What Does the British Monarchy Actually Do?

Youf the outpour of grief—or public polling—in the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth II’s death is anything to go by, it is clear that Britain is still largely a nation of royalists. But as anti-monarchy sentiment attracts more attention, and as some protesters even get arrested for voicing such views, it’s worth revisiting what role the monarchy plays in Britain’s constitutional system and just how complicated it would be to abolish the institution.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the power to abolish the monarchy doesn’t lie with the monarch alone. In fact, there isn’t a whole lot that British Kings and Queens can actually do beyond the bounds of their constitutionally-defined mandate—one that primarily involves tasks such as appointing prime ministers, approving new laws, receiving foreign dignitaries, and presiding over the opening and dissolving of parliament. Over the course of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign, she would have likely held thousands of meetings with the 15 prime ministers she worked with, appointed hundreds of ministers, and given her ascent to an untold number of laws, all while having virtually zero say in who those ministers were or what their legislative agenda ought to have been. As the English poet Tennyson once noted, Britain is a crowned republic—one in which the monarch reigns, but does not rule. These limits were acknowledged by the Queen in her 1957 first televised speech to the nation. “I do not give you laws or administer justice. However, I have the ability to do other things. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations,” she said.

While the lack of political power doesn’t overshadow the Royal Family’s enormous privilege—especially when it comes to its vast wealth and financial arrangements—it does help explain how such a seemingly outdated institution has persisted for so long. While the pomp, tradition, and sense of history undoubtedly play a part in the monarchy’s continued appeal, so too does the fact that the monarch is seen as an apolitical figure whose entire existence is devoted to service, and therefore above the compromises inherent to electoral politics. Constitutionally-speaking, “the monarch, in almost everything they do, has no choice,” says Robert Hazell, a professor of government and the constitution at University College London. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, this was perhaps best illustrated by the many times in which she had to play host to authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu. Such was the Queen’s lack of autonomy that, as one story goes, she once resorted to hiding in a bush in the Buckingham Palace gardens in order to avoid having another conversation with Ceaușescu, who at the time was her houseguest.

Continue reading: The Monarchy in Britain: Queen Elizabeth II’s Story

It would require legislation from the parliament if Britain were to decide to abolish the monarchy. It would still need to be approved by the British people through a referendum. This would be required by the government, just like the Brexit referendum. Polling since June shows that if such an election were to be held, it would likely win by a large margin. And Britain wouldn’t be alone in doing so. While previous referendums in Italy and Greece led to the abolishment of the monarchy, the institutions were also supported in Belgium, Denmark and Luxembourg.

Getting rid of the monarchy, or simply rescinding it of its ceremonial duties, would constitute “a huge change,” says Hazell, in large part because it would require a complete shakeup of the way the British state is governed. Unlike in the U.S., where the elected President acts as both the country’s head of state and its head of government, Britain’s parliamentary system splits those responsibilities between the monarch, whose role as head of state is inherited at birth, and the Prime Minister, whose role as head of government is decided by the British public (or, in the case of the current occupant of 10 Downing Street, a select group of Conservative Party members).

Britain, which has lost the monarch, would require a new head-of-state, as required by almost all parliamentary systems. The President would likely take this role, which is already a part of many parliamentary systems in countries like Germany and Italy. These people would assume most of the responsibilities that the monarch has, like certifying laws, visiting the states, and speaking with the nation when there is a crisis. But an elected head of state would also likely have the responsibility of acting as “a kind of constitutional umpire,” says Hazell—something that a monarch could never be.

Republicanism isn’t a strong force in Britain at the moment, which makes the abolition of the monarchy unlikely for the foreseeable future. This could change, however, if the institution succeeds or fails to win the support from the younger British populace. The support of the monarchy among those between 18 and 24 has dropped from 59% to 33% in 2011, to only 33% today.

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

Send an email to Yasmeen Serhan at


Related Articles

Back to top button