Constitutional monarchy is a system of government in which a monarch serves as the titular head of state but not the head of government and the monarch's powers are strictly limited by the constitution. Constitutional monarchies emerged in seventeenth-century Europe as the outcome of the struggle of the landed aristocracy and merchant class to limit the power of absolute monarchs. A leading example is the Glorious Revolution of 1689 that made Parliament supreme in the English system of government but retained a significant role for the crown. These efforts to curb royal absolutism were inspired by the liberal political philosophy of the Enlightenment. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as monarchical liberal democracies became more fully democratic, kings and queens came to play primarily a symbolic, ceremonial role in government.
Constitutional monarchy is a feature of many, but not all, parliamentary democracies. In parliamentary democracies that are constitutional monarchies, the king or queen retains nominally very large powers as the titular head of state. Acts of government are carried out in the crown’s name. The monarch is the head of the armed forces. Acts of parliament require the monarch’s signature, and the monarch summons and dissolves parliament. But the monarch exercises all these powers on the advice of ministers who have a majority in the elected house of parliament.
In parliamentary democracies, the government is headed by a prime minister and cabinet ministers who are members of the parliamentary party or coalition of parties that have a majority in the elected house of parliament. In monarchical parliamentary democracies, the monarch formally appoints the prime minister. Normally, the monarch has no choice as to who should be appointed prime minister: the leader of the political party or coalition of parties that has a majority in the elected house of parliament must be appointed. However, in the unusual circumstances of a “hung parliament,” when it is not clear which party or combination of parties has a majority, the monarch (or in Commonwealth countries, the governor-general who represents the queen) may play a more significant and discretionary role.
In exceptional situations where discretionary judgment is required, the monarchical head of state’s objective is to ensure that it is the parliament elected by the people that is supreme, not the prime minister. This principle may mean that it is constitutionally appropriate for a monarch to reject a prime minister’s advice and act independently. For example, if an incumbent prime minister refuses to accept the result of a general election that produces a parliament in which his or her party no longer has a majority, and if the prime minister refuses to resign or allow any other party leader to try to form a government, and instead asks the monarch to dissolve parliament and call another election, the monarch would be justified in rejecting the prime minister’s advice. In these circumstances, it would be constitutionally correct for the monarchical head of state to dismiss the prime minister and invite another party leader to test the will of parliament.
Some parliamentary systems are republican rather than monarchical. In a republican parliamentary system, the head of state is a president elected directly by the people or indirectly by parliament. In republican parliamentary systems, presidential heads of state tend to have greater powers than monarchical heads of state in parliamentary systems. The powers of presidents in republican parliamentary systems are carefully delineated in written constitutions, whereas the position of constitutional monarchs is more the product of historical evolution and is largely governed by unwritten constitutional conventions.
Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden are leading examples of constitutional monarchies in Western Europe. Most of the world’s constitutional monarchies are member states of the Commonwealth of Nations. Queen Elizabeth II is either sovereign or head of state of sixteen of these states. Besides the United Kingdom, these states include Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Five other Commonwealth countries—Brunei, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland, and Tonga—have their own indigenous monarchies. Only in the United Kingdom are the powers and responsibilities of the crown exercised by the queen herself. In the other Commonwealth constitutional monarchies whose queen is Elizabeth II, a governor-general representing the queen discharges the crown’s responsibilities. In most of these Commonwealth monarchies, the office of governor-general has been indigenized by having the queen appoint the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister of the country in which the governor-general will serve and by having a citizen of that country fill the office.
SEE ALSO Aristocracy; Democracy; Government; Monarchy; Parliaments and Parliamentary Systems
Blake, Lord. 1977. The Queen and the Constitution. The Queen: a Penguin Special. New York: Penguin Books.
Bogdanor, Vernon. 2003. The Monarchy. The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century, ed. Vernon Bogdanor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, David. 1995. The Invisible Crown. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Peter H. Russell