Royal powers and prerogatives

A friend and relative asked whether the Royal family really still wielded political or societal power? I told him that in my view the short answer was yes. The long answer is that the monarch (whether present Queen or future King) can exercise considerable influence on the prime minister and other ministers, and that the future King Charles seems likely to wish to do so, having strongly held views on all sorts of fashionable topics and some pretty weird gurus feeding him their often misbegotten ideas, most recently causing HRH to advocate a “cure” for cancer involving, among other things, coffee enemas, the whole régime pronounced by some orthodox practitioners as probably dangerous and certainly ineffectual. According to the great constitutional authority Walter Bagehot, the monarch has three essential powers and rights in relation to his or her ministers: to be consulted, to advise and to warn. Taken together, and if exercised with vigour, these rights can significantly influence (often by inhibiting) ministers’ behaviour and decisions.

The monarch, and indeed other senior royals in significant matters, usually act only on the ‘advice’ of elected ministers, advice which is in practice mandatory. There are also however some significant personal powers under the royal prerogative, not necessarily exercised on the advice of ministers: for example,
• whether to accept or reject a prime minister’s request for a dissolution of parliament and fresh elections: and
• which member of parliament to invite first to try to form a government (which could be highly significant in the event of a hung parliament, a very real possibility at the next general election and a dead cert every time if we ever changed the electoral system and went over to proportional representation, heaven forbid).

There is no consensus among constitutional authorities about the circumstances in which these powers can properly be exercised in disregard of ministerial advice, nor about which political or official figures the monarch should (or properly could) consult before deciding how to act, although there’s a school of thought that argues that the monarch should normally consult his or her own Principal Private Secretary (a courtier appointed by the monarch, not accountable to anyone else), the Secretary to the Cabinet (a senior civil servant owing his or her primary loyalty to the government of the day), and the prime minister’s Principal Private Secretary (ditto). None of these three has any particular responsibility to parliament or the public, although it’s a reasonable expectation that all three, in tendering advice on such vital matters, would seek to act in the national interest rather than in obedience to any narrow party or personal allegiance. But these can be highly subjective issues. Both these personal powers clearly ought to be transferred to some accountable public figure, such as the Speaker of the House of Commons, before some future monarch tries to exercise them in a way that could easily provoke a major constitutional crisis, one indeed that could bring down the monarchy. But no-one is prepared to grasp this nettle for fear of being badly stung (“Now Blair Tries To Grab Queen’s Powers” — Daily Mail; “Power to King Tony” — The Sun).

As I write the radio is playing a clip of the Prince of Wales pontificating about education in a way which is being interpreted as an attack on government education policy, an interpretation being hastily denied by the Prince’s spokesman.

And the royal family has considerable social influence in maintaining its old-fashioned life-style at the apex of Society (with a capital S) with the full panoply of bowing, curtseying, courtiers and others walking backwards in The Presence, the monarch announcing government policy at each opening of parliament as if he or she had formulated these policies him/herself, personally conferring honours and titles, presiding at surrealistically formal banquets, insisting on the wearing of imaginative costumes for different occasions (white tie and tails, black tie, morning dress, top hats for men, hats and gloves for women, you name it), travelling by air and train at enormous public expense to purely private activities (watching football matches in Japan, playing golf in Spain, and so forth). This constantly legitimises the perpetuation of a grandiose life-style for a small social class, a life-style wholly out of keeping with a 21st-century democracy, redolent of wealth, hereditary unearned privilege and gross inequality. The harm all this does to our society (small s) may not be quantifiable, but it is manifestly considerable.

Here endeth the subversive lesson.

London, 1 July 2004

3 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Tim W. again. An item that’s just appeared under the ITN news headlines at is not irrelevant to your comments about Royal influence. It reads:

    ‘Prince Charles has come under attack by a top cancer expert over alternative therapies.

    ‘Professor Michael Baum has said Prince Charles is wrong to say non-conventional treatments such as coffee enemas or the Gerson diet are suitable for cancer patients.

    ‘In a letter to a leading medical journal, Professor Baum said he has authority only because of an accident of birth – and accuses him of being surrounded by sycophants who reinforce his views.

    ‘A spokesman for Prince Charles said he has never said people should have alternative remedies instead of orthodox treatment.

    ‘Professor Baum’s broadside is in the form of an open letter to the British Medical Journal, headlined ‘With respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong’.

    ‘He writes: “Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I don’t begrudge you that authority and we probably share many opinions about art and architecture, but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.”

    ‘He adds: “There is no equivalent of the GMC for the monarchy, so it is left either to sensational journalism or, more rarely, to the quiet voice of loyal subjects such as myself to warn you that you may have overstepped the mark.

    ‘”It is in the nature of your world to be surrounded by sycophants (including members of the medical establishment hungry for their mention in the Queen’s birthday honours list) who constantly reinforce what they assume are your prejudices.

    ‘”Sir, they patronise you! Allow me this chastisement.”‘

  2. Brian says:

    Fascinating. This has been quite widely reported. I mentioned at the beginning of my post, of course, Prince Charles’s recommendation of the coffee enema cancer ‘cure’, but I was writing before it attracted this magisterial rebuke from a highly qualified specialist. We can afford to laugh (nervously) at this sort of thing coming from the Prince of Wales, but when it’s the King bending the ears of ministers…?


  3. Anonymous says:

    You list among the royal powers:
    • which member of parliament to invite first to try to form a government (which could be highly significant in the event of a hung parliament,


    The point is that it doesn’t have to be like that at all. Spain, unlike Britain, has completed its transition to democracy and has a Parliament that is sufficiently grown up to be able to manage its own affairs without royal meddling.

    After each general election the deputies assemble and, under the oversight of the youngest member and the oldest member acting together, they elect a President (Speaker) and the cross-party standing committee that manages parliamentary business. These then operate the clearly-established procedure for approving a new government.

    There is a minimum period, after which a candidate for prime minister can be proposed. There is then a period in which a vote is held. If he wins a qualified majority (I think it is 70%) he becomes prime minister. If not he has another period in which to win an absolute majority. If he fails in that and no-one else succeeds, then there has to be another election.

    When the new PM has been elected by the Parliament, he chooses his ministers and they swear or affirm (only one of the present government swore a religious oath) in the presence of the King. This is the first royal involvement in the appointment of the Government, and though the ministers swear or affirm loyalty to him and to the Constitution, they owe their positions ultimately to Parliament.

    Until the new ministers are sworn in, the previous ones remain in office with powers restricted by law and are scrupulously referred to as the Acting Minister of Whatever.

    It is usually accepted that the party with most seats gets the first chance. Zapatero specifically said during the recent camapign that he would not try to form a government if PSOE had fewer seats than PP. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the PP had been the largest party but short of a majority. Rajoy would have found it impossible to put together even a minority government without major, damaging and humiliating concessions to some other party or parties.

    This system is followed in all assemblies in Spain, at regional and municipal level, as well as national. All in all, Spain feels constitutionally more like a repubic than a monarchy.

    Best wishes,

    Peter (in case you hadn’t guessed!)