|THE MONARCHY AND THE CONSTITUTION
By Alistair McConnachie and first published in a Sovereignty Special Report distributed free with the May 2002 issue.
Princess Elizabeth came to the throne on 6 February 1952 following the death of her father, George VI.
Her coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953.
The British monarchy is the oldest and most fascinating monarchy on earth. It is almost impossible to consider British history without acknowledging the centrality of its monarchy, and it is almost impossible to imagine Britain without a monarchy.
In these articles we examine how the sovereign People, and the sovereign Queen, relate together within the sovereign Community of the Realm.
THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION
For centuries the monarch exercised supreme executive, legislative and judicial power in person.
The struggle between Crown and Parliament in the seventeenth century led in 1688-89 to the establishment of a limited constitutional monarchy.
With the establishment of the Party system by the end of the nineteenth century, the monarch's direct role in politics became minimal.
Today, the two major roles of the Queen are as the Head of State and as a National Icon.
As Head of State the Queen does not owe her position to either patronage or a vote, and can more properly represent all the people in a way in which an elected President cannot.
As a National Icon, with a history stretching back centuries, the Queen is a distinct symbol of national identity. She represents Britain - the nation, its constituent parts, and the people - in a way in which a transitory politician can never do. In this role, she also provides a focused and tangible symbol of the people's sovereignty.
These are important roles, and in both of them she has political power - of a sort - but it is not the sort of power which by itself, could for example, take Britain out the EU.
Under our present system, the legislature is Parliament, namely, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The executive is the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
There is some connection between the three branches of government. For example, the Cabinet links the legislature with the executive, through its members. The Lord Chancellor, who is a Cabinet member, links the judiciary and the executive, and the Lords of Appeal - "the Law Lords" - sitting in the House of Lords, link the legislature and the judiciary.
"The Crown" is the symbol, and name, of the supreme governing authority. The Queen is the person of the Crown.
The governing functions of the Crown are exercised by ministers responsible to Parliament, in the name of the Queen. Hence the term, "Her Majesty's Government".
Bills go through the House of Commons, and the House of Lords and when they have been passed by both Houses, the Queen gives her "Royal Assent" to them.
"Can the Queen refuse to give her Royal Assent?"
It is not realistic to imagine that the Queen can seriously refuse to give her assent to such bills.
Some eurosceptics lay hope in the unlikely possibility of the Queen refusing Royal Assent to, say, a major bill which advances the designs of the EU. However, the only situation where it may be possible for the Queen to refuse assent, is if there were to be a major constitutional crisis.
For example, if a major EU treaty, with huge constitutional implications were to be rejected by the Lords - something which has never happened before - but the Government insisted on invoking the Parliament Act to override the Lords and push it through regardless, then the Queen could, conceivably, refuse assent.
Only in such a moment of constitutional crisis - where a sufficient number of the electorate understood what was happening, and where they were opposed to it, and where the Queen could be assured of the clear support of the majority of the population - could she intervene in her constitutional role as supreme arbiter, and refuse the Royal Assent.
Ultimately, however, it must be we, the people, who force our power up from below, so that one day the Queen will give her Royal Assent to "The Bill to Leave the EU."
"What is the point of MPs taking the Oath of Allegiance?"
Moreover, pledging allegiance to the Queen is pledging loyalty to her as the visible representative of the sovereign power which ultimately belongs to the people.
Some historians have spoken about the absolute sovereignty possessed by the "Queen-in-Parliament" and given the impression that Parliament, and not the people, is sovereign. They are wrong to give this impression.
Britain is a democracy and government rests, theoretically at least, on the will of the people - however unsatisfactorily it may be expressed within our present Party system, and our "representative" form of democracy. However, regardless of the type of democratic system which we have at the moment - or may have in the future - vesting sovereignty in the Queen does not deprive the people of it, but provides a focused and tangible symbol of the people's sovereignty.
Furthermore, by pledging allegiance to the Queen, a politician pledges allegiance to the collective nation and its entire people, and thereby makes a very inclusive statement. He or she rises, in theory at least, above the factional claims of the party, which may speak only for certain sections of the community, and which sometimes exclude, or are hostile, to others.
Those politicians who want to bypass the Queen and see the Oath of Allegiance replaced with a direct commitment to "the people" need to explain how this differs from what, effectively, is being done at the moment, and why their idea would necessarily represent a more progressive moral order.
"Why does the Act of Settlement forbid a Catholic monarch?"
This may seem anachronistic, in our multi-religious society today, but there is -- whatever one may think of it -- a reason.
At the Queen's coronation she is asked, "Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland … and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs? … Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements? … Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?"
The Protestant doctrine is that the national monarch is supreme governor, next under God, of all estates in his or her realm.
At the Pope's coronation it is said to him, "Receive the Tiara adorned with three crowns, and know that thou art Father of Kings and Princes, Ruler of the World, and Vicar on Earth of Jesus Christ."
The Roman Catholic doctrine is that the Pope has international authority over all national monarchs.
Thus, the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of monarchy are quite different.
A practising Catholic monarch would submit to the Pope as the highest temporal and spiritual authority in the land, and this would have religious, constitutional, political and social implications for the country - although the extent to which these would impact upon an increasingly secular society, is indeed arguable.
Protestants would advocate that the time to abolish the Act of Settlement is when the Pope abolishes his absolute claims.
However, don't expect a resolution tomorrow. This one could run and run!