Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Constitutional monarchy

A constitutional monarchy is a form of government established under a constitutional system which acknowledges an hereditary or elected monarch as head of state). As in most republics, a constitutional monarchy's executive authority is vested in the head of state.

Today constitutional monarchy is almost always combined with representative democracy, and represents (as a theory of civics) a compromise between total trust in the electorate, and in well-bred and well-trained monarchs raised for the role from birth. Though the king or queen may be regarded as the government's symbolic head, it is the Prime Minister who actually governs the country.

Queen Rania of Jordan states starkly that the difference between ruling a monarchy and ruling a democracy is that, in the latter, an error costs at most the next election, whereas a monarch might well lose their head.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 Written and unwritten constitutions
3 The theoretical head of the executive
4 A practical example: Britain's Elizabeth II and Governments
5 Other monarchs
6 Constitutional monarchy: benefits & pitfalls
7 Some other constitutional monarchies
8 See also:


The concept of constitutional monarchy owes its origin to the absolute monarchies of the later Middle Ages, where governmental authority was exercised by the monarch and his (or in rare occasions her) government.

The development of popular participation in democracy saw power shifting to governments selected from and answerable to legislative assemblies and parliaments, producing more democratic systems of governments in which the monarch 'reigns but does not rule'.

Popular monarchy is a sub-category of constitutional monarchy.

Written and unwritten constitutions

Most modern constitutional monarchies operate under a written fundamental or organic law known as a constitution, which strictly defines the roles possessed by the head of state, the executive, legislature and judiciary. As well as the strict definitions, restrictions exist as to the manner by which these definitions may be changed, with constitutional amendments being passed either by plebiscite (also called referendum), by weighted majorities in parliament or by the voting through of an amendment by two successive parliaments, with a general election in between. Among constitutional monarchies possessing written constitutions are The former monarchies in Italy and Greece also operated under written constitutions.

The United Kingdom is an example where there is no written constitution. Instead Parliament possesses the ability by means of an ordinary law passed by a simple majority to change, vary, empower or abolish an institution of state, including the monarchy. In the United Kingdom, a collection of written laws, unwritten conventionss, the reserve power, the Royal Prerogative and traditions shape the relationship between the various institutions of state; the monarchy, the Crown, the government, the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the Judiciary. In the absence of any single constitutional document, these together are described as Britain's unwritten constitution.

King of the Belgians (1951-1993)

The theoretical head of the executive

In a constitutional monarchy the post of the
head of state is usually passed (by some form of primogeniture) within a royal family. The head of state is normally the theoretical head of the executive, producing phrases like Her Majesty's Government. In some countries the monarch (or in states in the Commonwealth of Nations a governor-general) may chair the cabinet, though they do not play a role in policy formation. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the monarch may have a right of access to all government documentation, as well as a detailed briefing from his or her Prime Minister. However some modern monarchical constitutions exclude the monarch from any participation in government, eg, the King of Sweden and the Emperor of Japan, though in the former case he receives detailed briefings and chairs certain cabinet meetings. Nevertheless, both still qualify to be called "constitutional monarchs".

It is said in constitutional monarchies that the monarch "reigns but does not rule." Most modern constitutional monarchies owe their origins to systems in which the monarch not merely reigned but governed, as in the absolute monarchies which replaced aristocratic systems in the Renaissance. In theory the legislative assembly and the cabinet may or may not be democratically elected or democratically accountable, but is usually democratically elected.

A practical example: Britain's Elizabeth II and Governments

In the United Kingdom many important governmental actions are done 'on behalf of' the Queen Elizabeth II or she exercises her powers at the direction of the Prime Minister. These are generally things which remain within the Royal Prerogative. These powers are diverse: for example they include (a) appointment of Bishops in the Church of England (b) the power to appoint a Government (c) call and dismiss Parliament (d) declare war (e) appoint members of the House of Lords (f) carry out all criminal prosecutions (g) give medals (h) control all the armed forces (i) control police forces (j) pass (or refuse to pass) Acts of Parliament (k) appoint judges and (l) to pardon (which was material under the Tudors, and is the basis of the mechanism for directing the appointment of Bishops). However, such activities are not (generally) done by her directly and were the Queen to carry out these functions independent of Parliament she would precipitate a constitutional crisis. In addition, historically it has been held that the Queen cannot be prosecuted for any criminal offence or be required to give testimony in court.

Queen Elizabeth II
Queen of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other states, (1952-present)
Nevertheless, the monarch still has important and useful functions. The nineteenth century British constitutional writer, Walter Bagehot, described the monarch having 'the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn '. Queen Elizabeth II meets her prime minister every Tuesday evening for a confidential audience, at which she and her prime minister discuss matters of state. The longer a reign, the greater the degree of experience a monarch has, particularly as she receives copies of all state documentation, all cabinet memoranda, reports from British ambassadors worldwide, security service intelligence, etc. A Parliamentary Committee was told in the early 1970s that Queen Elizabeth spends three hours daily 'doing the boxes' (ie, reading state papers sent to her from all departments of state). Sir John Peck, on being appointed British ambassador to Senegal, said that when Kissing Hands (the formal name of the appointment procedure) he received a more perceptive analysis of African and Senegalese politics from Queen Elizabeth than from any government official, based on her personal experiences on state visits, briefing documents and knowledge of African leaders, experiences that desk-bound officials, no matter how theoretically knowledgeable, had never had.

In the mid 1970s, for example, Queen Elizabeth's belief that contacts between a British official, Lord Grenville, and the Government of Rhodesia were worth pursuing, shaped the policy of then Labour cabinet. Grenville's report mentioned some signs of movement. The Labour cabinet saw the scale of the movement as too insignificant to warrant further exploration. However Queen Elizabeth, who had ten years continuous experience of the Rhodesian issue (unlike the ministers who had only a relatively small degree of experience, having only come to power in the early 1970s), observed how any sign of movement was a change from the lack of movement present previously. The Labour ministers paid heed to her privately expressed observation (that followed a conversation she had had with James Callaghan at a state banquet for the Italian president) and maintained the initial contacts. These contacts over a number of years finally led to the Lancaster House conference that established Zimbabwe. James Prior, a minister in the subsequent Conservative Party government, wrote of how the 'intoxicating mix' of the Queen and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington kept Margaret Thatcher from abandoning the earlier contacts between the previous Labour government of James Callaghan and the Rhodesian government.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands
Image on a one euro Dutch coin

In early 2003, as the Labour government of Tony Blair pondered whether to enter into a war with Saddam Hussein, Queen Elizabeth was the only senior governmental figure still in office who had had experience of the Suez Crisis in the late 1950s, and who as a result could mention to Blair observations on the nature of the Suez debacle and lessons to be learned from it, in deciding on whether to go to war with Saddam. It is not known what comments Queen Elizabeth made to the Prime Minister, but few doubted but that she would give the benefit of her observations (having been monarch at the time, she had had access to all the then government documentation and memoranda, as well as having been a confidante of the then Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his cabinet) and that the Prime Minister would take her observations very seriously. Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, meaning that she could give to Tony Blair observations and advice based on observations and advice given to her by every prime minister back to Sir Winston Churchill and including Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, as well as the comments of hundreds of ministers since 1952.

However, this access that the Queen has to the highest levels of government has been questioned in recent years. It is pointed out that while the current monarch has many years experience, the monarch has not always, and will not always have. For example, what could the Queen advise or warn Churchill at the beginning of her reign?

Republicans have argued that what advice and warnings the Queen gives Prime Ministers are unaccountable and secretive. Furthermore the case is made that as an unelected figurehead the Queen should keep out of politics.

Other monarchs

Other monarchs possess similar experience and perrogatives, though none with the same length of service or degree of active participation as Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark chairs state council meetings and has done so since 1972, meaning that she is intimately aware of all government decision taking and is in a position to offer practical advice. The late King Baudouin of the Belgians had experience from the early 1950s to his death in the early 1990s. In a country divided between two communities, some said that Baudouin was the only Belgian in Belgium.

King Juan Carlos of Spain
Image on a two euro Spanish coin
The successful escape to England of the Norwegian king Haakon VII and his government from the German invasion prevented the establishment of a legitimate government and forced a burdensome military occupation on Hitler. His son, the late Olav V of Norway was monarch from the 1950s till his death in 1990 but had as Crown Prince an involvement in the Norwegian Privy Council dating back to 1922. Generations of governments and government ministers listened attentively to his observations.

Sweden's Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, though no longer intimately involved in government since the constitutional Instrument of Government (of 1974) abolished the monarch's active governmental role, gets frequent briefings from the Swedish cabinet en masse. After his role in moving Spain from Franco's dictatorship to a modern parliamentary democracy, and most strikingly in his central role in stopping a coup d'etat in the early 1980s, few ignore King Juan Carlos of Spain.

During the American-led occupation period of Japan following World War 2, the Japanese Emperor was stripped of all authority and became one of the world's weakest constitutional monarchies. During the war, the Emperor had ruled as an absolute monarch and was manipulated by his advisors. Eager to prevent such an abuse of power from ever again occurring, the new American-made constitution stated that the Emperor would only be a "symbol of the nation" and was forbidden from any degree of participation in the political process.

Constitutional monarchy: benefits & pitfalls

While monarchy is undemocratic, unlike an elected presidency, monarchists argue that it possesses two central features that rarely are to be found in presidents; they say that while presidents may see themselves in terms of a limited term of office, with them often being "retired" from other posts into the presidency, monarchy tends to involve a professional life-long commitment. The other often cited advantage is that monarchs do not represent specific political views, and that thay provide stability or act as a symbol of the state or nation. Republicans would argue however that presidents are not necessarily "retired" into the position, particularly if they are directly elected. Furthermore republicans often question the relevance and the "dedication" of the monarch. The very fact that it is lifelong does mean that an experienced monarch has a wealth of knowledge that governments find invaluable, although of course most monarchs do not last that long, (see the reigns of the Kings of England 1901-1953). Figures like Elizabeth II or the late King Olav V are seen as possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of their state's recent history, knowing lessons learned through error by past governments that can be passed on to future governments. But while there are skilled monarchs, there have also been disastrously inept ones, or ones who showed poor judgment; Edward VIII in the United Kingdom, Victor Emmanuel III in Italy, Constantine II in Greece. It is a matter of opinion whether the benefits outweigh the risks, or vice versa.

For republicans of course the principal concern is that a monarchy undermines the principle of democracy and costs too much.

Some other constitutional monarchies

See also: