BRITISH royalty reigns but does not govern. According to a famed
British constitutional scholar, Walter Bagehot, Queen Elizabeth II
“could disband the army; she could dismiss all the officers . . .she
could sell off all our ships-of-war and all our naval stores; she could
make a peace by the sacrifice of Cornwall and begin a war for the
conquest of Brittany. She could make every citizen in the United
Kingdom, male or female, a peer; she could make every parish in the
United Kingdom a 'University'; she could dismiss most of the civil
servants, and she could pardon all offenders.”Queen Victoria, in whose reign Bagehot was writing, exclaimed: “Oh, the
wicked man, to write such a story!” Elizabeth might feel the same way,
for, as every loyal subject knows, the British Constitution cannot be
understood by people who think it says exactly what it means. The
monarch's will is presumed to march with the will of her ministers.
Elizabeth's actual rights as a Queen are only three: the right to be
consulted by the Prime Minister, to encourage certain courses of
action, and to warn against others.She calls a party leader to form a government, but the person she
designates must command a majority in the House of Commons.
Elizabeth's power to grant or refuse a dissolution of Parliament is
real enough, but she would use it independently only in extraordinary
circumstances—e.g., if death or strife hopelessly entangled the wheels
of party government.What She Must Do. Personifying the authority she cannot wield, the Queen
has duties that far exceed her powers, and must sign thousands of
papers. She enacts laws by and with parliamentary assent, appoints
judges and magistrates who act in her name,* confers titles and creates
peerages. She is supreme head of the Church of England and the Church
of Scotland, which makes her an Anglican south of the Tweed, and a
Presbyterian north of it. She is guardian of infants, idiots and
lunatics . If a condemned
murderer should be pardoned, the Home Secretary will tell her so
.What She Can Do. If the Queen pleases, she can ride in a horse carriage
down Rotten Row, where others can only ride horseback. Her picture will
appear on postage stamps, but she will not need them; her personal mail
is franked. She can drive as fast as she likes in a car which needs no
license number. She can tell her sister Margaret when she can marry,
and will surely advise her on whom to marry. She can confer Britain's
highest civilian decoration, the Order of Merit—one honor in which the
Sovereign retains freedom of choice.What She Can't Do. Elizabeth cannot vote. Nor can she express any
shading of political opinion in public. The last monarch who did that
was George III, who in 1780 personally canvassed Windsor against the
Whig candidate Keppel. Elizabeth cannot sit in the House of Commons,
although the building is royal property. She addresses the opening
session of each Parliament, but she cannot write her own speech. She
cannot refuse to sign a bill of Parliament. She cannot appear as a
witness in court, or rent property from her subjects.