The UK has a constitutional monarchy – not an absolute monarchy. This means that the monarchy is apolitical and impartial. The work that it does in politics is largely symbolic. The work of the monarch within the remit of the royal prerogative is seen as being on behalf of elected ministers.
In the C19th Walter Bagehot described the monarchy as being “symbolic and ceremonial" but with little actual power. In the C21st this is even more true.
“The Queen reigns but does not rule".
What are the royal prerogatives:
- The Queen has the right to appoint and dismiss a Prime Minister. However, in the C21st this is convention as opposed to reality. In fact, after an election, the Queen chooses the leader of the majority party to lead the Commons. However, what happens if the Prime Minister refuses to quit after losing a vote of no confidence is unclear – as it has never happened in recent political history. Theoretically, the monarch can exercise powers of appointment and dismissal. How this would fit in with a democracy is difficult to decide.
- The monarch has other powers of appointment (ministers, peers, senior C of E officials, head of BBC, senior civil servants etc) In reality these are chosen by the Prime Minister; only the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit are at the personal disposal of the Queen. Therefore, a vast amount of power with regards to senior appointments rests with the Prime Minister.
- The Queen opens and dissolves Parliament. She also approves all statutes of law. In reality, the date of a general election is set by the Prime Minister and the Queen, in the State Opening of Parliament, simply reads out the proposed bills for the next 5 years of a government and plays no part in deciding them. No monarch has refused to give the Royal Assent to a government bill (passed at this stage by both the Commons and Lords) since 1707. Now it would appear to be completely untenable that the Queen would refuse to sign a government bill that had passed the Commons, select committees, the Lords etc. It would spark off a major (the major?) constitutional crisis.
- In theory, the monarch has the right to grant pardons and input some sentences. In reality this power is exercised by the Home Secretary; a classic example was when Jack Straw stated that Myra Hindley’s life term meant life.
- The monarch, via proclamations or Orders in Council, may declare war or treaties, without the input of the Commons/Lords. In reality, the declaration of war and the signing of treaties is done by the Prime Minister acting on behalf of the Crown. The 2003 declaration of war against Iraq was done by a Prime Minister and not by the monarch. One is a democratically elected politician accountable to the electorate via an election; the other is in the position by a quirk of birth.
The monarch is above the law and has crown immunity. The legal immunity conferred by the Royal Prerogative may extend to institutions and servants of the Crown. Cabinet ministers may try to use crown immunity to avoid the release of parliamentary documents as they are servants of the Crown. This remains an issue that lawyers discuss and analyse to this day – can ministers of the government use the Royal Prerogative to stop an investigation in to the work that they do on certain issues?