By Robert Hazell, Professor of Government and the Constitution, UCL & Bob Morris, Constitution Unit, UCL

The Platinum Jubilee celebrated the Queen’s dedication to public service throughout her long reign, tinged with a certain apprehensiveness about the future now that her reign is entering its final years. It generated a blizzard of media requests from around the world, which mostly clustered around the same set of questions: 

  • How can a hereditary monarchy be part of a modern democracy? 
  • Will public support for the monarchy outlive support for the Queen? 
  • What kind of King will Prince Charles be? What changes might he want to introduce? 
  • What is the future of the monarchy in the realms, the 14 other countries around the world where the Queen is also head of state? 

This post offers more detailed answers to these questions than allowed by brief media interviews. It does so through a comparative and constitutional law lens, based upon our co-edited book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared.

The first question is easily answered: there is no contradiction between monarchy and democracy, with some of the most advanced democracies in the world also being monarchies. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand are countries which regularly feature at the top of the annual Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. They are all monarchies and have survived as monarchies because the monarch no longer has any political power; the Queen reigns, but she does not rule.

Constitutional monarchs act on the advice of the elected government; if they fail to do that or otherwise step out of line, they risk losing their thrones. That was the lesson brutally learned by Edward VIII in the abdication crisis of 1936, but he was not the only European monarch forced to abdicate. The same fate befell King Leopold III of the Belgians in 1950, Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde of Luxembourg in 1919, and in 2014 King Juan Carlos of Spain, when opinion polls showed that two-thirds of Spaniards felt he should abdicate. 

Monarchy as a system of government depends on the consent of the people as well as the government. If the people withdraw their support from monarchy as an institution, it is finished. That is how monarchy came to an end in referendums in Italy after the Second World War and in Greece in 1973-74. In all, there were 18 referendums held on the future of the monarchy in ten different European countries during the last century. Not all led to the country becoming a republic: referendums have re-affirmed continuation of the monarchy in Denmark and Norway, and restoration of the monarchy in Spain.  

In an age of incessant opinion polls, consent for the monarchy needs to be renewed in each reign. That is the challenge facing Prince Charles, who has always faced criticism from sections of the press, who can be expected to run opinion polls early in his reign asking people who they want to be King, the elderly Charles or his more glamorous son Prince William. That raises the question whether in time he might abdicate.

Amongst the other European monarchies there are different traditions: in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain it has been perfectly acceptable for monarchs to abdicate – the last three Dutch Queens abdicated in their 70s. But in the Scandinavian monarchies and Britain it has not been the practice.

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark has said she will stay on the throne until she falls off, and for Queen Elizabeth abdication is unthinkable: she regards it as her sacred duty to reign as long as she shall live. If we are to avoid a gerontocracy, with a series of elderly monarchs, it would be good for abdication to become regarded as acceptable in the UK; but it will be difficult for Charles not to feel obliged to follow his mother’s dutiful example.  

The other question regularly asked about Prince Charles is whether, having championed many different causes, he can become a neutral constitutional monarch like his mother. If he continues with his spider memos (see R (Evans) vs Attorney General) we can expect the Prime Minister to remind him, as Asquith firmly reminded King George V (who wanted to host an all-party conference on the Irish Question), that ‘We have now a well-established tradition of 200 years that in the last resort, the occupant of the Throne accepts and acts on the advice of his ministers.’  

Charles is on record as wanting a slimmed down monarchy. That is likely to happen anyway, as the older generation of royals gradually fade away: of the 12 members of the royal family who perform public duties, two are in their mid 80s, and five are in their 70s. Little noticed but more pressing is a need to amend the Regency Acts, in particular the provisions about Counsellors of State, last activated when Prince Charles and Prince William deputised for the Queen at the state opening of parliament on 10 May. The Counsellors of State are those next in line of succession, but of the four provided by the Regency Acts, Prince Andrew is disgraced, and Prince Harry lives abroad.  

While amending the Regency Acts to allow for the appointment of further Counsellors, consideration might be given to allowing the Queen to delegate more of her functions, in what might be called a ‘soft Regency’. At present, a Regency can only be declared if ‘the Sovereign is by reason of infirmity of mind or body incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions’. Most of the work of the Sovereign is performed out of sight, reading and signing state papers: the Queen receives red boxes every day. What if the Queen wanted to share the load: would it not be a sensible extension of his apprenticeship for Charles to be allowed to sign state papers as well? 

Finally, the realms. Barbados became a republic last year, and it is quite likely that over time other realms will follow suit. The monarchy and the UK government have long made it clear that it is a matter for local choice. The difficulty is the high threshold before some constitutions can be changed. Australia and Jamaica are the countries most frequently mentioned. For 50 years successive Jamaican Prime Ministers have declared their intention to turn Jamaica into a republic, including the current PM Andrew Holness.

But the Jamaican constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both Houses followed by a referendum before the change can be made. Australia also requires a referendum, and one was held in 1999. Although opinion polls then and now show majority support for Australia becoming a republic, the referendum was defeated because of disagreement about how the new head of state should be appointed.  

It is often presented as a setback for the monarchy if more realms decide to become republics. In truth, it might be a relief. Not only is there reputational risk (think of the coups in Fiji, or Grenada); it also adds considerably to the royal workload. The Queen has to follow the politics of 14 other countries where she is head of state; she and other royals also make regular visits to those countries.

During her reign the Queen has toured Australia 16 times, and Canada 22 times; to mark the Jubilee, Prince Charles and Camilla visited Canada, Princess Anne went to Australia and Papua New Guinea, and Prince William and Kate had their controversial tour of Belize, the Bahamas and Jamaica. If these countries ceased to be realms, the risk of controversy would be reduced; the royal workload would be reduced; and Prince Charles’ wish of a slimmed down royal family would become a little easier.