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The Royal Prerogative Powers and Westminster

In the United Kingdom the Royal Prerogative is a relic of the traditional power which was vested in the monarch in past centuries and that is no longer exercised by the monarch today but instead is delegated to the prime minister and members of his cabinet. What this results in is an enormous amount of executive power in the hands of the PM and his ministers which is, more or less, entirely unaccountable to the democratic machinery of the state. As a result of the prerogative powers the PM and his cabinet can do pretty much whatever they feels is right in the situation and no one can stand in their way, though in practice if the actions of a government minister prove that unpopular he would lose much of the support of both his party and his voters.

 

 

Only the reigning Monarch can open and close Parliament.

Through the use of the prerogative powers the Conservative government of the time banned trade unions at GCHQ in 1984. They were also used in dismissing the Whitlam, Australian Labor Party government in the constitutional crisis of 1975  (Wikipedia - 1975 Australian consitutional crisis). In 2005 Home Secretary Charles Clarke used the prerogative powers to refuse passports to two British men freed from Guantanamo Bay, forcing them to remain in Britain (The Telegraph - Two Guantamano Britons refused passports). 

 

Some of the Royal Prerogative powers are held by the Queen in person which includes the right to grant certain honours such as the Order of Merit. It is also customary for the Queen to hold weekly meetings with the PM at which she expresses her views on matters of government (The British Monarchy - Queen and Prime Minister). What is discussed in these meetings is strictly confidential.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron meeting the Queen during one of their weekly meetings.

The Queen is also the head of the armed forces (The British Monarchy - The Queen and the Armed Forces). Upon enlistment members of the armed forces swear allegiance to the Queen. As the head of the armed forces the Queen also holds regular meetings with the Chief of the Defence Staff who is based at the Ministry of Defence and who advises both the Secretary of State for Defence and the PM. She also meets regularly with the chiefs of the navy, army and the air force.

   

There have been calls from members of parliament to have the prerogative powers abolished and one such review in 2009 led to the formal reply from Whitehall that removing the powers would have the net effect of weakening the state rendering it less able to respond to a crisis (The Guardian - Royal powers review warns against further reform). It was also contended that because some of the powers were so archaic there was little point in changing them, one example being the government’s right to press gang people into joining the navy. It is also the situation that before any bill can be debated in Parliament that may affect the prerogative powers the Queen’s consent must first be obtained (The British Monarchy - The Queen in Parliament). 

The Palace of Westminster. Originally a royal residence, parts of the building became increasingly used for governmental matters. It was largely rebuilt in the 19th century.

Until as late as 2003 the prerogative powers were shrouded in mystery until a list was finally published detailing the powers (The Guardian - Mystery lifted on Queen's powers). The Public Administration Committee chaired by Tony Wright, MP and which was responsible for persuading the government to produce the list, stated it was their aim to have the powers clearly defined so that Parliament could then ask for a say in how the powers are exercised in future.

 

After a legal battle under the Freedom of Information Act secret papers were finally released by Downing Street in January 2013 revealing the full extent to which senior members of the Royal Family have the power of veto over new legislation from the Commons (The Guardian - Secret papers show extent of senior royals' veto over bills). The papers detailed 39 bills that were scrutinized by either the Queen or Prince Charles. Bills scrutinized by the Queen included the Housing Act of 1996, the Pollution Prevention and Control bill of 1999, the European Union bill of 2004, the Higher Education Act of 2006 and the Identity Cards bill of 2004-6. Bills scrutinized by Prince Charles included the House of Lords Act of 1999, the Road Safety bill of 2004-5, the London Olympics bill of 2005-6 and the Energy bill of 2007-8.

 

Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP representing St. Ives, said the following on the freedom of information release, "It shows the royals are playing an active role in the democratic process and we need greater transparency in parliament so we can be fully appraised of whether these powers of influence and veto are really appropriate. At any stage this issue could come up and surprise us and we could find parliament is less powerful than we thought it was."

Andrew George, MP who spoke out on the Freedom of Information Act release.

At times therefore it would seem that even the MP’s themselves aren’t fully aware of the extent of the Royal Prerogative powers and how they are applied in matters of Parliament. To date no democratically elected government has had the required determination to reform Parliament and finally abolish the prerogative powers once and for all. Ironically it is the same prerogative powers which ultimately gives the elected government its authority and power to do things, so they are automatically at pains to remove the same powers they are using. It is the case that the MP’s calling for reform and the abolition of the prerogative powers don’t have any real influence in the matter other than the right to voice their opinion and request further information and clarification on how the powers are used.  

 

The system of government in the UK is archaic and is long overdue for modernisation. However the reformers have to work within the very same system they are hoping to reform and at the end of the day the establishment is always slow to respond to any requests for progressive change.

The Royal Prerogative powers cover the following areas of government on foreign affairs: declarations of war can be made without first consulting Parliament, foreign states can be recognised and treaties made with foreign states. At home the PM can arbitrarily appoint or dismiss ministers, and can appoint top positions within the civil service (FindLaw UK - The Royal Prerogative). There are other examples of prerogative powers, some of which are archaic and would not be used today.