As Head of State, Her Majesty the Queen is must remain in a strictly neutral position with respect to all matters political, where she is unable to vote or stand for election. However, the Queen does hold a key position in our nation, which is to fulfil the important and formal ceremonial roles in relation to the Government of the United Kingdom. The British Legislature is best described by the formal phrase ‘the Queen in Parliament’ which consists of the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Her Majesty is responsible for duties which include the opening of each new session of Parliament, while dissolving Parliament before a general election, and also approving Orders and Proclamations through the Privy Council. Her Majesty has a very special relationship with the Prime Minister which is secured by the constitution, where she retains the right to appoint and also meet with him or her on a regular basis, usually every Tuesday evening at Buckingham Palace. Not only is the Queen’s role highly specified in the Parliament of the whole of the United Kingdom, she also has additional, formal responsibilities within the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Queen has a clear and concise relationship with Parliament that is supported by the constitution. Though this role is comprised mostly of ceremonial duties, Her Majesty also has many key powers that make her more than a mere figurehead. The term ‘Crown in Parliament’ is most closely associated with the British legislature, which consists of the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, but the most powerful political body of these three different factions, is the House of Commons, which usually consists of a majority of MP’s (Members of Parliament) whom normally support the elected Government of the day, which has the dominant political power. The role of the Sovereign in the enactment of legislation today, is purely formal, but vital in the workings of our government. Although The Queen has the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn through regular audiences with the Prime Minister and her ministers, she is not an institution which can be ignored or brushed aside, as she acts as a checks and balances system to protect her people from an unjust and oppressive Parliament if the political party in power becomes tyrannical. As a constitutional monarch, Her Majesty (the Sovereign) is required to ratify (Royal Assent) all Bills which are passed by Parliament. Her Majesty does this on the advice of Government ministers. The Royal Assent (consenting to a measure in which the Sovereign signs and bill into law) has not been refused since the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707.
Crown In Parliament
The opening and dissolving of Parliament is one of the most important roles the queen must fulfil. The State Opening of Parliament is a ceremony, which is the greatest show of British pomp and pageantry, while holding several underlying and symbolic examples of the Sovereigns power. Her Majesty opens Parliament in person, complete with legendary regalia including the main symbol of the monarch’s power, The Imperial State Crown. Her Majesty addresses both Houses in the House of Lords’ chambers, while outlining her governments programme in The Queen’s Speech. Neither the House of Lords, nor the House of Commons can proceed to public business until The Queen’s Speech has been read.
The Queen’s speech is read aloud by Her Majesty but is composed by the Government and not by the Queen herself. It outlines her Government’s policy (as the government makes laws in her name) for the oncoming session of Parliament which she has declared open by personally appearing within the Palace of Westminster (Parliament). The main focus and purpose for The Queen’s Speech is to indicate forthcoming legislation from Her Majesty’s government. In addition to opening Parliament, it is only The Queen who can summon Parliament, and prorogue (discontinue without dissolving it) or dissolve it. When a Prime Minister wishes to end the Parliamentary session and call for a general election, he or she is must seek the permission of the Queen to do so. It is for this purpose that the Prime Minister usually travels to Buckingham Palace (other than for his Tuesday night meetings with the Queen) for permission to hold and announce a general election.
The Parliament Act of 1911 sets the term of, or the life of the United Kingdom Parliament to a five year term, unless it is dissolved sooner by the Sovereign at the request of the Prime Minister. This was amended only during World Wars I & II when the life of Parliament was extended annually to avoid general election during war time. In the United Kingdom, each modern Parliament has been dissolved before its term has expired. When Parliament is summoned by the Sovereign, and also after a Royal proclamation, there must (since the Representation of the People Act 1918) be a period of at least twenty days before Parliament is allowed to convene. According to the Prorogation Act 1867, this period can be extended, but only for a term of fourteen days. There is one and only one occasion on which Parliament is allowed to meet without a Royal summons, and that is when the Sovereign has died. In these such sorrowful circumstances, the Succession to the Crown Act of 1707 provides that, if Parliament is not already sitting in session, it must immediately meet and sit. The Meeting of Parliament Act 1797 provides that, if the Sovereign dies after the Parliament has been dissolved, the immediately preceding Parliament can sit for up to six months at a time, if not prorogued or dissolved before then.
The Queen’s role in Parliament is:
- Assenting to Bills passed by Parliament, on the advice of Ministers;
- Giving audiences to Ministers, at which Her Majesty may be consulted, encourage and warn.
- Opening each new session of Parliament; Proroguing or dissolving Parliament before a general election.
The Queen And Her Prime Minister
Her Majesty has a very unique and special relationship with her Prime Minister, who is the senior political figure in the British Government, regardless of their political party. Her Majesty is a constitutional monarch, which allows her to remain politically neutral, while her Prime Minister contends within the political arena. When a potential Prime Minister to be is called to Buckingham Palace to be presented to Her Majesty, The Queen will then and only in person ask him or her whether he or she will form a government in the Queen’s name. To this question, there are only two responses that are realistically possible. The most usual is a response of acceptance. If the situation is uncertain, as it was with Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, a potential Prime Minister can accept an exploratory commission, where later in time returning later to report either failure or, as occurred in 1963, success. After a new Prime Minister has been appointed by Her Majesty, the Court Circular will record that “the Prime Minister Kissed Hands on Appointment”. This is not literally the case, but in actual fact, the literal kissing of her Majesty’s hands will take place later, in private Council. To date, there have been twelve British Prime Ministers during Queen’s Elizabeth II’s reign starting when she first ascended the throne with Sir Winston Churchill from 1952- 1955. Following her first Prime Minister, these others have followed in succession:
- Sir Anthony Eden 1955-1957
- Harold Macmillan 1957-1963
- Sir Alec Douglas-Home 1963-1964
- Harold Wilson 1964-70 and 1974-1976
- Edward Heath 1970-1974
- James Callaghan 1976-1979
- Margaret Thatcher 1979-1990
- John Major 1990-1997
- Tony Blair 1997-2007
- Gordon Brown 2007-2010
- David Cameron from 2010 – 2016
- Theresa May 2016 – Present
Her Majesty, the Queen has the right to retain the ability to give a regular audience to a Prime Minister during his or her term of office, and Her Majesty plays a role in the mechanics of calling a general election. The Queen gives a weekly audience to the Prime Minister at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on Government matters of the day. If either party of this unique relationship are not available to meet in person, then the Queen and the Prime Minister they will speak by telephone. The famed Tuesday evening meetings between Her Majesty and her Prime Minster, as with all communications between The Queen and her Government, remain strictly confidential. Having expressed her views and thoughts to the Prime Minister, Her Majesty abides by and acts on the advice of her ministers. The Queen as previously stated plays a part in the calling of a general election, where the Prime Minister of the day may request the Sovereign to grant the dissolution of Parliament at any time.
A dissolution can only occur with the Sovereigns approval. In normal circumstances, when a single-party government (not a coalition government as we have today) enjoys a majority in the House of Commons, the Sovereign would not refuse dissolution, for the government would then resign as the ongoing government, as the Sovereign would be unable to find an alternative government capable of commanding the confidence of the elected House of Commons. After a general election has occurred, the appointment of the Prime Minister is solely the prerogative of the Sovereign. In appointing a Prime Minister, the Sovereign is guided by constitutional conventions that must be adhered to. The main requirement is to find someone who can command the confidence of the House of Commons. This is normally secured by appointing the leader of the party with an overall majority of seats in the Commons, but there could still be exceptional circumstances when The Queen might need to exercise discretion to ensure that the Government that bears her name is carried on.