Queen Elizabeth attended a cabinet meeting today, becoming the first British monarch to do so since the American revolution and receiving a set of placemats in thanks. (The Foreign Office was a bit classier, naming part of Antarctica after her.) As BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt explains, this move is not entirely uncontroversial:
For constitutional purists this was a mildly troubling encounter which muddied the waters between a hereditary monarch and an elected accountable cabinet. For many others, it was a unique moment which probably hasn’t been seen in peacetime for three centuries.
For the Queen, it was a reminder of where the power lies and how much has been lost from the position she occupies. Her prerogatives or privileges are now pretty much limited to appointing a prime minister and dissolving Parliament. In both cases, she’s severely limited by constitutional conventions.
This did make me wonder, though, is there anything actually stopping the queen from taking over and ruling as an iron-fisted tyrant if she wanted to? (Not that I’m saying she does.)
Well, if she was plotting something, she probably missed her shot. Until last year, the Queen monarch technically had the right to unilaterally dismiss a prime minister or dissolve parliament — though it hadn’t been done since the 19th century — but the Fixed-term Parliament Act passed in 2011 set five-year terms for parliament which can only be shortened by an act of parliament such as a vote of no confidence or a motion for an early election.
Some have argued that if the monarch has the right to refuse a request by the prime minister to dissolve parliament — and the governor generals of Canada and South Africa have done so in the 20th century — but that’s meant more as a check on the prime minister’s authority and would seem an impractical method for Elizabeth’s (theoretical) bid for world domination.
The queen is still required to assent to all laws passed by parliament, though this is treated as a formality. The last monarch to withold assent was Queen Anne who blocked a bill settling militia in Scotland in 1707. In 1829, King George IV threatened to withold assent from a bill granting Catholics the right to sit in parliament but backed down after this prime minister threated to resign.
Royals do apparently have some control over bills that directly affect their interests — last year, the Guardian reported that ministers had been obliged to seek Prince Charles’ permission on at least a dozen bills affecting his commercial interests.
If Elizabeth were planning a controverisal and constitutionally dubious power grab, it feels like she probably would have done it by now. And given how unpopular Prince Charles’ attempts to meddle in politics have proven, he probably doesn’t have the political capital for it. Of course, William and his unborn heir could still attempt to usher in a new era of absolute monarchy, but they’ll have their work cut out for them.