This article is written by Ishan Arun Mudbidri from Marathwada Mitra Mandal’s Shankarrao Chavan Law College, Pune. This article talks about the concept of constitutional monarchy and also discusses various constitutional monarchies in the world.
This article has been published by Abanti Bose.
Table of Contents
“God save the Queen!”- Britain and its monarchy have come a long way. At 95 years old, Queen Elizabeth holds the crown with dignity and honour. But, Britain is also a democracy and has a Constitution. So you might ask where does the Queen come in this whole picture? This concept is known as Constitutional monarchy.
Constitutional monarchy and its history
Monarchy is the oldest form of government. Monarchs, i.e., Kings and Queens ruled the country and were called heads of the State. King Sargon of Akkad in Mesopotamia was the first emperor this world had ever seen. He ruled for almost 50 years between 2334-2284BC. Since then the concept of monarchy has not remained the same. Earlier, the kings had absolute power and authority over the State. Some respected this power and ruled their kingdom honestly and efficiently like Alfred the Great or Emperor Ashoka, while others ruled for the sake of money, power, and other selfish motives like Henry VIII of England. The third category of monarchs were the incapable ones who, due to circumstances were not fit enough to rule, like the French King Louis XVI.
Irrespective of this fact, absolute monarchy was the only form of government that prevailed during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The “divine right of Kings” concept was adopted by Kings, which meant that the Kings derive their power from God, hence deserve to rule their kingdoms. Gradually people started getting tired of this authoritarian regime which led to the birth of new ideas like secular, republican, liberty, and freedom. The first incident that comes to mind is the French Revolution in 1789. Which started as a treacherous and oppressive monarchical regime of Louis XIV who described himself as the State, and ended with the storming of the Bastille prison by thousands of French people under the helpless rule of Louis XVI. After the French Revolution, the majority of the world’s absolutism started declining. The ideas of enlightenment and capitalism started flourishing. Various social reformers started questioning the authority of the monarchs. In the famous words of reformer John Locke “direct democracy is the best form of government”, the king’s power and authority were reduced and republicanism came into the picture. However, some countries like Oman, Brunei, Qatar, Switzerland, etc. are ruled by monarchs.
Constitutional monarchy is that form of government wherein kings and queens are called heads of state, but cannot exercise policy-making powers. The monarch has limited roles extending mainly to civic responsibilities while the governing and policy-making is done by the parliament.
In most countries, monarchs are chosen by hereditary succession, meaning they inherit the title of a monarch on the death of their ancestors. If there are multiple siblings in the family, the monarchs are chosen by order of eldest to youngest, first males and then females(rule of primogeniture). This system is followed in countries like Spain, whereas in countries like the UK, Sweden, Belgium, women are treated equally to men. So succession entirely depends on heredity. In some countries, monarchs were also chosen according to military leadership (early German and Roman tribes). In countries like the Arab States, monarchs are nominated by consulting a family council.
So to sum up, the succession of monarchs varied from country to country depending on historical and traditional considerations.
Functions of constitutional monarchs
Despite having no executive or governing powers, constitutional monarchs do perform certain functions which are as follows:-
The monarchs don’t play any political role in the country, but they do have to perform ceremonial functions. It is the monarchs who usually welcome or receive esteemed dignitaries or ambassadors from other countries. In certain democracies monarchs even appoint the Prime Minister and other high-level officials of the country. In some countries, it’s only their presence that matters.
As monarchs are heads of state and not the government, they help in maintaining political neutrality. Further, it is the duty of the monarch to ensure that the ruling party and the institutions of the State are well balanced and stable.
Being free from the burden of governing the country, monarchs can devote their time to civic activities like spending time with the local communities, promoting art and culture, and understanding the problems of the people. However, monarchs must ensure that while performing such civic roles, they don’t do or speak anything that is politically controversial.
As the concept of “divine right of kings” is associated with monarchy right from the beginning, in certain countries they do have authority over the religious institutions. This can in many ways ensure that religious extremism is prohibited.
Comparing the role of the President and the monarch in a parliamentary system
Now in a parliamentary set-up, both monarchs and presidents co-exist. Both are called heads of state and both cannot be politically affiliated. So what’s the difference? A monarch is the head of state in a constitutional monarchy, whereas the president is the head of state in a republic. Further, a monarch is appointed according to hereditary succession and cannot be removed from power otherwise, whereas the President is appointed by the people and has a fixed tenure. Further, in both cases, the governance is handled by the Prime Minister and the Parliament.
Britain and the Crown : an eternal affair
The oldest constitutional monarchy in the world is the British Crown. Queen Elizabeth II has ruled more than any other English monarch. But how did she get there? The English monarchy has had a rich history right from the time of the Romans. In the 10th century, Alfred the Great conquered most parts of the country and began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which was continued by his successors who built the kingdom now known as England. In the 12th Century, John Lackland, Henry II’s successor was compelled to sign the Magna Carta which granted fundamental rights and privileges to the people. In the late 18th century, Scotland and England were joined by Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In the 1920s the Commonwealth of Nations(association of former territories of the British Empire) was formed. After the Second World War, in 1952 Elizabeth II succeeded the throne and became the head of the Commonwealth. She also became the head of state of 15 Commonwealth Realms. Each realm is an independent state and has the Queen as the monarch.
“For better or worse, the crown has landed on my head”
In November 2021, Queen Elizabeth marked 70 years of her time on the throne. She has earned tremendous respect from the people during her reign. Born in a humble background in 1926, no one from her family had expected that one day they would live the royal life. It all changed when her father George VI became king. In 1952 King George VI died of prolonged illness. Princess Elizabeth II succeeded him. She married the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Phillip, who died in April 2021. She is survived by her 4 children, 8 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
The crown prerogative
The Queen of England might not be having governing powers, but she definitely has an important role to play in Britain’s administration. The Queen’s powers are assigned in what is known as the Royal prerogative. This prerogative grants certain rights, privileges, powers, and immunities which the Queen of England has. However, the Queen exercises her powers through the government, i.e., the Prime Minister.
Buckingham Palace, the home of the Crown, is the hub for all English ceremonies. The Queen invites the soon-to-be Prime Minister to form the government. The Queen also has the power to dissolve and open a parliament session.
Assent to bills
Every Bill passed in the UK parliament has to go through the assent of the Queen to become a law. This is known as the Royal Assent.
Before the start of the first parliament session of the year, the Queen addresses both houses of Parliament in the Queen’s Speech. The speech is drafted by the government. The session starts only after the Queen finishes her speech.
Relationship with the Prime Minister
The Queen has a special relationship with the Prime Minister. Every week the Queen meets the Prime Minister to give a weekly audience. Here the Queen has a right to express her views on the functioning of the government. The discussion between the Queen and the government must remain strictly confidential. The Queen must ensure that she is politically neutral while expressing her views. The Queen can exercise her powers mentioned in the prerogative against the advice of the government only in exceptional circumstances.
The Queen is supported by her family members in all her matters. Elizabeth II has had an eventful term as a monarch. She has travelled overseas more than any monarch before her. She has been a prominent figure in the British administration. It was Queen Elizabeth who advised the Labour Government in 2003, whether or not to go to war with Saddam Hussien. It is said that the longer the reign as a monarch, the greater is the experience one has. Such is the tenure of Queen Elizabeth II who continues to shine as brightly as the jewels in her crown.
The concept of constitutional monarchy in other countries
When discussing the concept of constitutional monarchy, the British crown comes to mind. So not many people might be knowing some of the other countries which are constitutional monarchies. Some of them are mentioned below:
Belgium got its Constitution in 1831. Inspired by the British model, Belgium is also a hereditary parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The laws are made by the Parliament but are signed by the king. The king signs all the laws which are approved by the Prime Minister. The king is also commander-in-chief of the Belgian armed forces. The king is exempted from arrest, cannot be prosecuted, and cannot be held accountable. The monarch also has the right to be informed about the day-to-day functioning of the government. Philippe Leopold Louis Marie has been the crowned Belgian King since 2013.
Many might find it difficult to believe but, Queen Elizabeth is the queen of Australia too. Earlier I mentioned something about the Commonwealth Realm. Australia is one of the 15 commonwealth realms that have the Queen as their monarch. So just like in the UK, the Queen performs certain ceremonial functions in Australia. However, she is not involved in their day-to-day activities.
Japan is a constitutional monarchy with Emperor Naruhito at the forefront. It is a parliamentary system, so the Prime Minister who is currently Fumio Kishida derives his powers from the Japanese Constitution. The emperor became a symbol of the Japanese State in 1946 when the Constitution came into effect. Hence the sovereign power rests with the people, and the emperor is the head of the state. There are three branches of the government namely, the executive, judiciary, and the legislature. The emperor has ceremonial powers like appointing the Prime Minister, the members of the judiciary including the Chief Justice, approving laws, and conferring various awards and honors. The legislative powers are vested in the Diet which consists of the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors.
Bhutan, like other countries mentioned above, is a democratic constitutional monarchy, with a population of around 786,000. Bhutan is a landlocked country between India and China. It has three branches of government, i.e., the legislative, the judiciary, and the executive. The monarch is the head of state and the Prime Minister is the head of the government. The king is chosen according to hereditary succession. He appoints the majority leader in the parliament as the Prime Minister. The hereditary rule in Bhutan was started by the Wangchuk dynasty in 1907. It was in 2008 when absolute monarchy was abolished and democratization was introduced. Currently, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk also known as the Dragon King is the head of state.
Monaco has been a constitutional monarchy since 1911. The legislative powers are jointly exercised by the prince and the parliament. The Prime Minister is the head of the government and is appointed in consultation with the monarch. The monarch also has the power to change the government. The monarch has the power to shape foreign policies, enact laws, frame the budget, etc. but the final approval is given by the freely elected parliament. Monaco has a single legislative chamber known as the National Council. Its members are chosen through elections, however, the monarch has a veto power towards the Council. The members of the judiciary are also appointed by the Prince. Currently, Prince Albert II is the head of state.
Pros and cons of having a constitutional monarchy
The advantages of having a constitutional monarchy as the head of state are as follows:
A monarch provides political stability in a government. Being politically neutral, the government can always rely on the head of state. Further monarchs have the power to declare emergency, wars, dissolve parliament, etc. which generally helps governments to remain stable.
No political involvement
During the 17th and 18th centuries, monarchs had absolute control and power over their kingdom. However, the current scenario is different. Monarchs have no involvement in political or day-to-day government matters. Further, they are not even allowed to choose sides.
Change in leadership
In a constitutional monarchy, the people are given the power to choose their representatives to form the government. This change in leadership becomes easy because monarchs allow the government to do so.
Every Bill passed in the parliament requires the monarch’s approval. This helps to ensure that only the laws abiding by the Constitution shall be passed.
Let us look at some of the disadvantages:
All monarchs are appointed according to hereditary succession. This can be a problem as even children can become monarchs. Further monarchs who are incapable cannot be removed from their tenure. Currently, King Oyo of Uganda is the youngest monarch in the world at 29 years old. However, he became the monarch at the age of 3.
Cannot guarantee neutrality
Monarchs are supposed to be politically neutral. But there is no guarantee of this. It may so happen that a monarch has given his/her assent to a legislation that is benefiting the political leadership and not the people.
Monarchs are the head of the religious institutions in the country. Hence this can be a ground for the oppression of the people. This can prove to be harmful as religious extremism can be used by the monarchs to gain control. This might also harm the policies of the government as religion and politics cannot be separated.
The question as to whether the system of constitutional monarchy is effective or not is actually of no use because either way monarchs cannot be removed from power. However, what can be done is to ensure that the monarch strictly adheres to his/her powers and does not misuse them. It is also important to ensure that the monarchs don’t interfere with the functioning of the government because if they do, then no one will be able to guarantee good governance.
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