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Study Notes

Sources of the UK Constitution - Royal Prerogative Powers

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 5 Sept 2017

The ‘royal prerogative’ refers to powers originally held by British monarchy on an absolutist, arbitrary basis, before the days of parliamentary democracy.

Such powers included the right to declare war, command armies and appoint generals, and to make peace and preside over treaties and conferences with other monarchs and their representatives. Monarchs would have full patronage powers, appointing and dismissing ministers and judges, and would also have the ability to raise taxes to pay for foreign wars and domestic projects. Key institutions such as the Army and the Church, and the landed elites, were locked in a community of interest with the monarchy and promoted acceptance of the idea that such powers resting with the monarch was in the best interests of national security and the well-being of the people, not yet regarded as ‘citizens’ but as the monarch’s ‘subjects’.  

The ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688 saw William or Orange and his wife Mary invited to take the English throne on the grounds that they accepted parliamentary supremacy in law-making. The Act of Union 1707 was the last occasion when a monarch, Queen Anne, attempted to refuse royal assent and the powers of the monarch began to recede away, even to the extent that Queen Victoria, flattered as she was to receive Disraeli’s title ‘Empress of India’, had to accept a loss of discretionary influence over ministerial appointments. The reform acts of the nineteenth century, beginning in 1832, saw the beginnings of parliamentary democracy as we now know it and the powers of the monarch are now entirely symbolic and ceremonial, although we still talk of Her Majesty’s government, Her Majesty’s armed forces and so on, and the Queen delivers the government’s programme for the year at the state opening of parliament.

The prime minister is increasingly recognised as the ‘head of state’ in that they often take the lead in international negotiations (for example, David Cameron personally held talks with his fellow European leaders in a bid to secure a better deal for Britain ahead of the EU referendum, and it was his decision to call the referendum in 2016) and have a high profile on the world stage, as seen in the relationships they often form with fellow world leaders. Moreover, the prime minister is expected to speak for the nation and stand at the focal point of strong, united leadership during times of crisis. The prime minster has full control over the appointment and replacement of ministers and, aided by a parliamentary majority, can hope to drive through their own legislative programme; they can also create peerages and exercise a veto over the appointment of judges.

Although each major constitutional shift in favour of parliament since 1688, and each move towards a strengthening of Britain’s representative democracy, has corresponded with a weakening of the royal prerogative, for former Labour minister Jack Straw (interestingly, writing before his party ascended to office) and others it remains a problem and has ‘no place in a modern western democracy’ due to the powers now conferred on the executive. Labour policy paper A New Agenda for Democracy (1993) set out a radical constitutional reform agenda aimed at further reducing the significance of the royal prerogative and making the UK more democratic and its institutions more accountable. The paper states that ‘massive power is exercised by executive decree without accountability to Parliament, and sometimes even without its knowledge.’ It proposed traditional prerogative powers such as a declaration of war or a treaty ratification must be made a matter for Parliament directly, Labour promising to ‘concentrate the national mind on the hard decisions of the distribution of power’, including ‘a new Act of Settlement, to establish the Crown and the monarchy in a more modern form’ and to ensure that all executive power, and all aspects of the monarchy’s formal role, be contained in statue law; such a process has not yet occurred.[1]

Moreover, there are limits to the royal prerogative. Prime ministers no longer decide the timing of general elections, and royal prerogative powers were not enough to convince the Supreme Court to allow the triggering of Article 50 without a parliamentary vote earlier this year. Moreover, although the Iraq War has subsequently proven unpopular, there was a parliamentary vote in favour of action back in 2003, a 412-149 vote going through at 10pm on the eve of the invasion. Although not constitutionally compelled to do so, David Cameron also felt it necessary to go to the Commons over the bombing of targets in Syria in 2013 (failed) and 2015 (passed), and a 557-13 Commons vote in March 2011 endorsed British involvement in UN-backed action in Libya. However, we can certainly identify a constitutional monarchy and the transfer of royal prerogative powers to the prime minister as key features of the British constitution. 

[1] Jack Straw, ‘Abolish the Royal Prerogative’, in Anthony Barnett (Ed.), Power and the Throne: The Monarchy Debate (Vintage, 1994), p.127-28

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