Was Queen Elizabeth a powerful political force?

By Alex B

After news broke of the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September the 8th shockwaves were sent around the United Kingdom and to many parts of the world. Many in Britain and elsewhere would have found it near impossible to imagine a world without the long-reigning monarch after a historic 70-year reign. Over this period Queen Elizabeth served as Head of State as a constitutional monarch for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth. In the centuries before her, British monarchs lorded over their lands far and wide with absolute control, often to the detriment of the empire’s far-flung subjects. However, Queen Elizabeth II’s role was significantly less powerful than previous monarchs and many wonder whether she held any true political power or if her role was of ceremonial. However, the ability to influence through her various procedures must be considered when looking at the extent of her authority.

Queen Elizabeth II’s lack of true political power is well known and evident. The current monarch King Charles and his predecessor Queen Elizabeth have both recognised this as declared on the official website of the Royal Family, “The Sovereign no longer has a political or executive role”. In accordance with this, she was required to remain politically neutral, with as little interference with the political process as is possible. For example, she signed all legislation in parliament that was passed to her for approval (royal assent). This was even the case when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed in 2010, removed the Queen’s discretion in agreeing to or refusing a dissolution of parliament. It resulted in the Queen being left with a very limited capability to refuse a prime ministerial request for a dissolution, overall limiting her constitutional power. Although she reserved the right to not grant royal assent, her role in passing legislation was ceremonial, as has been the case since Queen Anne, a clear sign that her political power was always weak. In effect, the parts of the constitution which grant the monarchy power are not practical workings of the political system but rather a dignified or theoretical part. This component of the system played the essential role of winning and sustaining the loyalty and confidence of the mass of ordinary people according to 19th century scholar Bagehot.

But that lack of true political power didn’t mean that the Queen Elizabeth wasn’t influential. Bagehot identified in ‘the English Constitution’ that the monarch has three essential rights that certified her involvement: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.

Her ‘right’ as monarch to be consulted was particularly important as the Prime Minister was expected to answer to her on a weekly basis. With this meeting, her experience as Queen was what allowed her attempt ‘to encourage’ and ‘to warn’ the PM, expressing her influence. A lifetime of reading state papers, meeting heads of state and ambassadors, and holding a weekly audience with 15 different Prime Ministers gave the Queen, an unequalled store of knowledge and experience which she could access during these meetings. Contrary to her appearance, this made her “pretty intimidating” according to former PM Theresa May, not only due to her knowledge but also the status of the position and the respect that is commanded as a result. Although difficult to quantify the effect of The Queen on the decision making of the PM, as these conversations are strictly confidential, her thoughts and opinions are at the least considered and at most employed. Churchill’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth was famously amicable, with reports suggesting that the Prime Minister treated her advice carefully, as that of a ‘confidante’. On the other side Heath’s relationship with the Queen was notoriously poor in particular over his withering content for the Commonwealth, something most dear to Queen

Elizabeth. A Sunday Times article in 1986 famously described Queen Elizabeth II’s dislike of Thatcher’s firm opposition to economic sanctions over South African apartheid, as well as dislike to an uncompassionate government. This caused a stir for some British people who believed the former Queen’s inside knowledge of the government gave her information which substantiated this belief. In this regard, her beliefs, when leaked, where an important consideration for the British people and an example of her influence.

One might say that her influence was dependant on the character of the Prime Minister; PM’s whose interactions with the late Queen were amicable likely resulted in her influence being tangible, such as Churchill, whereas someone such as Heath resulted in little to no part in the decision-making process at all. This tells us a great deal about the true extent of her influence in the political world: It appears that when her expertise was able to shine, she was capable of altering important decisions, but nevertheless her influence was still limited by her lack of political power. She may have had the right to be informed, but it seems unlikely she was capable to compel any decisions that were brought to her.

Perhaps a more obvious indication of Queen Elizabeth’s influence is the Commonwealth. She fostered an allegiance with the 54 countries, an impressive feat in this day and age considering the organisation was founded of the back of the British Empire. The Commonwealth commits itself to promoting international peace, fighting racism, opposing colonial domination, and reducing inequities in wealth. In addition, a charter was adopted which enshrined core principles such as democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, sustainable development, access to health and education, and gender equality. Since 1980 12 countries have joined with Gabon and Togo joining in the past few months, committing themselves to an association with the Queen in the process. In its history, a relatively few 6 countries have left: South Africa, Pakistan, Fiji, Gambia, and the Maldives. 15 countries have Queen Elizabeth as the image on their currency including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada; a particularly clear illustration of the importance of the Queen as a figure worldwide and the soft influence she possessed.

Queen Elizabeth was figure who was admired by many regardless of nationality and a symbolism of British culture. But within her home nation, she was restricted in her role as head of state. She did have soft influence that stretched across the world and was exempt from any criminal proceedings whatsoever. Nevertheless was unable to enforce any decision in the UK’s political system as a result of the reduction in her power throughout her life.

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