In the uncodified Constitution of the United Kingdom, the Monarch (otherwise referred to as the Sovereign or "His/Her Majesty", abbreviated H.M.) is the Head of State. Oaths of allegiance are made to the Queen and her lawful successors. "God Save the Queen" (or "God Save the King") is the British national anthem, and the monarch appears on postage stamps, coins and banknotes.
The Monarch takes little direct part in Government. The decisions to exercise sovereign powers are delegated from the Monarch, either by statute or by convention, to Ministers or officers of the Crown, or other public bodies, exclusive of the Monarch personally. Thus the acts of state done in the name of the Crown, such as Crown Appointments, even if personally performed by the Monarch, such as the Queen's Speech and the State Opening of Parliament, depend upon decisions made elsewhere:
- Legislative power is exercised by the Queen-in-Parliament, by and with the advice and consent of Parliament, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
- Executive power is exercised by Her Majesty's Government, which comprises Ministers, primarily the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, which is technically a committee of the Privy Council. They have the direction of the Armed Forces of the Crown, the Civil Service and other Crown Servants such as the Diplomatic and Secret Services (the Queen receives certain foreign intelligence reports before the Prime Minister does).
- Judicial power is vested in the Judiciary, who by constitution and statute have judicial independence of the Government.
- The Church of England, of which the Monarch is the head, has its own legislative, judicial and executive structures.
- Powers independent of government are legally granted to other public bodies by statute or Statutory Instrument such as an Order in Council, Royal Commission or otherwise.
The Sovereign's role as a constitutional monarch is largely limited to non-partisan functions, such as granting honours. This role has been recognised since the 19th century. The constitutional writer Walter Bagehot identified the monarchy in 1867 as the "dignified part" rather than the "efficient part" of government.
Appointment of the Prime Minister
Whenever necessary, the Monarch is responsible for appointing a new Prime Minister (who by convention appoints and may dismiss every other Minister of the Crown, and thereby constitutes and controls the government). In accordance with unwritten constitutional conventions, the Sovereign must appoint an individual who commands the support of the House of Commons, usually the leader of the party or coalition that has a majority in that House. The Prime Minister takes office by attending the Monarch in private audience, and after "kissing hands" that appointment is immediately effective without any other formality or instrument.
In a hung parliament where no party or coalition holds a majority, the monarch has an increased degree of latitude in choosing the individual likely to command the most support, though it would usually be the leader of the largest party. Since 1945, there have only been three hung parliaments. The first followed the February 1974 general election when Harold Wilson was appointed Prime Minister after Edward Heath resigned following his failure to form a coalition. Although Wilson's Labour Party did not have a majority, they were the largest party. The second followed the May 2010 general election, in which the Conservatives (the largest party) and Liberal Democrats (the third largest party) agreed to form the first coalition government since World War II. The third occurred shortly thereafter, in June 2017, when the Conservative Party lost its majority in a snap election, though the party remained in power as a minority government.
Dissolution of Parliament
In 1950 the King's Private Secretary Sir Alan "Tommy" Lascelles, writing pseudonymously to The Times newspaper asserted a constitutional convention: according to the Lascelles Principles, if a minority government asked to dissolve Parliament to call an early election to strengthen its position, the monarch could refuse, and would do so under three conditions. When Harold Wilson requested a dissolution late in 1974, the Queen granted his request as Heath had already failed to form a coalition. The resulting general election gave Wilson a small majority. The monarch could in theory unilaterally dismiss a Prime Minister, but a Prime Minister's term now comes to an end only by electoral defeat, death, or resignation. The last monarch to remove a Prime Minister was William IV, who dismissed Lord Melbourne in 1834. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 removed the monarch's authority to dissolve Parliament; the Act specifically retained the monarch's power of prorogation however, which is a regular feature of the parliamentary calendar.
Some of the government's executive authority is theoretically and nominally vested in the Sovereign and is known as the royal prerogative. The monarch acts within the constraints of convention and precedent, exercising prerogative only on the advice of ministers responsible to Parliament, often through the Prime Minister or Privy Council. In practice, prerogative powers are exercised only on the Prime Minister's advice – the Prime Minister, and not the Sovereign, has control. The monarch holds a weekly audience with the Prime Minister. No records of these audiences are taken and the proceedings remain fully confidential. The monarch may express his or her views, but, as a constitutional ruler, must ultimately accept the decisions of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet (providing they command the support of the House). In Bagehot's words: "the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy ... three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn."
Although the Royal Prerogative is extensive and parliamentary approval is not formally required for its exercise, it is limited. Many Crown prerogatives have fallen out of use or have been permanently transferred to Parliament. For example, the monarch cannot impose and collect new taxes; such an action requires the authorisation of an Act of Parliament. According to a parliamentary report, "The Crown cannot invent new prerogative powers", and Parliament can override any prerogative power by passing legislation.
The Royal Prerogative includes the powers to appoint and dismiss ministers, regulate the civil service, issue passports, declare war, make peace, direct the actions of the military, and negotiate and ratify treaties, alliances, and international agreements. However, a treaty cannot alter the domestic laws of the United Kingdom; an Act of Parliament is necessary in such cases. The monarch is the Head of the Armed Forces (the Royal Navy, the British Army, and the Royal Air Force), and accredits British High Commissioners and ambassadors, and receives heads of missions from foreign states.
It is the prerogative of the monarch to summon and prorogue Parliament. Each parliamentary session begins with the monarch's summons. The new parliamentary session is marked by the State Opening of Parliament, during which the Sovereign reads the Speech from the throne in the Chamber of the House of Lords, outlining the Government's legislative agenda. Prorogation usually occurs about one year after a session begins, and formally concludes the session. Dissolution ends a parliamentary term, and is followed by a general election for all seats in the House of Commons. A general election is normally held five years after the previous one under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, but can be held sooner if the Prime Minister loses a motion of confidence, or if two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons vote to hold an early election.
Before a bill passed by the legislative Houses can become law, the royal assent (the monarch's approval) is required. In theory, assent can either be granted (making the bill law) or withheld (vetoing the bill), but since 1707 assent has always been granted.
The monarch has a similar relationship with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Sovereign appoints the First Minister of Scotland on the nomination of the Scottish Parliament, and the First Minister of Wales on the nomination of the National Assembly for Wales. In Scottish matters, the Sovereign acts on the advice of the Scottish Government. However, as devolution is more limited in Wales, in Welsh matters the Sovereign acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the United Kingdom. The Sovereign can veto any law passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, if it is deemed unconstitutional by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The Sovereign is deemed the "fount of justice"; although the Sovereign does not personally rule in judicial cases, judicial functions are performed in his or her name. For instance, prosecutions are brought on the monarch's behalf, and courts derive their authority from the Crown. The common law holds that the Sovereign "can do no wrong"; the monarch cannot be prosecuted for criminal offences. The Crown Proceedings Act 1947 allows civil lawsuits against the Crown in its public capacity (that is, lawsuits against the government), but not lawsuits against the monarch personally. The Sovereign exercises the "prerogative of mercy", which is used to pardon convicted offenders or reduce sentences.
The monarch is the "fount of honour", the source of all honours and dignities in the United Kingdom. The Crown creates all peerages, appoints members of the orders of chivalry, grants knighthoods and awards other honours. Although peerages and most other honours are granted on the advice of the Prime Minister, some honours are within the personal gift of the Sovereign, and are not granted on ministerial advice. The monarch alone appoints members of the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of Merit.