Top five myths about the Queen and the UK constitution

The 2017 British election is over. Either out of ignorance or an effort to make things more dramatic, reports have played up the Queen’s role in government formation. Although we might expect the UK to have a better grasp of the Queen’s role in the constitution, that’s not always the case.

So, just for fun and to vent, here are what I see as the top five myths about the Queen’s role in the British constitution:

1) The Queen continues to have a significant role in government formation and the life of a Parliament. 

As laid out in the UK’s Cabinet Manual, the process of government formation in the UK keeps the Queen out of the fray. Political parties are expected to work out who can carry the Commons’ confidence themselves. In addition, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011 removed the Queen’s power to dissolve Parliament and gave it to the House of Commons.

2) The Queen is a pure figurehead and has no influence / the Queen continues to exercise outsized influence over  government policy.

I put these together since they both make the mistake of going too far, but at opposite extremes.

The Queen doesn’t have substantial influence over the affairs of government, but she does have powers of persuasion and her views have mattered quite a bit in the past. However, it’s overstated to say that the Queen or Prince Charles are involved in directing ministers over policy matters.

3) The Queen and the Prince of Wales personally veto bills.

The Guardian likes to talk about the supposed ‘secret’ veto powers that the Queen and Prince of Wales have over legislation in the UK. In reality, they’re not secret and they don’t exercise the veto themselves. Legislation that touches on the powers or property of the Queen and Prince of Wales is subject to what’s known as Crown consent. Although it’s true that withholding Crown consent can prevent a bill from become a law, that decision belongs with ministers, not the royals.

4) The Queen is paid and subsidized by the British taxpayer. 

This is a pretty pervasive myth and even ardent monarchists fall for it. The Queen’s official residences and activities are funded via the Sovereign Grant and the amount is ultimately determined by Parliament. Because the Sovereign Grant is paid by the Treasury, it’s argued that the Queen is therefore getting money from taxpayers.

This is wrong for a few reasons. First, not all money that goes into the Treasury comes from taxes or taxpayers. Among other sources are the profits of the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate are holdings that the Queen owns in her official capacity. As part of an agreement that dates to the 18th Century, every new monarch agrees to surrender the profits of the Crown Estate to the Treasury in exchange for a set amount of funding. When this deal was originally struck, the monarchy needed additional money from Parliament because the revenues of the Crown Estate were insufficient. Today, the Crown Estate makes a good deal of money (£304.1 million in 2015-2016), far more than the Queen requires to run her official households and affairs (£76.1 million for 2017-2018). As a result, Parliament initially indexed the Sovereign Grant to 15% of the Crown Estate’s profits, though that can be adjusted as required.

Now, the retort I often get is: but the money comes out of the Treasury, so it’s still taxpayer money. But the reason that it comes out of the Treasury is simple. The Treasury is a consolidated fund: all money goes into a big pot and gets distributed after. That’s how a consolidated fund works.

5) The Queen is a British citizen. 

The Queen isn’t a citizen of the UK; hers is the authority that confers citizenship.

Wait, what? Back before the idea modern state and citizenship, people were a monarch’s subjects and the Crown was the concept of the state. This remains formally true in the UK. The Crown is the formal concept of the state, the Crown and the Queen are fused in law, and therefore the Queen is the authority that grants citizenship.

By the way, this is also why the Queen isn’t a Canadian citizen, despite being Canada’s head of state. She doesn’t need Canadian citizenship because she’s the personification of the Canadian state and the authority that grants Canadian citizenship.


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