May 13 2014

The Role Of The Monarchy And Britain’s Head Of State

Graham Smith

Graham Smith

The role of the monarchy in the UK is a controversial constitutional subject. Graham Smith, chief executive officer of Republic, believes that the monarchy should be replaced by a non-partisan, elected head of state. He explains the current role of our monarch and goes on to discuss how an elected head of state could better represent the voice of the people.

Every country has a head of state, whether it is a president or a monarch.  In many countries the head of state is a different person to the head of government, who is often referred to as Prime Minister.  This is true of monarchies like Britain, Sweden and Denmark as well as republics like Ireland, Germany and Poland.

What is a head of state for?

The phrase “ceremonial head of state” can be misleading. It suggests that the role is purely for decoration, when it is actually a crucial part of the political system.

Unlike our monarch, an elected head of state’s neutrality is prescribed by law, so they can be genuinely independent of government, acting as an impartial referee of the political system and an extra check on the power of government.  If there’s a risk that a new law may breach fundamental rights or principles, for example, a head of state may refer it to the Supreme Court. Or if there is widespread public opposition to a bill, the president may consult the people in a referendum. These powers are rarely used, but vitally important in a democracy.

Aside from these formal functions, a president represents their country on the world stage and takes a leading role at times of national celebration, uncertainty or tragedy. In carrying out these parts of the job, an elected head of state knows they will be held to account for their words and actions, providing a strong incentive to be unifying and inclusive.

What we have in Britain

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace (Credit: shining.darkness, CC by 2.0)

A constitutional monarch is a puppet head of state. A king or queen has no democratic legitimacy so they can never act independently of government; they simply do what they’re told. Ministers can do almost anything they like – including taking away our rights and liberties – safe in the knowledge that there is no final check on their power.

This lack of legitimacy also means that the Queen retreats from the head of state’s role in representing and speaking for the British people. Think of her 60 years in office – she hasn’t celebrated with the nation after great achievements or offered words of hope at times of crisis. She hasn’t got to know her people or let them get to know her. And there is a good reason for this – a monarch survives by staying silent, keeping their head down and making only the blandest public statements.

If we had a democratic alternative to the monarch, we could elect someone from among the wider population, someone who can:

  • represent the nation
  • defend our democracy
  • act as referee in the political process
  • offer a non-political voice at times of crisis and celebration

The job would not simply be ceremonial; our new head of state would have very clear and limited powers.

What sort of powers would the head of state have?

In a republic all our politicians would have to obey a set of rules that are decided by the people (written down in a constitution and voted on by the public).  The head of state would be able to stop the politicians from doing something if they are breaking the rules – but not just because they disagree with the politicians.

For example, if the constitution says that new treaties with the EU require a referendum, if the government tried to sign a new deal with the EU without first asking the voters then the president could step in.  The head of state wouldn’t be allowed to get involved in the debate about the merits of the EU, but would be able to insist the government followed the rules.


The Palace of Westminster (Credit: Alex Loach, CC by 2.0)

Also, if we have another hung parliament where no party has enough MPs to form a government, then the president would preside over the process of deciding who should become Prime Minister. This would ensure the process was fair and even handed and all parties had the opportunity to have their voices heard.

Our elected head of state would be free to speak out on important issues of the day, but would not be allowed to speak on party political matters or get involved in party politics.  The head of state could give a voice to the people’s concerns or hopes, put new issues onto the public agenda or support community groups and charities in promoting non-partisan causes.

The rules that would govern politicians would also apply to the head of state – these rules would stop them becoming party-political.

An independent and neutral head of state

Even if an elected head of state has previously been a party politician they can still be independent and neutral (impartial) once in the job.  The rules of the job would require them to be non-partisan and because their actions are open to scrutiny the public and politicians can judge whether those rules are being followed.

Britain already has plenty of examples of people in these kinds of positions, most notably the Speaker of the House of Commons.  The Speaker is elected to parliament as a party MP, but once he or she is chosen as Speaker they remove themselves from party political debates and instead represent the whole of the Commons and act as referee in MPs’ debates.

Our experience in electing mayors and police commissioners shows that voters are able and willing to choose candidates from outside the big political parties.  Candidates may be people with successful careers in law, business, foreign affairs, teaching, science, or someone who has made a name for themselves championing a popular cause or running a big charity.  In a great country like ours, with over sixty million people, we’ll be spoilt for choice.

Not like the US or France: A very British head of state

I support a non-partisan head of state who is not involved in making political decisions or running the government.  So we don’t support a system like they have in France or the United States.  I believe the best alternative to the monarchy is a head of state that is able to do the job that the Queen cannot do.  It is a serious job of representing the nation, acting as referee in the political process, championing the interests of the people and defending our democratic traditions.


Graham Smith is the chief executive officer of Republic, the campaign for a democratic alternative to the monarchy. To discuss the head of state with Graham and other experts, come along to our Constitutional Carnival on 26 June 2014.

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3 Responses to The Role Of The Monarchy And Britain’s Head Of State

  1. TT says:

    Graham’s post poses as many questions for me about the nature of the Constitution UK project as it does about the substantive question of the future of our monarchy. If someone were to ask me if I want to see the constitutional monarch replaced by an elected head of state, my response would be a simple ‘yes’, without a doubt. However, if asked whether the written constitution we are moving towards should make provision for such a replacement, I would perhaps be less certain.

    I don’t mind putting my name to a political demand with which I agree but with which the majority of citizens are likely to disagree, which is not going anywhere, or which is likely to be torn apart by the poplar press – I have done that many times before and I am sure I will do it again. But is that what we are doing here?

    The Constitution UK project has emerged from the crisis in our institutions of which the MPs expenses scandal is just one example. It goes without saying that there has been a loss of faith in the political process. This is clearly demonstrated by the sometimes alarming policies of those standing in today’s European elections. Yet we can’t agree as a nation on so many different aspects of constitutional reform. We can’t agree on proportional representation (at least in part because we were given a choice between the existing unsatisfactory first-past-the-post system and the unsatisfactory AV system). Our MP’s cant agree on how to reform the House of Lords – the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 is better than nothing, but a million miles away from an elected second chamber which we were promised. So getting popular and parliamentary support for a written constitution is not going to be easy. Getting such support for a written constitution that abolishes the monarchy is even less likely.

    If we adopt the model proposed by Richard Gordon in his book ‘Repairing British Politics’ – indeed even if we don’t – the crowd sourced constitution that comes out of this initiative will need to go through parliament. Richard Gordon’s approach would – we hope – provide an entrenched constitution.

    It is just possible that a Labour – Liberal – SNP (if they are still at Westminster) – Plaid – Green coalition would be able to pass the kind of Bill he proposes. But including the abolition of the monarchy would make such a bill very unlikely.

    How is the Constitution UK initiative intended to work? Is this is a pragmatic project, proposing changes that we believe will command popular and parliamentary support? Or is it more principled? Do we shy away from ideas that the public are likely to reject? Is this about political compromise and the art of the possible, or is it to be more radical than that?

    Applying some kind of cod legal reasoning to the project, what kind of body is it? What are the governance arrangements? Who will have the responsibility for interpreting the crowdsourcing exercise and deciding the content of the hew constitution? In particular, how would a decision on this particular proposal be taken?

    And if there is a structure outside the LSE, how do I get involved?

    Please could we have something about these issues on the programme for the June event.

  2. John B. says:

    I agree with the previous comment that it is extremely unlikely to dismantle the British monarchy through democratic means. One point I’m thinking about is that British monarch is not just the head of the state in GB, but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. How would our abolition of monarchy play out for them?

    Many would argue that we have a significant influence on these countries, which still consider themselves British heiress. Among other problems, like increasing homophobic and Islamophobic populism on the rise, don’t you think there is an urgent need to deal with people like Nigel Farange, instead of the monarchy?

    I know that I’m mixing topics by mentioning something different from your proposal, but I know that history repeats itself, and fascism is coming back – you can see it in the EP elections this year. I don’t want to wait for Captain America to save us when we are in trouble again.

  3. Ian Roberts says:

    It has been argued that our Monarchy is distant from the people and a puppet head of state without any sort of lawful legitimacy. It has also been said that our ministers can pretty much act with impunity safe in the knowledge that there is no real checks on the power that they wield. “Lets have a President” is the call, “A President will be able to do everything a Monarch cannot do” is a further call. I suggest that this is not true and that the Monarchy is much more legitimate, much less a puppet and much closer to the British People than has been suggested.

    The British Monarchy, like a lot of Constitutional Monarchy, reigns rather than rules. That is, the Monarch acts, largely, as a ceremonial figurehead with either limited powers or no powers at all. The former is true of Constitutional Monarchies like the UK and Norway, the latter is true of Constitutional Monarchies like Sweden and The Netherlands. Though the UK’s constitution is not formed into one comprehensive document, it is the sum of a number of different acts of parliament and doctrines. Parliamentary acts the likes of the 1689 Bill of Rights, 1701 Act of Settlement and Succession to the Crown Act 2013. The first two acts are important as they limit, to an extent, the power of the Monarch and give Parliament the power to decide who sits on the British Throne, the third act being a graphic demonstration of the power to decide the succession to the Throne. The 1689 Bill of Rights is especially important as it enshrined Parliament as the supreme law making body. Accordingly Royal and Governmental power is checked to a degree. Though in some instances these checks have been found to be tired to a degree, they are still strong and relevant. Other countries, both Monarchies and Republics, have problems with their systems of governance, as such, any problems raised by critics of our own system are by no means unique. They can happen in pretty much any system. Our system is democratic and the rule of law is a fundamental principle. Though our Monarchy act largely as ceremonial figureheads, they do intervene where required whether it be to hold ministers to account or to check ill thought out elements of government acts.

    Perhaps taking a slight detour, it should be noted that it was the UK that drafted the ECHR and that the UK has won the bulk of cases brought against it at the ECtHR. If our system of government was so poor then would it be asked to draft an incredibly important constitutional document and treaty or be able to win more cases at a major international court of law than any other country that contracts to the said treaty and court? I think not. Constitutional Monarchy is, legally, a valid and democratic system of government.

    Moving away from legal constitutional and legal arguments, is our Monarchy distant from the people? The Queen’s response to the death of Diana, Prince of Wales may be indicative of this. This is only one example of distance and a poor one. The Monarchy is, in fact, much closer to the British people than has been suggested. Only recently we have seen during the 2012 Olympic Games, the Monarchy was very active amongst the people. Golden Jubilee events were well attended as were Royal Wedding events. One of our most revered Monarchs, George VI, remained in the UK during WW2 living on the same rations as people in the street lived on and facing bombs, doodlebugs and V2’s like everybody else unlike the great Winston Churchill who lived underground and ate non-rationed food when away on international conference. This helped to maintain morale in the UK at even the darkest of times. To this day, popular support for the Monarchy is extremely high. This is not, as Sunder Katwala, former head of the very left wing think tank Fabian, has noted, due to press manipulation but very much due to the Monarchy’s ability to connect with the British people. The Monarchy is very much in touch with the British People.

    In all, the British Monarchy is far better than many a doom merchant may suggest. It is a very relevant, modern institution that is in touch with the people that it reigns over, is able to be an effective check on the elected government and has the broad support of the people of this country. By all means have a written constitution but have one that reflects the wishes of the people of this country by keeping the Monarchy in place.

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