This page examines: The Queen in Government, The Crown in Parliament, The Queen and Her Prime Ministers and Royal Assent.
As Head of State, Her Majesty the Queen is must remain in a strictly neutral position with respect to all matters political, where she is unable to vote or stand for election. However, the Queen does hold a key position in our nation, which is to fulfil the important and formal ceremonial roles in relation to the Government of the United Kingdom. The British Legislature is best described by the formal phrase ‘the Queen in Parliament’ which consists of the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Her Majesty is responsible for duties which include the opening of each new session of Parliament, while dissolving Parliament before a general election, and also approving Orders and Proclamations through the Privy Council. Her Majesty has a very special relationship with the Prime Minister which is secured by the constitution, where she retains the right to appoint and also meet with him or her on a regular basis, usually every Tuesday evening at Buckingham Palace. Not only is the Queen’s role highly specified in the Parliament of the whole of the United Kingdom, she also has additional, formal responsibilities within the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Queen has a clear and concise relationship with Parliament that is supported by the constitution. Though this role is comprised mostly of ceremonial duties, Her Majesty also has many key powers that make her more than a mere figurehead. The term ‘Crown in Parliament’ is most closely associated with the British legislature, which consists of the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, but the most powerful political body of these three different factions, is the House of Commons, which usually consists of a majority of MP’s (Members of Parliament) whom normally support the elected Government of the day, which has the dominant political power. The role of the Sovereign in the enactment of legislation today, is purely formal, but vital in the workings of our government. Although The Queen has the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn through regular audiences with the Prime Minister and her ministers, she is not an institution which can be ignored or brushed aside, as she acts as a checks and balances system to protect her people from an unjust and oppressive Parliament if the political party in power becomes tyrannical. As a constitutional monarch, Her Majesty (the Sovereign) is required to ratify (Royal Assent) all Bills which are passed by Parliament. Her Majesty does this on the advice of Government ministers. The Royal Assent (consenting to a measure in which the Sovereign signs and bill into law) has not been refused since the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707.
Crown In Parliament
The opening and dissolving of Parliament is one of the most important roles the queen must fulfil. The State Opening of Parliament is a ceremony, which is the greatest show of British pomp and pageantry, while holding several underlying and symbolic examples of the Sovereigns power. Her Majesty opens Parliament in person, complete with legendary regalia including the main symbol of the monarch’s power, The Imperial State Crown. Her Majesty addresses both Houses in the House of Lords’ chambers, while outlining her governments programme in The Queen’s Speech. Neither the House of Lords, nor the House of Commons can proceed to public business until The Queen’s Speech has been read.
The Queen’s speech is read aloud by Her Majesty but is composed by the Government and not by the Queen herself. It outlines her Government’s policy (as the government makes laws in her name) for the oncoming session of Parliament which she has declared open by personally appearing within the Palace of Westminster (Parliament). The main focus and purpose for The Queen’s Speech is to indicate forthcoming legislation from Her Majesty’s government. In addition to opening Parliament, it is only The Queen who can summon Parliament, and prorogue (discontinue without dissolving it) or dissolve it. When a Prime Minister wishes to end the Parliamentary session and call for a general election, he or she is must seek the permission of the Queen to do so. It is for this purpose that the Prime Minister usually travels to Buckingham Palace (other than for his Tuesday night meetings with the Queen) for permission to hold and announce a general election.
The Parliament Act of 1911 sets the term of, or the life of the United Kingdom Parliament to a five year term, unless it is dissolved sooner by the Sovereign at the request of the Prime Minister. This was amended only during World Wars I & II when the life of Parliament was extended annually to avoid general election during war time. In the United Kingdom, each modern Parliament has been dissolved before its term has expired. When Parliament is summoned by the Sovereign, and also after a Royal proclamation, there must (since the Representation of the People Act 1918) be a period of at least twenty days before Parliament is allowed to convene. According to the Prorogation Act 1867, this period can be extended, but only for a term of fourteen days. There is one and only one occasion on which Parliament is allowed to meet without a Royal summons, and that is when the Sovereign has died. In these such sorrowful circumstances, the Succession to the Crown Act of 1707 provides that, if Parliament is not already sitting in session, it must immediately meet and sit. The Meeting of Parliament Act 1797 provides that, if the Sovereign dies after the Parliament has been dissolved, the immediately preceding Parliament can sit for up to six months at a time, if not prorogued or dissolved before then.
The Queen’s role in Parliament is:
- Assenting to Bills passed by Parliament, on the advice of Ministers;
- Giving audiences to Ministers, at which Her Majesty may be consulted, encourage and warn.
- Opening each new session of Parliament; Proroguing or dissolving Parliament before a general election.
The Queen And Her Prime Minister
Her Majesty has a very unique and special relationship with her Prime Minister, who is the senior political figure in the British Government, regardless of their political party. Her Majesty is a constitutional monarch, which allows her to remain politically neutral, while her Prime Minister contends within the political arena. When a potential Prime Minister to be is called to Buckingham Palace to be presented to Her Majesty, The Queen will then and only in person ask him or her whether he or she will form a government in the Queen’s name. To this question, there are only two responses that are realistically possible. The most usual is a response of acceptance. If the situation is uncertain, as it was with Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, a potential Prime Minister can accept an exploratory commission, where later in time returning later to report either failure or, as occurred in 1963, success. After a new Prime Minister has been appointed by Her Majesty, the Court Circular will record that “the Prime Minister Kissed Hands on Appointment”. This is not literally the case, but in actual fact, the literal kissing of her Majesty’s hands will take place later, in private Council. To date, there have been twelve British Prime Ministers during Queen’s Elizabeth II’s reign starting when she first ascended the throne with Sir Winston Churchill from 1952- 1955. Following her first Prime Minister, these others have followed in succession:
- Sir Anthony Eden 1955-1957
- Harold Macmillan 1957-1963
- Sir Alec Douglas-Home 1963-1964
- Harold Wilson 1964-70 and 1974-1976
- Edward Heath 1970-1974
- James Callaghan 1976-1979
- Margaret Thatcher 1979-1990
- John Major 1990-1997
- Tony Blair 1997-2007
- Gordon Brown 2007-2010
- David Cameron from 2010 – 2016
- Theresa May 2016 – 2019
- Boris Johnson 2019 – Present
Her Majesty, the Queen has the right to retain the ability to give a regular audience to a Prime Minister during his or her term of office, and Her Majesty plays a role in the mechanics of calling a general election. The Queen gives a weekly audience to the Prime Minister at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on Government matters of the day. If either party of this unique relationship are not available to meet in person, then the Queen and the Prime Minister they will speak by telephone. The famed Tuesday evening meetings between Her Majesty and her Prime Minster, as with all communications between The Queen and her Government, remain strictly confidential. Having expressed her views and thoughts to the Prime Minister, Her Majesty abides by and acts on the advice of her ministers. The Queen as previously stated plays a part in the calling of a general election, where the Prime Minister of the day may request the Sovereign to grant the dissolution of Parliament at any time.
A dissolution can only occur with the Sovereigns approval. In normal circumstances, when a single-party government (not a coalition government as we have today) enjoys a majority in the House of Commons, the Sovereign would not refuse dissolution, for the government would then resign as the ongoing government, as the Sovereign would be unable to find an alternative government capable of commanding the confidence of the elected House of Commons. After a general election has occurred, the appointment of the Prime Minister is solely the prerogative of the Sovereign. In appointing a Prime Minister, the Sovereign is guided by constitutional conventions that must be adhered to. The main requirement is to find someone who can command the confidence of the House of Commons. This is normally secured by appointing the leader of the party with an overall majority of seats in the Commons, but there could still be exceptional circumstances when The Queen might need to exercise discretion to ensure that the Government that bears her name is carried on.
Royal Assent is the Monarch’s agreement that is required to make a Bill into an Act of Parliament. While the Monarch has the right to refuse Royal Assent, nowadays this does not happen; the last such occasion was in 1707, and Royal Assent is regarded today as a formality. In some jurisdictions, royal assent is equivalent to promulgation, while in others that is a separate step. Under a modern constitutional monarchy royal assent is considered to be little more than a formality; even in those nations which still, in theory, permit the monarch to withhold assent to laws (such as the United Kingdom, Norway, and Liechtenstein), the monarch almost never does so, save in a dire political emergency or upon the advice of their government. While the power to veto a law by withholding royal assent was once exercised often by European monarchs, such an occurrence has been very rare since the eighteenth century.Royal assent is sometimes associated with elaborate ceremonies.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, the sovereign may appear personally in the House of Lords or may appoint Lords Commissioners, who announce that royal assent has been granted at a ceremony held at the Palace of Westminster for this purpose. However, royal assent is usually granted less ceremonially by letters patent. In other nations, such as Australia, the governor-general (as the monarch’s representative) merely signs a bill. In Canada, the governor general may give assent either in person at a ceremony held in the Senate or by a written declaration notifying parliament of their agreement to the bill.
Before the Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 became law, assent was always required to be given by the sovereign in person before Parliament. The last time royal assent was given by the sovereign in person in Parliament was in the reign of Queen Victoria at a prorogation on 12 August 1854. The Act was repealed and replaced by the Royal Assent Act 1967. However section 1(2) of that Act does not prevent the sovereign from declaring assent in person if he or she so desires.Royal assent is the final step required for a parliamentary bill to become law.
Once a bill is presented to the sovereign or the sovereign’s representative, he or she has the following formal options:the sovereign may grant royal assent, thereby making the bill an Act of Parliament.the sovereign may delay the bill’s assent through the use of his or her reserve powers, thereby vetoing the bill. The sovereign may refuse royal assent on the advice of his or her ministers. The last bill that was refused assent by the sovereign (on the advice of ministers) was the Scottish Militia Bill during Queen Anne’s reign in 1708. Under modern constitutional conventions, the sovereign generally acts on, and in accordance with, the advice of his or her ministers. However, there is some disagreement among scholars as to whether the monarch should withhold royal assent to a bill if advised to do so by her ministers. Since these ministers most often enjoy the support of parliament and obtain the passage of bills, it is improbable that they would advise the sovereign to withhold assent. Hence, in modern practice, the issue has never arisen, and royal assent has not been withheld. The sovereign is generally believed not to legally have the power to withhold assent from a bill against the advice of ministers.
Historical development of Royal Assent
Originally, legislative power was exercised by the sovereign acting on the advice of the Curia regis, or Royal Council, in which important magnates and clerics participated and which evolved into parliament. In 1265, the Earl of Leicester irregularly called a full parliament without royal authorisation. Membership of the so-called Model Parliament, established in 1295 under Edward I included bishops, abbots, earls, barons, two knights from each shire and two burgesses from each borough. The body eventually came to be divided into two branches: bishops, abbots, earls, and barons formed the House of Lords, while the shire and borough representatives formed the House of Commons. The King would seek the advice and consent of both houses before making any law. During Henry VI’s reign, it became regular practice for the two houses to originate legislation in the form of bills, which would not become law unless the sovereign’s assent was obtained, as the sovereign was, and still remains, the enactor of laws. Hence, all Acts include the clause “Be it enacted by the Queen’s (King’s) most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows…”. The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 provide a second potential preamble if the House of Lords were to be excluded from the process.The power of parliament to pass bills was often thwarted by monarchs. Charles I dissolved parliament in 1629, after it passed motions and bills critical of—and seeking to restrict—his arbitrary exercise of power. During the eleven years of personal rule that followed, Charles performed legally dubious actions such as raising taxes without Parliament’s approval.
After the English Civil War, it was accepted that parliament should be summoned to meet regularly, but it was still commonplace for monarchs to refuse royal assent to bills. In 1678, Charles II withheld his assent from a bill “for preserving the Peace of the Kingdom by raising the Militia, and continuing them in Duty for Two and Forty Days,” suggesting that he, not parliament, should control the militia. The last Stuart monarch, Anne, similarly withheld on 11 March 1708, on the advice of her ministers, her assent to the Scottish Militia Bill. No monarch has since withheld royal assent on a bill passed by the British parliament. During the rule of the succeeding Hanoverian dynasty, power was gradually exercised more by parliament and the government. The first Hanoverian monarch, George I, relied on his ministers to a greater extent than had previous monarchs. Later Hanoverian monarchs attempted to restore royal control over legislation: George III and George IV both openly opposed Catholic Emancipation and asserted that to grant assent to a Catholic emancipation bill would violate the Coronation Oath, which required the sovereign to preserve and protect the established Church of England from Papal domination, and would grant rights to individuals who were in league with a foreign power which did not recognise their legitimacy.
However, George IV reluctantly granted his assent upon the advice of his ministers. Thus, as the concept of ministerial responsibility has evolved, the power to withhold royal assent has fallen into disuse, both in the United Kingdom and in the other Commonwealth realms.In 1914, George V did take legal advice on withholding royal assent from the Government of Ireland Bill, a highly contentious piece of legislation that the Liberal government intended to push through parliament by means of the Parliament Act 1911. The King decided that he should not withhold assent without “convincing evidence that it would avert a national disaster, or at least have a tranquillising effect on the distracting conditions of the time”.
Royal assent is the final stage in the legislative process for acts of the Scottish parliament. The process is governed by sections 28, 32, and 33 of the Scotland Act 1998. After a bill has been passed, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament submits it to the monarch for royal assent after a four-week period, during which the Advocate General for Scotland, the Lord Advocate, the Attorney General or the Secretary of State for Scotland may refer the bill to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (prior to 1 October 2009, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council) for review of its legality. Royal assent is signified by letters patent under the Great Seal of Scotland in the following form which is set out in The Scottish Parliament (Letters Patent and Proclamations) Order 1999 (SI 1999/737) and of which notice is published in the London, Edinburgh, and Belfast Gazettes: ELIZABETH THE SECOND by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories Queen Head of the Commonwealth Defender of the Faith To Our trusty and well beloved the members of the Scottish Parliament GREETING:For as much as various Bills have been passed by the Scottish Parliament and have been submitted to Us for Our Royal Assent by the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament in accordance with the Scotland Act 1998 the short Titles of which Bills are set forth in the Schedule hereto but those Bills by virtue of the Scotland Act 1998 do not become Acts of the Scottish Parliament nor have effect in the Law without Our Royal Assent signified by Letters Patent under Our Scottish Seal (that is Our Seal appointed by the Treaty of Union to be kept and used in Scotland in place of the Great Seal of Scotland) signed with Our own hand and recorded in the Register of the Great Seal We have therefore caused these Our Letters Patent to be made and have signed them and by them do give Our Royal Assent to those Bills COMMANDING ALSO the Keeper of Our Scottish Seal to seal these Our Letters with that Seal. IN WITNESS WHEREOF we have caused these Our Letters to be made Patent.WITNESS Ourself at … the … day of … in the … year of Our Reign. By The Queen Herself Signed with Her Own Hand.
Measures, which were the means by which the National Assembly for Wales passed legislation between 2006 and 2011, were assented to by the Queen by means of an Order in Council. Section 102 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 required the Clerk to the Assembly to present measures passed by the assembly after a four-week period during which the Counsel General for Wales or the Attorney General could refer the proposed measure to the Supreme Court for a decision as to whether the measure was within the assembly’s legislative competence. Following the referendum held in March 2011, in which the majority vote for the assembly’s law-making powers to be extended, measures were replaced by Acts of the Assembly. Similarly to Acts of the Scottish parliament, after a four-week waiting period royal assent to acts of the assembly will be given by means of letters patent using the following wording:
ELIZABETH THE SECOND by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories Queen Head of the Commonwealth Defender of the Faith To Our Trusty and well beloved the members of the National Assembly for Wales GREETING:
For as much as one or more Bills have been passed by the National Assembly for Wales and have been submitted to Us for Our Royal Assent by the Clerk of the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with the Government of Wales Act 2006 the short Titles of which Bills are set forth in the Schedule hereto but those Bills by virtue of the Government of Wales Act 2006 do not become Acts of the National Assembly for Wales nor have effect in the Law without Our Royal Assent signified by Letters Patent under Our Welsh Seal signed with Our own hand We have therefore caused these Our Letters Patent to be made and have signed them and by them do give Our Royal Assent to those Bills which shall be taken and accepted as good and perfect Acts of the Assembly and be put in due execution accordingly commanding also the Keeper of Our Welsh Seal to seal these Our Letters with that Seal. In witness whereof we have caused these Our Letters to be made Patent.WITNESS Ourself at … the … day of … in the … year of Our Reign.By The Queen Herself Signed with Her Own Hand.The letters patent may also be made in Welsh.
Under section 14 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, a bill which has been approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly is presented to the Queen by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for royal assent after a four-week waiting period during which the Attorney General for Northern Ireland may refer the bill to the Supreme Court. Assent is given by means of letters patent in the following form set out in the Northern Ireland (Royal Assent to Bills) Order 1999. ELIZABETH THE SECOND by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, To the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly GREETING: WHEREAS you the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have passed a Bill the short title of which is set out in the Schedule hereto but the said Bill does not become an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly without Our Royal Assent; AND WHEREAS pursuant to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 the said Bill has been submitted to Us by [insert name of Secretary of State] one of Our Principal Secretaries of State for Our Royal Assent;We have therefore caused these Our Letters Patent to be made and have signed them and by them We give Our Royal Assent to the said Bill COMMANDING [insert name of Clerk of the Crown for Northern Ireland] the Clerk of the Crown for Northern Ireland to seal these Our Letters with the Great Seal of Northern Ireland AND ALSO COMMANDING that these Our Letters be notified to the Presiding Officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly;AND FINALLY WE declare that, in accordance with the Northern Ireland Act 1998, at the beginning of the day on which Our Royal Assent has been notified as aforesaid the said Bill shall become an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly.In Witness whereof We have caused these Our Letters to be made Patent WITNESS Ourself at the day of in the year of Our Reign By the Queen Herself Signed with Her Own Hand. Between 1922 and 1972, bills passed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland were passed to the Governor of Northern Ireland for royal assent under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, replacing the office of Lord Lieutenant.
Church of England Measures
Under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 a measure of the General Synod of the Church of England becomes law once it has received royal assent in the same way as an Act of Parliament.
Jersey and Guernsey
The lieutenant governors of the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick and Islands of Guernsey do not by and under their own authority grant assent, nor, as proxies, as the British crown’s representative, deliver royal assent, to legislation emanating from the respective legislatures of these islands.The States of Jersey Law 2005 abolishes the power of the lieutenant governor to directly impose a formal veto to a resolution of the States of Jersey. The monarch of the United Kingdom, sitting in (together with members of the Cabinet of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of the day, and who are also members of) the Privy Council, grants the equivalent of the royal assent to Jersey and Guernsey legislation (under the formula, or other words to the effect: “Her Majesty, having taken the report into consideration, was pleased, by and with the advice of Her Privy Council, to approve and ratify this Act (a copy of which is annexed to this Order) and to order that it, together with this Order, shall be entered on the Register of the Island of Jersey (or of the Islands of Guernsey) and observed accordingly. Her Majesty’s Officers in the Island (or Islands), and all other whom it may concern, are therefore to take notice of Her Majesty’s Order and to proceed accordingly”). The equivalent of the royal assent is formally granted or formally refused on the formal advice of the Committee of Council for the Affairs of Jersey and Guernsey in pursuance of Queen Elizabeth II’s order-in-council of 22 February 1952. A recent example when the equivalent of the royal assent was refused was in 2007, concerning reforms to the constitution of the Chief Pleas of Sark. (A revised version of the proposed reforms was subsequently given the equivalent of the royal assent.)In 2011, campaigners against a law that sought to reduce the number of senators in the states of Jersey petitioned the Privy Council to advise the Queen to refuse the equivalent of the royal assent. An Order in Council of 13 July 2011 established new rules for the consideration of petitions against the granting of the equivalent of the royal assent.Legislation in Jersey and Guernsey entitled “Laws” would seem to require the formal equivalent of the royal assent from the British monarch sitting in the Privy Council; other legislation such as regulations and orders (in Jersey) and ordinances (in Guernsey) would not seem to require such formal equivalent of the royal assent.There is a proposal that the Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey should be granted the delegated power of granting the equivalent of the royal assent, formally from the monarch and the Privy Council, to enable laws to be granted formal approval within six weeks if no objection was raised, rather than having to formally refer every law for formal consideration in London and then formal approval also (usually) in London. “At present there is a situation where Channel Island law-making depends, ultimately, on the UK government of the day, unelected [sic] by the islands.”
Isle of Man
Special procedures apply to legislation passed by the Tynwald of the Isle of Man. Before the lordship of the Island was purchased by the British Crown in 1765 (the Revestment), the assent of the Lord of Mann to a bill was signified by letter to the governor. After 1765, the equivalent of the royal assent was at first signified by the letter from the Secretary of State to the governor; but, during the British Regency, the practice began of granting the equivalent of the royal assent to Manx legislation by Orders in Council, which continues to this day, though limited to exceptional cases since 1981.In 1981, an Order in Council delegated to the lieutenant governor the power to grant royal assent to bills passed by Tynwald. The lieutenant governor must however refer any bill impacting on reserved powers (defence, foreign relations, nationality law, the relationship between the island and the United Kingdom and any matters relating to the monarch) to the British government for advice, on which he is required to act. The above procedures are not sufficient to cause an Act of Tynwald to come into full force of law. By ancient custom, an Act did not come into force until it had been promulgated at an open-air sitting of the Tynwald, historically held on Tynwald Hill at St John’s on St John’s Day (24 June), but, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1753, on 5 July (or on the following Monday if 5 July is a Saturday or Sunday).
Promulgation originally consisted of the reading of the Act in English and Manx; but after 1865 the reading of the title of the Act and a summary of each section was sufficient. This was reduced in 1895 to the titles and a memorandum of the object and purport of the Act, and since 1988 only the short title and a summary of the long title have been read. An emergency procedure enabling an Act to come into force at the same moment as the receipt of the equivalent of the royal assent, when it is being announced at an ordinary sitting of the Tynwald, subject to its being promulgated within 12 months, was introduced in 1916; since 1988, this has been the normal procedure, but an Act ceases to have effect unless promulgated within 18 months after the equivalent of the royal assent is announced in the Tynwald. Since 1993, the Sodor and Man Diocesan Synod of the Church of England within the Province of York has had power to enact measures making provision “with respect to any matter concerning the Church of England in the Island”. If approved by the Tynwald, a measure “shall have the force and effect of an Act of Tynwald upon the Royal Assent thereto being announced to the Tynwald”.
Between 1979 and 1993, the Synod had similar powers, but limited to the extension to the Isle of Man of measures of the General Synod. Before 1994, the equivalent of the royal assent was granted by Order in Council, as for a bill, but the power to grant the equivalent of the royal assent to measures has now been delegated to the lieutenant governor. A Measure does not require promulgation.
British overseas territories
The governors (or the acting governors) of British overseas territories grant, withhold, or formally refuse the grant of their own Governor’s assent, under their own official personal authority as governors, for “colonial” or local legislation. Although the governor’s assent is also normally granted, this is altogether different in nature to the royal assent.