Much has been made of the Queen allegedly blocking a law from being passed in the 1970s, claims which Buckingham Palace says are “simply untrue”. According to documents seen by The Guardian, The Queen’s personal lawyers successfully persuaded ministers to change a draft law in order to conceal her private wealth.
These ‘veto’ powers have been around for centuries and are part of parliamentary procedure. All the same, there seems to be a misconception that the Queen and her heir personally decide which Bills are to be vetoed.
The Queen’s Role
The Queen is a constitutional monarch. Being a constitutional monarch entails two rules (which I like to call the golden rules of constitutional monarchy):
- The Queen must act in accordance with the advice of the elected government, usually through the Prime Minister, and she cannot ignore this advice. The monarchy continues to exist in the 21st Century because it realised centuries ago that, not being elected, it could not interfere in the political process without (rightly) attracting the wrath of the public. Its role has transformed from an executive monarchy into a constitutional one. The people elected the government, which in turn makes policy and, to have its policies brought to life, advises the monarch on the exercise of her power to do so. The monarch must not exercise her power unless so advised (or in a constitutional emergency). The Government is politically responsible to Parliament for what the Queen says and does in public, since she speaks and acts with their advice; every public speech made by the Queen must be approved by a Government Minister. So, the rule protects not only the Queen from criticism and political intervention, but also ensures the independence of the executive.
- The Queen must always be non-partisan and non-political, thereby staying above party politics. This rule is related to the first, but is arguably of much greater importance. It is this rule which keeps the monarchy alive in a 21st Century Western democracy. The Queen cannot express a political view or be seen to take political sides; she must be politically neutral at all times and be seen to be so. This is one role, together with her unifying role, that no president could ever properly or truly perform; a president (even if he has to assume some political impartiality after his election) is elected on a party ticket or has a political history, which cannot be said of the Queen. The Queen, as Head of State, is the chief symbol of national unity. Since she is politically neutral, the Queen does not express a political view or act in a political way so as to support one political party over another or one political policy over another. As was seen in the War of the Three Kingdoms (known in England as the Civil War), a political view expressed by the monarch would likely divide the country (no longer violently, it is hoped), with some taking the monarch’s side and others taking the Government’s; the expression and articulation of political views is the function of political parties, not of a politically impartial head of state. By not being political, the Queen can represent all the British People, regardless of their individual views and beliefs. In this way, she binds the people together and symbolises the unity of the country.
These two rules subtly underline the simple reality in the constitution: that the British monarch has no policy or executive role, but is nevertheless the chief representative of all the British People to themselves and to the world. She is a living symbol of national unity and independence, for her political neutrality means the people are not divided between her views and those of her governments. She is Queen of the United Kingdom (that is, Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and, as such, represents the unity of the four countries of this United Kingdom: she is not and never has been Queen of England, Queen of Scots, Queen of Wales or Queen of Northern Ireland, but Queen of the United Kingdom.
This is not to say, however, that the Queen is without influence, for her accumulated knowledge of over sixty-one years of confidential State papers and private Audiences with prime ministers, presidents and other world leaders means she is in a unique position when she exercises her three rights to be consulted, to encourage and to warn her Ministers in private, giving way to their advice in the end.
With the two golden rules explained, the foundations of the Queen’s role has been laid. As a constitutional monarch, anyone who understands our (sometimes perplexing) constitution can only be aware that Queen’s Consent (and the correlative Prince’s Consent) is given automatically by the Government and refused only on ministerial advice. With no policy or executive role, the Queen having an active veto over proposed legislation would breach the two golden rules and would therefore be unconstitutional.
Queen’s and Prince’s Consent
In terms of legislation, the Queen’s nominal approval (known as Queen’s Consent) is needed before Bills may be considered by Parliament the provisions of which affect:
- her prerogative (that is, her common law powers, rights, immunities and privileges),
- the hereditary revenues of the Crown (that is, the Crown Estate, bona vacantia, treasure, etc),
- the Duchies of Lancaster or Cornwall,
- or her personal property (such as Sandringham and Balmoral) or interests (that is, those things that affect the Queen herself not otherwise covered by the other elements described already—including offices in the Queen’s Household, the Occupied Royal Palaces, the Crown Jewels, etc).
Prince’s Consent is the same as Queen’s Consent, but is sought of the Prince of Wales in respect of his hereditary revenues in the Duchy of Cornwall or in respect of his lands or rights as Prince and Great Steward of Scotland. Mere mentions of the Duchy of Cornwall qualifies the legislation for consent to be sought. Prince’s Consent seems to be required because it is the consent of the heir to the throne, who will one day be the Sovereign, and so the particular issue in respect of which his Consent is required could be argued to be an extension of the Sovereign’s own interest.
Queen’s or Prince’s Consent must be signified at or before a Bill’s Third Reading, either as given or refused, and, if refused, the Bill falls. Bills which consolidate or restate the law do not require Queen’s or Prince’s Consent. Most Bills which pass through both Houses of Parliament are initiated by the Government; support for those Bills is more or less guaranteed as a result of the Government’s majority in the Commons. It logically follows that Bills initiated by the Government are not likely to be frustrated by the Government through the mechanism of Queen’s or Prince’s Consent.
Buckingham Palace has confirmed that Queen’s Consent is refused only upon the advice of Ministers; reading between the lines in what this statement does not say, this means that the Queen’s Consent is automatic to Bills, unless advised by Ministers to refuse. Queen’s Consent is given (by a Privy Counsellor in the Commons at the relevant legislative stage) as a matter of course unless refused on ministerial advice. Refusal of Queen’s Consent happens when an MP introduces a Private Member’s Bill which the Government does not support; it is never refused for Government Bills, which underlines the facts that not only does the Queen refuse such consent on ministerial advice but also that it is wielded by the Government against Private Members’ Bills as aforesaid.
Asking the Queen’s or the Duke of Cornwall’s permission to pass a new law is therefore not only nominal but also nothing to do with either of them, but entirely in the Government’s control.
Although the Cabinet Office’s guidance phrases the issue of Queen’s and Prince’s Consent in such a way as to sound as if Her Majesty or His Royal Highness actually have a real say or are even asked, Buckingham Palace has itself acknowledged the true state of affairs: that consent is refused on ministerial advice. The idea of an unelected monarch or her heir having a blanket veto over the legislative process in a modern democracy is a relic of the Middle Ages and there are many who argue that, for all its nominal reality, it should be abolished entirely.