United Kingdom tutorial
British people wishing to protect their democracy should support the queen.
When Prince William and Catherine Middleton married last month before a congregation of 2 billion television viewers, it was more than a romantic, fairy-tale spectacle of wonder.
The wedding united a future king of England to his “commoner” college sweetheart. Also, it rallied the world to the realization that the British monarch plays and will continue to play a vital constitutional role in both British and world politics.
In this world of ruthless, professional politicians of unimaginable ambition, this could be important. But why would this be of interest to Americans?
To answer the last question first, Great Britain is America’s most fervent and possibly most influential ally. An oil exporting country, it is one of possibly only five nations with a deliverable strategic nuclear weapon, has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and is a member of the European Union. It also leads a commonwealth of important nations.
Therefore, its strategic politics should be of interest to Americans.
Great Britain is a parliamentary democracy, consisting of the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the monarch. Unlike the United States, its constitution is not contained in one distinct document. Further, lacking democratic legitimacy, the power of the House of Lords has been eroded almost completely.
This leaves the prime minister, who, by definition, commands the support of the House of Commons de facto, as an elected dictator. In 1976, during a famous BBC lecture, the late Lord Hailsham described Britain’s government as an “elective dictatorship.” Remarkably, the monarch is the only constitutional barrier to the country becoming a dictatorship.
After 600 years of struggle, Parliament has wrested only one major strategic power from the sovereign — the power to tax. The remaining major constitutional powers rest with the queen. This might come as a shock to many.
Only the queen can open and close Parliament, can sign a parliamentary bill into law as an act, or sign a treaty with a foreign entity. All officers and noncommissioned officers of the armed forces swear allegiance not to Parliament, the Crown or Cabinet, but to the queen in person.
The queen appoints all ministers, ambassadors and bishops. She has even a paid spy in Parliament, the messages whip. Everyone knows who it is, but no one knows what he writes in his daily reports to the queen. Therefore, when the prime minister reports in person to the queen each week, he is discouraged from misinformation.
How can these enormous powers be tolerated todayâ¢ Most importantly, they prevent any overly ambitious politician having them and becoming a totalitarian dictator. Ironically, British people wishing to protect their democracy should support the queen.
Secondly, although constitutionally powerful, the monarch does not engage in party politics. This lends political and social stability. Queen Elizabeth II has watched 12 prime ministers and thousands of ministers come and go from all three major parties. Unlike most politicians, the queen is not only respected deeply but also loved by most of her people.
Effectively, the queen is the chairman of the board of UK Ltd. She takes the advice of her prime minister, as CEO, and her Cabinet ministers, as top management.
The royal wedding was not just glamorous, spectacular and charming. Contrary to popular belief, the British monarch is surprisingly powerful constitutionally. Once Prince William becomes king, Catherine, who has significant grassroots appeal, will have an important role to play in America’s most reliable ally.