A constitutional monarchy is a political system headed by a monarch. However, the monarch's power is not absolute. Instead, the king's or queen's powers, rights, duties, and responsibilities in the political system are limited by constitutional rules and principles, statutory laws, court decisions, and even customary rules of political behavior. Limits on the monarch's powers have generally evolved over time, and the modern monarch in a constitutional monarchy is essentially a figurehead who symbolizes national unity and often serves to rise above partisanship in the political system.
There are several constitutional monarchies in the world today. Of the member states of the European Union, seven are constitutional monarchies: Great Britain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Liechtenstein. Japan remains a constitutional monarchy, albeit with a politically weak and largely ceremonial king, and several states in the British Commonwealth of Nations, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, and many of the Pacific Island states, still retain political, social, and legal links with the British monarchy. Smaller states such as Nepal and Cambodia also retain limited monarchies.
The best example of a constitutional monarchy is that of Great Britain, officially known at the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926), can trace her lineage back to the ninth century. As such, the monarch serves to personify the British state and its history. Government is carried on in the name of the Queen, the "Queen in Parliament" is considered the source of all sovereign political power, and the Queen represents the dignified elements of the British constitution that are symbolic, ceremonial, and above partisan politics. The British monarch is hereditary, which means only the monarch's heirs can become monarchs in the future.
The Norman conquest of England in 1066 established the English monarchy that would ultimately rule over all of Britain and Ireland. For approximately six hundred years the English monarchy consolidated its power over England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and evolved into a powerful office with almost absolute power. Limits on monarchical power were evident, such as the Magna Carta of 1215, but in general the monarch's rule was unlimited, and the English political system was in no sense a constitutional monarchy.
The monarch's grasp on all political power began to fade in the seventeenth century, however, as the English parliament began to challenge the throne for political supremacy. Indeed, the development and evolution of the modern British constitution is to a large extent the story of how parliament slowly wrested power from the monarch and changed the British political system from one based on royal absolutism to one grounded in parliamentary supremacy.
The English Civil War of 1642–1649 deposed King Charles I (1600–1649) and created a republican form of government. King Charles II (1635–1685) and the monarchy were reinstated in 1660, and Charles II ruled until 1685 in cooperation with parliament. James II (1633–1701) assumed the throne in 1685, but because of his Catholicism in an increasingly Protestant England he fled in 1688, leaving the throne vacant and creating a constitutional vacuum in which there was no clear source of political power.
Parliament invited Prince William of Orange (1650–1702) from Holland to assume the duties of the British king, with his wife Mary (1662–1694), who was also James II's daughter. Parliament's calling of William to the throne confirmed its power to regulate not only the succession of British monarchs but also the power of the monarchy itself.
In 1707 parliament passed a statute, the Act of Union, that formally joined England, Wales, and Scotland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Part of the statute mandated that all future British monarchs must be Protestant descendents of the Hanover family. By law, no British monarchs can be Catholic; they must be members of the Anglican Church. Statutory law also mandates that male heirs take priority over female heirs in determining succession to the throne.
Throughout the nineteenth century the British monarch's powers gradually weakened, due in large part to the increasing democratization of the British political system. The electoral franchise was expanded dramatically in the 1830s and again in the 1860s, with the result that parliament became more democratic and assertive. With Irish independence in the early twentieth century the British monarch ceased to rule over the Republic of Ireland but still retained sovereignty over the counties of Ulster, or Northern Ireland.
queen elizabeth ii (b. 1926)
Elizabeth II became the United Kingdom's queen in 1952 and remains in that position as of 2005. She is the sixth monarch in British history to serve 50 or more years on the throne. Although the queen is formally Britain's head of state, as a constitutional monarch she has no actual authority over the government. She does, however, maintain ties with the prime minister and keeps apprised of parliamentary proceedings.
Christened Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, Princess Elizabeth was schooled by private tutors at home alongside her sister, Princess Margaret. As preparation for her future, she studied constitutional history and law and accompanied her father, King George VI (1895–1952) on journeys abroad. During World War II she served in uniform.
In 1947 she married Philip Mountbatten (b. 1921), a prince of Greece and Denmark; they had four children. Elizabeth captured the public's imagination during her 1953 coronation, which was broadcast live. She has traveled extensively and continues to enjoy general public respect. However, as the British "culture of deference" has declined, the royal family's social privilege, expensive government subsidy, and extreme private wealth—the queen is the wealthiest woman in Britain and one of the wealthiest people in the world—have become sensitive issues of public relations. In 1992 the queen agreed to begin paying income taxes, a first for British royalty. Her popularity waned in later years as details of her family's unpleasant private lives became staples of tabloid journalism, particularly the loveless marriage between her son, Prince Charles, and the highly popular Princess Diana. When Diana died in a car wreck in 1997 the queen's perceived lack of empathy further angered her British subjects.
By the twentieth century the monarch's power was limited to the right to be consulted about public policy, the right to ask questions of the government and to receive information, and the right to warn the government about public policy choices. In fact, consultation, advice, and warnings by the Queen are done mainly in private conversations between her and the prime minister, and the Queen's views on public policy issues are rarely made public. Out of that process of giving and receiving advice the Queen can make her views known to her government. The government, however, has no legal or constitutional obligation to follow or act on this advice.
One final convention worth noting is that if the government of the day in parliament (usually the political party with the largest majority in parliament forms the government) loses a vote of no confidence, the Queen is within her power to dismiss that government and call for new elections. Votes of no confidence are very rare in the British political system, and in fact the last government that was dismissed outright by the monarch was in 1783. However, the power to dismiss has been exercised by the Queen through her representatives (i.e., her governors-general) in Commonwealth counties. In 1975 the governor-general of Australia dismissed the government of Prime Minister Edward Gough Whitlam (b. 1916), which fueled agitation in Australia to sever ties with the British monarchy and create a republic outright.
Australia has yet to jettison its links with the British Crown, but republic sentiment is growing. Interestingly, the Queen retains authority over Canada through her governor-general, with the implication that the Queen can dismiss a Canadian prime minister or even provincial governor. Queen Elizabeth II found out how precarious her commonwealth position can be in 1987 during a military coup in Fiji. The Queen appealed to the Fijian population to maintain its historic links to the British Crown. The Fijian military government's response was to sever those links and make Fiji a republic.
In the end, the British monarch is mainly a figurehead. To be sure, the Queen transcends partisan politics and, thus, perhaps provides a kind of stability for the political system when partisan rancor threatens to paralyze it. As well, the Queen provides a link with Britain's history and, as such, may well be a stabilizing influence for the political system. The Queen's powers are functionally very limited, however, and are largely now ceremonial. Modern British monarchs do not participate in public debates over government policy making, although in private Queen Elizabeth II does have a reputation for suggesting policy outcomes to her government. Modern monarchs do not try to block legislation passed by parliament or refuse to appoint politicians to ministerial positions when advised by the government. In sum, British monarchs do not interfere with the democratic, majoritarian political process and outcomes in parliament; to do so in the twenty-first century would, more than likely, spell the end of the British monarchy.
the dutch monarchy
The Dutch monarchy resembles that of the British in that its role is also mainly ceremonial. The powers of the Dutch monarch, Queen Beatrix (b. 1938), are mainly written down in the Dutch constitution, unlike in Britain where many of the Queen's powers are rooted in unwritten rules of political behavior or conventions. The constitution specifies the rules of monarchical succession, the powers of the monarch in relation to the government, and how parliament appropriates money to support the monarchy. The monarch does appoint government ministers, cosigns acts of parliament with the prime minister, and participates in other political tasks but only on the advice of the democratically elected government.
Although the Dutch monarch's power is limited by explicit constitutional provisions, one important unwritten rule or convention has evolved over the last one hundred years: The monarch plays a very prominent role in how government cabinets are formed. The cabinet is the group of top government ministers, also called the council of ministers, who determine government policy, propose legislation to parliament, make budget and foreign policy decisions, and in general guide the Dutch government's policymaking. The cabinet is chaired by the prime minister, who is generally the leader of the largest political party in parliament.
Because of the Dutch electoral system based on strict proportional representation , several different political parties contest each national election, and there is often there is no clear winner. Because no one political party has an absolute majority of seats in parliament, parties must form coalitions to create a national government. Indeed, after each national election in The Netherlands it may be months before the national government is determined. Establishing which political parties get to form a coalition government involves long, laborious political negotiations among party leaders.
Unwritten constitutional rules have evolved so that the Dutch monarch coordinates, organizes, and takes the lead in establishing the new government. After each national election the Queen consults with the speakers of the two houses in parliament, the heads of the political parties in parliament, and the vice president of the Council of State (an advisory body appointed by the Queen). The advice given to the Queen is made public, and acting on that advice, the Queen appoints one politician who investigates the possibilities of forming a government in coalition with other political parties.
In organizing the negotiations to form a coalition government the Queen serves not only as one who jumpstarts an often difficult and fractious coalitional governing process but also as a stabilizing presence in the Dutch political system. That is, the monarch provides political continuity and constancy in a somewhat fractious political system.
spain's constitutional monarchy
Another constitutional monarchy shows how the monarch can not only be a stabilizing force in the political system but can also ensure the continuation of democratic governance. In general, monarchies are often considered anti-democratic due to the perpetuation of some political power in a person who serves not at the will of the electorate but because of heredity and birth. Yet, the example of constitutional monarchy in Spain shows how a king can not only lend stability to a political system in crisis but can actually protect democratic governance.
The Spanish monarchy, much like the British, evolved over the course of several centuries into a powerful position with unlimited power. At its peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the power of the Spanish monarch began to decline throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Spain itself became economically and politically weaker than Britain and France. Spain's political system up to the twentieth century was authoritarian and undemocratic, and in 1923, under King Alphonso XIII (1886–1941), a military dictatorship was established led by General Primo de Rivera (1870–1930). De Rivera's government collapsed in 1930, and the following year the Spanish Republic was created and the monarchy was outlawed by parliament; the king fled the country.
The Spanish Republic was short-lived, however, as a rebellion of the Spanish army plunged Spain into a bloody and brutal civil war that lasted from 1936 to 1939. General Francisco Franco (1892–1975) headed the rebellious troops who defeated Republican forces and established a repressive dictatorship that lasted until the 1970s. Prior to his death in 1975, Franco set in motion a plan in which power would transfer from him, as dictator, to his handpicked successor, Prince Juan Carlos (b. 1938). The monarchy did not exist in Franco's dictatorship, but France maintained a relationship with the royal family and, in fact, groomed Juan Carlos for several years to become head of state and new king of Spain. Juan Carlos became king on Franco's death and set in motion a chain of events that would lead to democratic government in Spain.
Several political forces emerged after Franco, some of which advocated democracy, others of which demanded a perpetuation of Francoist and repressive government. A general election was held in 1977 with free participation by all political parties (which was not allowed under Franco), and in 1978 a new Spanish constitution was written that established a constitutional monarchy premised on democratic government. However, the new Spanish democracy was very fragile. In February 1981 several Spanish generals initiated a coup, or military takeover, of the national government. Army regiments seized the Spanish parliament building and held members of parliament hostage in an attempt to stop Spain's transition to democracy.
King Juan Carlos could either publicly support the military coup, thus ending Spanish democracy for the foreseeable future, or he could use his personal prestige and influence to support democratic governance and stop Spain's slide into repression. Moreover, the king could use his office to prevent what could become a very bloody conflict between the military and pro-democracy forces.
King Juan Carlos immediately sided with the pro-democracy forces. On the night of the coup he addressed the Spanish nation to indicate his support for the democratic political process and his vehement opposition to the coup. He made personal appeals to several Spanish military regiments that were not part of the initial rebellion and requested that they remain in their barracks and not take to the streets to support the coup or to quell pro-democracy supporters. Perhaps most effectively, Juan Carlos made it known to the Spanish military that he would lay down his life to stop the coup. Thus, the coup's success depended on the forcible removal of the Spanish king.
queen beatrix (b. 1938)
Since becoming monarch of The Netherlands in 1980, Queen Beatrix has played a significant role in shaping Dutch policy. Most constitutional monarchs have no actual power, but The Netherlands is an exception. Under the constitution Queen Beatrix is allowed to serve as chair of the Council of State, the country's highest government advisory board.
Described as regal but level-headed, Queen Beatrix generally outscores her nation's politicians in popularity polls. When she speaks, people listen. For example, in the mid-1990s Queen Beatrix used her power to oust a Dutch ambassador to South Africa over an alleged extramarital affair.
Queen Beatrix has not always enjoyed such liberal support, however. In 1966 she married the German-born Prince Claus von Amsberg (1926–2002). The union created a furor in The Netherlands, a country that had been invaded and brutally occupied by German forces during World War II (1939–1945). Like many young German men, Prince Claus had been a member of the Hitler Youth. Over the years, however, Prince Claus became a much-loved member of the royal family. He learned to speak Dutch and in 1967, with Queen Beatrix, gave the country its first male heir in almost a century: Prince Willem-Alexander.
Using his personal prestige as king and head of state, Juan Carlos solidified democratic government in Spain, at the same time strengthening his role as Spain's constitutional monarch. Although the Spanish king is much the figure-head with little political power, similar to Queen Elizabeth II in Britain and Queen Beatrix in The Netherlands, King Juan Carlos retains a high level of support among the Spanish public due to his defense of democracy.
Kortman, Constantijn A.J.M., and Paul P.T. Bovend'Eert. Dutch Constitutional Law. Boston: Kluwer Law, 2000.
Marshal, Geoffrey. Constitutional Conventions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
O'Donnell, Guillermo, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Southern Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Smith, S.A. de, and Rodney Brazier. Constitutional and Administrative Law. 6th ed. London: Penguin, 1989.
John C. Blakeman