Today, the role of the monarch in politics can quite simply be boiled down to three simple facts; the monarch has the right to “be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn”. This point, as laid out by Vernon Bogdanor in his ground-breaking work The Monarchy and the Constitution, is intrinsic when looking at the way the monarchy has changed over the 1,000 years of its existence. These days, the monarch is a rubber stamp, a check and a sounding board to governments. But before the 1640s, the King or Queen ruled rather than reigned. So how has the political face of the monarchy changed over the years and, in fact, has it really evolved?
Take, for example, the procedure of the State Visit. Today, these are political in motive and yet ceremonial in outlook. The visiting head of state rolls up to Buckingham Palace, there are photographs taken and a military review, some snippets of National Anthems are played, The Duke of Edinburgh takes the visitor for a stroll down the ranks, and then the visitor jumps in his swish car and heads off to Whitehall to have a serious chat with the PM and government, while Her Majesty settles down to her Red Boxes and, depending on the hour, a Gin and Dubonnet. It’s been like that for years now; the business of government being managed by the government, but the putting on of a good show and making sure that the British system is still the envy of the world is left to Her Majesty and her family. And with this I can honestly say, without a shadow of a doubt, that it’s the best system out there! The idea of a person sharing the titles of Head of State and Head of Government is, to me, bizarre!
Her Majesty’s work in all areas is exemplary, as is the work of her children and grandchildren. And yet, I am so pleased that when it comes to governmental matters, we do not have one chap sharing both roles. I can only imagine that the most powerful man on the planet, President Obama, must find it tiresome enough to be fighting wars in the Middle East, disputing a political war at home and making sure he looks good on television. And then, on top of all that, he must pardon turkeys at Thanksgiving, tour military bases and shake hands of visiting dignitaries. (I’m knackered just thinking about it.)
I, in absolutely no way, intend to belittle what our monarchy does! In a way, I almost wish for Her Majesty to take back the reins of government, but to have two people sharing the responsibilities of government and State is a rather good system. Maybe the President would appreciate re-adopting the monarchy of the United States of America… (If you are reading this Mr Obama, I would gladly step into that roll if you so wish.)
To really see how the role of the monarch has changed politically, you need only look at one man. One man with the inability to listen, the inability to react calmly, and the inability to realise that perhaps the Divine Right of Kings wasn’t as sacrosanct as some thought it was. This man was Charles I (1625-1649) and through his over use of the Royal Prerogative and his inability to share power saw the start of a war that would leave nearly 200,000 people dead, England decimated, and the monarchy disbanded (I told you we would get to the Protectorate sooner or later).
Before Charles lost everything from the neck up, he was an autocrat in every sense of the word. He ignored parliament, levied taxes at his own will, and through his Personal Rule (1629-40) he alienated half the country against him. There are, in my own humble view, two moments in history when the Civil War became inevitable and both of them are examples of too much power resting in one (very weak) man. The first was when Charles dissolved parliament and started ruling on his own. In Charles’s view, parliament was an obstacle rather than an asset and so dissolved it in 1629. Upon doing this, Charles looked around and realised he was suddenly all out of revenue. Usual procedure at this point is to recall parliament, say sorry, and go back to ‘Kinging’. However, Charles decided on a different course; he started raising taxes on his own, without parliament’s consent, and some of these taxes became ridiculous. The ancient right of Ship Money (the King taxing seaside towns to help fund the Navy in a time of war) was abused by Charles. Much to his people’s sheer frustration, he extended Ship Money to inland towns, during a time of peace, and didn’t give the funds to the Navy!
Ship Money, and other taxes dating back to the dark days of despotism in England, was just the start of it. In 1642, Charles had had enough of parliament all together and attempted to arrest five members of parliament for supposedly assisting the Scottish in invading England as part of the ongoing Bishop’s Wars, alongside spreading rumours about his Queen, Henrietta Maria. Charles assembled a squad of men-at-arms and marched to the Chamber of the House of Commons. Parliament slammed the door in the King’s Messenger’s (Black Rod) face, and barred them. When the door was knocked down, Charles insisted that the Parliament give up the five MPs, and yet they refused and Charles was humiliated. He was forced to leave Westminster empty handed, having seriously damaged his relationship with parliament and his people.
These two actions made the separation of monarchy and true government inevitable. This was the last time that a British monarch would ever set foot in the House of Commons and this precipitated the start of the English Civil Wars. After Charles’s head was off, and the Protectorate failed (hoorah!), Charles’s son (another Charles) was asked to take back the throne. Everything had changed… or had it really?
After the Restoration, you could say that the monarchy carried on as it had beforehand but with a few little changes; barely noticeable unless one is a Constitutional Historian. I would argue that the monarch’s powers were not really limited until the current Queen’s father, George VI (1936 -1952), came to the throne. As a way of example: in 1917, the British government offered political asylum to the overthrown Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. George V (1910-1936), Nicholas’s cousin and confidante, harangued the government in twice daily letters to ensure that the offer was withdrawn. The increased pressure from the Sovereign led to the collapse of a political agreement between two official and recognised governments, and later led to the violent deaths of the Romanov Imperial Family. This can be seen as a direct example of a monarch still wielding political sway over the government.
It is clear that George V did not veto the demands himself; he didn’t march under arms to Whitehall and insist the invitation be withdrawn. However, the urgency of the letters, and the implicit nature of their wording, can certainly be seen as a monarch overstepping the border between “advise” and “demand”.
The slow movement of ruling to reigning has ensured that our system of government works. Today, it is unthinkable of a monarchy based on the ‘Charles I model’. We are constantly, and annoyingly, told by Republicans that should The Queen ever show any political tendencies, things would supposedly ‘kick off’ in the streets across the country. However, I do not think there is any need to fear this; Republicans only have a small number of people on their side, so I don’t think we need to panic just yet.
Next week: A look at how the role of the monarchy in the military has changed… or has it?
Remember: Things are always much more interesting when a monarch is involved!