The monarchy is the oldest form of government in the United Kingdom but the days of rule by Royal Decree are long gone. Indeed, the reigning queen is famous for her reticence on political matters.
Not so Prince Charles, who recently addressed his reputation as a “meddling” royal, telling BBC documentary-makers that he will give up campaigning for his pet political causes when he becomes king. But the concerns over how he might behave as monarch raises a key question: how much power does the Royal Family actually have?
A constitutional monarchy and the Queen’s role
In a monarchy, the king or queen is the Head of State. Because the UK has a constitutional monarchy, the ability to make and pass legislation belongs to Parliament rather than the Queen.
However, she retains a symbolic role in government. The Queen formally opens Parliament every year, and when the government passes a bill, it cannot become an Act of Parliament until it receives her stamp of approval, a process called Royal Assent. In reality, though, no monarch has refused to give Royal Assent since 1708, when Queen Anne did so only at the behest of ministers.
As such, Queen Elizabeth II’s formal duties are largely representational, such as embarking on goodwill visits abroad and hosting foreign heads of state. The monarch’s main role is to serve as a vital part of Britain’s “national identity, unity, and pride”, says government website Royal.uk.
But the Queen does have a few unique legal privileges. The official royal website says the Queen “retains the right to claim ownership of any unmarked mute swan swimming in open waters”. She also claims dominion over all whales, sturgeons and dolphins in the waters around England and Wales, doesn’t need a passport to travel abroad, and can drive without a licence.
On a governmental level, the Queen retains the power to appoint knights and lords, and has the right to consult the prime minister. In the situation of a constitutional crises, she also – theoretically, at least – has the right to overrule ministerial advice.
Prince Charles, meddling monarch?
The Prince talks openly about his future as a monarch in upcoming BBC documentary Prince, Son and Heir: Charles at 70.
Although the main role of the Prince of Wales is to represent the Royal Family and aid the monarch, Charles has also founded campaigned on issues ranging from GM crops and climate change to architecture and integrated medicine.
This activism has led some commentators to level accusations of political “meddling” against the Prince, who celebrates his 70th birthday on 14 November. Asked by the BBC filmmakers whether he will continue his advocacy campaigns as monarch, Charles answered: “No. It won’t. I’m not that stupid.”
He added: “I do realise that it is a separate exercise being sovereign. You can’t be the same as the sovereign if you’re the Prince of Wales or the heir…the two situations are completely different.”
The Queen’s close family
The influence of the Royal Family extends beyond the Queen. “Every year the Royal Family as a whole carries out over 2,000 official engagements throughout the UK and worldwide,” says Royal.uk.
Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex recently embarked on a 16-day royal tour through Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand, meeting with governors, commanders and members of the public, with a total of 76 engagements. Meanwhile, Prince Charles is completing a four-day royal tour of West Africa with the Duchess of Cornwall.
However, in order to be given official duties – and a government stipend – royals must be members of the Queen’s close family. This is classified as her children, grandchildren and their spouses, along with the Queen’s cousins and their spouses.