Britain's Royal Affair

Who rules over England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales? Queen Elizabeth, of course! But besides being the richest woman in Britain and owning the most beautiful buildings, she's just a tourist attraction. It's the government and Parliament, and especially No.10 Downing Street, who write the rules.

The British have been licking the back of their present monarch - on the back of stamps, of course! - for almost half a century. Queen Elizabeth II was crowned at Westminster Abbey in London in 1952 after the death of her father, King George VI, the previous reigning Monarch. She has had the pleasure during her time on the throne of taking tea with ten consecutive serving British Prime Ministers, including the war-leader Winston Churchill and the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.

Despite this, many people are surprised to discover that the Queen, and not the Prime Minister, is in fact officially Head of State of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Many people are often also dumbfounded when they learn that Britain has no written constitution.

As one of Europe's oldest democracies, this seems a bit odd, even for the British. Most European countries are republics, after all, and are governed by elected leaders who have to operate according to written constitutions. So how can Parliament - the victor in the English Civil War between the Parliamentarians and Royalists 350 years ago - be referred to (mostly by the British themselves, mind you!), as the "mother of parliaments"?

This apparent constitutional anachronism, like many other British oddities (driving on the left of the road, funny weights and measurements, etc.), is deeply rooted in the national character. The British need to feel different from continental Europe. And, since the 17th century at least, this has been no more obvious than in the British constitution - or lack of one - and the place of the Royal family in this (unwritten) constitution.


In the 17th century, when most of Europe was governed by a pan-continental network of divinely ordained monarchs, the English took the dramatic step of disposing of their King, Charles I, and lopping off his head after the Civil War. Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, which replaced the monarchy, was the first attempt in European history to live without a monarch. But it lasted only a few years before Charles's son, Charles II, was crowned King by the very same Parliamentarians that had called for the head of his father.

However, unlike in his father's day, the new king was not to be "chosen by God", but deliberately placed on the throne by Parliament. This was to lend mystique and add legitimacy to the unstable social and political order. Cromwell's attempt to create a republic was ahead of its time, and failed largely as a result. However, it left as its main legacy the hybrid constitutional system that Britain has to deal with, often with difficulty, today.

Charles II became the first in a long line of "constitutional monarchs". He was kept by the state to perform symbolic duties, like opening Parliament, signing laws and so on. In return he got to wear robes, a crown and live in a castle. Could be worse!

In reality, Parliament devises, passes and enacts all legislation. Whatever it decides and manages to pass becomes the law of the land. This, in the absence of a codified constitution, acts at any given time as the nearest Britain comes to having a constitution. This can sometimes lead to what many people have described as
"elected dictatorships", in which elected leaders, once elected, are free to alter the rules to suit their political ends.

This year, for example, may see the incumbent Prime Minister Tony Blair calling early elections for April or May (after four years in office) instead of waiting to complete the full five-year term in 2002. This is not because there is no support for his government, far from it, but simply that he may feel it improves his chances of winning the election, especially if Labour first announces a very generous Budget! His call, no rules! Out of the Conservatives' 18-year rule from 1979 to 1997, they completed a five-year term only twice (1987 to 1992 and 1992 to 1997).

The ritual and the drama of the royalty, which sometimes seems as if it is deliberately designed to throw the dark political world into light relief, are preserved in the many unwritten constitutional rules which govern how Parliament works, and the relations between Parliament and the King or Queen.

In this strange arrangement, Her Majesty's Government (HMG) acts "on behalf of the Monarch". This is witnessed most clearly every year when the Queen reads out her "Queen's Speech", explaining what the government wants to do in the coming year. This is, in fact, written by her First - that is, Prime - Minister, before Parliament reopens after the summer recess, or break.

When the Queen says, "My government intends to" we know who writes the words. But we all play the game because we love its theatrical element! Ritual is all-important and all-pervasive. Even when the Prime Minister resigns, for example, he or she "goes to the palace" to hand in his resignation to the Queen.

But everyone knows who really pulls the strings. The monarch is really no more than a very visible and pampered puppet, on show for the waiting - and adoring - crowds. Politicians have always known, after all, that the Royals are one of Britain's greatest on-going soap operas and biggest tourist attractions.

by Joe Harper