strong republican sentiment is that the Queen’s position is completely undemocratic because it enables one individual to become far too powerful as someone who apparently has control over each.
Nonetheless, these positions are just formalities. Although the Queen is head of the executive almost all the prerogative powers are used by or on the advice of government ministers. Her judicial functions are also managed in the same way. Withal, again it seems as though that the Queen only acts on the ‘advice’ of her ministers, but a constitutional monarchy means that when ministers offer advice to the sovereign, there is no option but to accept it. All actions concerning constitution and government must be acted on in conjunction with advice from government ministers, who are elected representatives of the people. So, the actions of the sovereign are always made sure to be in line with democracy.
But there are a few personal prerogatives, only a few, where the sovereign can act without the instruction of government ministers. There are two very important ones. The first is the appointment of a new prime minister; But as we know this is just another formality, the people vote to elect the prime minister and it is the sovereigns role to allow that prime minster to form a government in their name. Although it’s just a formality such prerequisites are considered essential for the smooth transition from one government to the next. The second prerogative being to refuse the dissolution of parliament; under normal circumstances the Queen is unable to do so. But situations such as if it were a prime minister of a minority government requesting dissolution, or a prime minister who lost support of their cabinet then the sovereign has the right to do so. Some may argue that the right to refuse parliament is completely undemocratic but only in extremely unusual circumstances would the sovereign utilise this prerogative.
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