The monarch stays out of politics. This is one of the most widely accepted nostrums of the modern British constitution. While the crown has huge powers vested in it, they are nowadays held on the understanding that they are exercised only in accordance with the advice and wishes of the elected government.
That the sovereign keeps away from party politics is clear but the true scope of their influence and involvement is a subject of deliberate opacity. While there were moments in the last 70 years when Queen Elizabeth’s intervention has been visible, they are rare. What is little known is the impact she had in her weekly meetings with the prime minister — possibly the only government business which never leaks — or after her daily wade through official papers, both from the UK and the other Commonwealth nations where she remains head of state.
The issue will gain renewed importance because so much more is known about many of King Charles’ views and because he, while Prince of Wales, has been active in promoting his causes with ministers and allowing his opinions to become known — most recently his distaste for the government’s plan to send illegal immigrants to Rwanda.
However, the King made clear in a BBC interview four years ago that he understood he had to behave differently as monarch. “Clearly I won’t be able to do the same things I’ve done as heir,” he said, adding he would not meddle in political issues as sovereign as he was “not that stupid”.
He reinforced this point with his address to the nation on Friday. Speaking for the first time as the King, he stated: “My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.”
That work would pass to others, he said, adding that he would “uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation”. The implication is that he does not resile from his belief that senior royals should speak on societal issues but that it is now for others, most obviously the new Prince of Wales.
Walter Bagehot, the doyen of English constitutional writers, stated in 1867 that the monarch was entitled to be consulted, and could encourage and warn. This alone is significant influence especially when it was in the hands of someone with 70 years on the throne and 15 British premiers (including the newly appointed Liz Truss), to say nothing of the more than 150 prime ministers of the other Commonwealth realms.
Thus the monarch must give royal assent to every piece of legislation but there has not been a question in modern times of that consent being refused. The monarch formally opens each new session of parliament (a roughly annual event) but the speech, stating what measures will be forthcoming, will have been written by the government.
These and other powers held under the so-called royal prerogative, are those which notionally belong to the monarch and can be used without parliamentary approval but which either in fact or custom belong to the government or sometimes parliament. The most important prerogative such as the right to sign treaties and declare war are now exercised by government. Even these are being diluted. While the power to declare war now lies with the government it has become accepted practice that it must be approved by MPs.
Likewise the monarch has the power to dissolve parliament and dismiss a prime minister, forcing an election. Again however this is not a power they would use against the wishes of the government or parliament. There is a grey area however. During the Brexit battles of the last parliament those close to Buckingham Palace worried over what would happen if the government lost a no-confidence vote and the Queen was forced to ask another leader to try to form a government.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of these royal powers came not in the UK but in Australia in 1975 when the governor-general, her representative in the country, used his powers to sack the prime minister Gough Whitlam. Letters show that the Queen was not told in advance of the move though the crisis had been brewing and had been discussed with Buckingham Palace.
Whitlam had failed to secure parliamentary approval for a budget and then refused to call an election. The governor-general, Sir John Kerr, saw it as a constitutional crisis which necessitated an election. Both he and the Queen had been seen as symbolic heads of state and the use of the power shocked many Australians. Nonetheless Whitlam was defeated in the election which followed.
In this instance efforts were made to shield the Queen from the political fallout but it highlights the sensitivity of the monarch’s most important constitutional right — the power to dismiss governments and dissolve parliament.
But there have, through Queen Elizabeth’s reign, been moments of more direct interventions. Perhaps the most notable in recent times came during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Talking years later, David Cameron, the then prime minister, revealed that as he grew more concerned by the tightening opinion polls and the apparent Nationalist surge he sought the monarch’s help.
He told the BBC: “I remember conversations I had with the Queen’s private secretary, not asking for anything that would be improper or unconstitutional but just a raising of an eyebrow, even, you know, a quarter of an inch, we thought would make a difference.”
The Sunday before the referendum the Queen had a brief exchange with a woman in Crathie churchyard where, in clearly-considered but seemingly off-the-cuff remarks she said: “You have an important vote on Thursday. I hope people will think very carefully about the future.”
Her words were duly reported. The Queen’s remarks were beautifully calibrated. Nationalists could not point to any stray phrase but the warning to think carefully was widely interpreted as a nod to caution and therefore the status quo. However, until Cameron’s unprecedented decision to reveal such politically sensitive exchanges, no one could prove political intent. What difference it made cannot be known, but the Tory leader clearly felt it helped.
The Queen also notably clashed with Margaret Thatcher when the prime minister refused to back sanctions against apartheid South Africa. The monarch was concerned about the damage this might do to the Commonwealth and was also more broadly worried at the impact of Thatcher’s policies on the social fabric of the UK. In an extraordinarily unusual incident, the Sunday Times was briefed about the Queen’s unhappiness by her press secretary. It has never been proven he acted at the Queen’s behest — blame has tended to focus on senior courtiers — but there is no doubt the briefing reflected her views. It was deeply embarrassing to both sides but cannot be said to have altered Thatcher’s course.
Royals are adept at lobbying for their own interests. In 2021 the Guardian revealed that in the 1970s the Queen — or at least Buckingham Palace — pressed to secure an exemption from financial transparency laws for private royal investments.
As Prince of Wales, the new King was often criticised for political interventions. The best known have been on non-partisan issues like architecture, on alternative medicine and on the environment, where he was an early advocate of organic farming, sustainability and climate awareness.
But he was also revealed to have pressed ministers on more sensitive issues. Lord David Blunkett, the former Labour education secretary, recalled being pressed by the then Prince to expand grammar schools.
After a lengthy legal battle 27 letters by the Prince to senior ministers — the so called “black spider memos” in a reference to the handwriting — were revealed showing the breadth of his political lobbying. His demands included better equipment for troops in Iraq and a badger cull to halt the spread of bovine TB. He also sought more widespread availability of alternative medicines, lobbied for a particular individual to lead a crackdown on supermarkets which mistreated farmers and proposed his own aide brief Downing Street on the design of new hospitals.
While the royal family has no direct power over policy, these letters raised concerns that the future King would continue to push ministers over issues which concern him. The monarch has the power to influence debate with very small gestures not least by gently posing questions both in private and public.
However, both as heir and King, he has shown himself alive to this concern. In the BBC interview he cited the Shakespeare plays Henry IV and V and the changes in the young King Henry V as he becomes monarch. “The idea, somehow, that I’m going to go on in exactly the same way, if I have to succeed, is complete nonsense because the two — the two situations — are completely different.”
Even so, there will be many who will want him to speak on major societal concerns — most obviously climate change. How he and other senior royals tread this line could be a defining issue of his reign.