The British monarch or Sovereign is the monarch and head of state of the United Kingdom and its overseas territories, and is the source of all executive, judicial and (as the Queen-in-Parliament) legislative power. The monarch is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England as well as Head of the Commonwealth and head of state of 15 other Commonwealth Realms.
Although the monarch plays an important ceremonial role, in practice the United Kingdom uses the Westminster system of constitutional monarchy, so the power of the monarch in British politics is greatly limited by convention. Today the monarch's active political role is largely limited to that of an advisor to the Prime Minister.
In theory, the Sovereign is the "fount of justice"; all prosecutions are made on his or her behalf, and judges make decisions in his or her name. The monarch cannot be brought to trial in any court, except in civil cases where permitted by Act of Parliament.
The monarch continues to hold a variety of political powers, although they are rarely used by the monarch personally, including making and declaring war, making treaties, granting Royal Assent to bills passed by Parliament, appointing and removing Ministers (including the Prime Minister), pardoning prisoners, authorizing currency and commanding the Armed Forces. In theory, practically the entire institution of British government exists solely at the monarch's pleasure. For the most part, however, the monarch's powers are "reserve powers," nominally used in emergency situations. In normal political life, the monarch usually assents to the reasonable requests of his or her government, and of Parliament. So while many actions are done in His or Her Majesty's name, they originate in the democratic government of the United Kingdom.
By convention, the monarch dissolves Parliament and issues a writ for new elections at the request of the Prime Minister, however it is an open question as to whether the monarch must always grant such a dissolution. Another possible situation is if no party gains a majority in Parliament. The monarch would by convention offer the post of Prime Minister to the head of the party most likely to form a government, but it is possible that this may not be the party with the most seats.
The monarch must formally assent to all Acts of Parliament before they can become law. Royal Assent is given in Norman French by a representative of the monarch: the formal phrases used are le roy (or la reine) le veult meaning "yes" ("the king/queen wills it"), and le roy/la reine s'avisera meaning "no" ("the king/queen will consider it"). The last time royal assent was withheld was by Queen Anne in 1708. As well, on bills directly affecting a monarchical prerogative power (i.e. to make war, dissolve parliament, appoint ministers, etc.) the monarch must consent to the debate thereof in Parliament.
In 1999, Queen Elizabeth II, acting under the instructions of the government, refused to signify her consent to the reading of the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill, which sought to shift the power to order a military strike on Iraq from executive to parliamentary control.
Although there is a popular consensus in support of the continuing existence of the monarchy, there is a wide belief that this would rapidly change were the monarch to exercise power in opposition to the democratically elected government in anything other than an emergency situation.
Members and regulations
The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II (since February 6, 1952) and the Heir Apparent is Charles, Prince of Wales (son of the Queen, born November 14, 1948). There is also a large Royal Family made up of the Queen's other children and cousins.
The present monarch's style is Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
Succession to the British throne is restricted by the Act of Settlement to Protestant descendants of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, with male heirs having precedence over females, and those who have married a Roman Catholic excluded, though there have been moves to amend these restrictions in recent years. The Act also states that Parliament, and not the Monarch, has the power to name the successor.
Labour minister Lord Williams of Mostyn said in 1998 that the government would like to change the law to give equal precedence regardless of sex. However, the government also believes that such a change would take up a lot of parliamentary time, and would require the approval of the other countries of which the British monarch is head of state. Despite public calls for change by two female cabinet ministers, Patricia Hewitt and Tessa Jowell, no moves have yet been taken.
The Guardian newspaper has campaigned actively in recent years for an abolition of the restriction on non-Protestants from succeeding to the throne. It argues that the restriction may be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which is now part of British law. A "ten minute rule" bill to overturn this restriction was introduced in the British House of Commons by Labour MP Kevin McNamara in 2001, and won a symbolic victory when forced to a vote, but did not become law.
Upon the death of a Monarch, an Accession Council meets at St James's Palace. Attending are the members of the House of Lords, Privy Counsellors, the Lord Mayor of London, Aldermen of the City of London, and High Commissioners of Commonwealth countries. The Council makes a proclamation declaring the death of the previous monarch and names the individual who is to succeed to the Crown. The proclamation is then read aloud at various places in London, Edinburgh, Windsor, and York.
Fount of Honour
The Sovereign is the fount of honour and source of all dignities. Thus, the Crown creates all peerages, determines the memberships of all orders of chivalry and grants all honours. In practice, most peerages and honours are granted on the advice of the Prime Minister and other ministers. However, the Sovereign personally determines the membership of the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Order of Merit and the Royal Victorian Order.
The Sovereign, however, may not directly hold a dignity or honour. As the House of Lords decided in the Buckhurst Peerage Case, "the fountain and source of all dignities cannot hold a dignity from himself." There is, however, no prohibition on holding dignities from foreign Sovereigns. Thus, William I was also Duke of Normandy in France, and many of the monarchs of the Hanoverian dynasty were Dukes of Brunswick-L neburg in the Holy Roman Empire.
- Official website of the British Royal Family (http://www.royal.gov.uk)
- Official website of the Prince of Wales (http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk)
- Parliament's Report on the powers of the Royal Prerogative (http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/public_administration_select_committee/pasc_19.cfm)