No law saves the Queen?
February 16, 2011 9:30 PM   Subscribe

Is there a mechanism enshrined in law by which the British monarchy could be removed by a popular vote?
posted by vapidave to Law & Government (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by wilful at 9:31 PM on February 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm far from a Britain specialist, but things like this get complicated quickly by the... interesting... nature of the British constitution.

Arguably, there is a method, since one of the principles that make up the British constitution is that Parliament is unlimited; there is no law that Parliament cannot pass. So, Parliament is arguably free to abolish the monarchy. Or free to pass a law setting up a referendum on the monarchy.

OTOH, I'm sure someone could make a reasonable argument that doing so is in some way impossible.

Parliament has already (effectively) abolished the monarchy once, and removed specific monarchs from power more than once.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:56 PM on February 16, 2011

No is the only correct answer here, if you mean a popular vote in the UK.

Australia held a referendum in 1999 on whether we should become a Republic with a President. We voted No, so we'll never know what would have happened.

One model of how a move to disestablish a monarchy by the popular vote has been done in another comparable constitutional monarchy was the 1931 abdication of Alfonso XIII; Republican candidates simply won a majority, the King took it as a de facto Referendum and abdicated, left the country, and the Cortes (Spanish Parliament) simply drafted up a new Constitution. Note, however, that in the transition to democracy after General Franco died, Alfonso's heir Juan Carlos was brought back to a constitutional monarchy, effectively, by fiat of the military dictator.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:57 PM on February 16, 2011

No, and indeed, isn't it the other way around? The government of the day isn't actually elected. They hold an election, and the party with the most votes is politely invited by the Queen to form a government. So she gets to choose the government, technically. The government doesn't get to choose the monarch.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:00 PM on February 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Your question misunderstands the fundamental nature of the British monarchy. It is basically the army, police, and other pledged servants of the Crown who would decide, after such a vote, whether their loyalties lay with the monarchy. Monarchy was not created by a vote, and it would not be abolished by a vote. I'm sure other people can explain this better than me.
posted by shii at 10:01 PM on February 16, 2011

To the best of my knowledge, there is no existing mechanism enshrined in law by which the British monarchy could be removed by a popular vote.

However, UK has an uncodified constitution, so the Parliament can remove the monarchy simply by enacting a law whenever there is enough public demand and support for it (else the next government would just bring the monarchy back).
posted by vidur at 10:44 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, the English parliament did put a king up for trial and find him guilty of treason and executed him ...

but 11 years later, all of the men who presided over his trial were executed as traitors and regicides. They even dug up the since deceased Cromwell to dismember him in retribution.

As far as I know, sovereignty in Britain still rests in the monarch-in-parliament -- that is, the parliament has no sovereignty without the monarch, but the monarch needs the parliament. Abolishing the monarch would be redefining sovereignty. Same would be true for all the other monarchies in the Commonwealth.
posted by jb at 11:02 PM on February 16, 2011

AmbroseChapel is very right to say that the Queen chooses the government, and it just so happens that she (usually) chooses the party with the majority of the seats. She doesn't have to; in the period before parties really gained influence, monarchs choose the executive government at will. But since the 16-17th centuries, there has been a strong tradition that sovereignty rested not in the parliament alone (Cromwellians disagreed, but they lost the Restoration) nor in the King alone, but in the combination -- the king-in-parliament.
posted by jb at 11:09 PM on February 16, 2011

For centuries the British have rationalized their entire government as powers delegated by the King/Queen. Laws, appointments, documents (passports, etc), and so on.. none of them are technically valid until endorsed by the monarch or one of her agents.

The British monarch is the "fount of honour" and "fount of justice".

So let's suppose parliament did pass a law removing the monarch. Suddenly everyone is asking the question, "under what authority am I doing this?" What is my authority to pass laws? Represent England? Pass judgement on defendants? When it comes time to dissolve parliament or choose a new prime minister, no one would know how to go about it. There's a huge gapping hole that has always been occupied by 'royal assent'.

Suddenly you would lose an important, critical part for the rules on how to run government. Look closely at any well functioning democracy and you'll see a delicate web of rules and conventions that everyone has agreed to abide by. They're like axioms in theoretical mathematics: they're just assumed to be true and then everything else flows from them.

Think of it this way: what if the American people voted to no longer follow the constitution? Before we went through with anything so drastic we'd have to sit down and figure out under what new procedures we were going to run the country. Same thing with voting out the monarch.
posted by sbutler at 11:10 PM on February 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

The government doesn't get to choose the monarch.

Like ROU_X, I think it's a more delicate balance, although it's concealed under various layers that emphasise continuity over discontinuity. The Act of Settlement remains the presiding law to this day, meaning that Parliament (not 'the government') does get to choose the monarch, albeit at a 310-year remove from its original decision.

What makes it tricky is that the deliberate non-separation of powers of 'the Queen in Parliament' again emphasises both continuity and mutuality. So it depends what you mean by 'mechanism': no, there isn't any existing legal framework in place to dump the monarchy by popular vote, but absence isn't the same as prohibition.
posted by holgate at 11:12 PM on February 16, 2011

I think holgate pretty much has it. If Parliament sensed that the popular mood was in favour of a republic, there would probably be a referendum, but for political rather than legal reasons--there is no mechanism in the UK polity for a referendum on anything--and an Act would be passed to render the UK a republic, which the Queen would give the royal assent to as her last official act as monarch. Nothing would stop a future Parliament conferring the title of king or queen on anybody it chose.
Lawyers worry about stuff like this but politicians don't. They may think they do, but in the end a constitution is a political document not a legal one. In any reasonably democratic political system, the right to govern basically depends on assent by the governed. As was pointed out a couple of times above, England/the UK has had at least two revolutions over the last few hundred years. I'll bet that during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 life for most people carried on exactly as before, and most people didn't even notice that the old king had fled to France and that the thrones of England and Scotland were now held by a Dutchman.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:19 AM on February 17, 2011

The Queen operates somewhat like an unelected president for life who never exercises a veto; but who defers all decisions, lawmaking and policy to parliament, which is managed by the government - which is basically the party (or parties) joined together such that they have sufficient votes in parliament to do what they want, assuming their own party members go along with it. The latter is proving interesting now we have a coalition government of two parties that aren't natural bedfellows, but as no one party had enough members of parliament to effectively govern alone after the last election, it was always going to be messy.

(Government in the UK usage means this 'ruling' party, whereas I understand the US usage to apply to the entire political system?)

So far, the majority of the population accept the current system, though that it's no small part to the current Queen basically removing herself from the political process as much as possible. She reads out the Queen's speech, which is a layout of the legislation her government intends to try and pass that year; the whole thing is written by the Prime Minister and his spin doctors.

Under the current setup, every law passed needs Royal Assent. So while parliament could write a law to turn the UK into a republic, presumably based upon the result of a referendum, the Queen would have to sign it - as her last official act - before stepping down.

If a future monarch refused to do so, then it would come down to whether the Army would defend the Crown, or Parliament. If it splits, then we have a civil war. We did have a civil war before a few hundred years ago; parliament won, initially, then Crown was restored - but in a far more neutered fashion than before.

So much of the British system works because that's the way we've been doing it, and we might as well carry on doing it like that. All the pomp and ceremony is just that; in reality all the power rests with Parliament, and more specifically the ruling government of the day.

A similar question; could Congress write a law getting rid of the post of President and Vice President? I understand it's part of the constitution, so presumably a constitutional amendment would do the trick - as long as the President didn't veto the amendment?
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:18 AM on February 17, 2011

Tied into that is Parliamentary supremacy; no parliament can write a law that binds future parliaments. A future parliament, made up of different MPs and probably a different government can always write a new law amending or cancelling out an old one. Many laws are like this; they're made up of chucks of old laws, mixed in with new bits added over time, some of which over-ride bits of the old law. It's relatively rare to have an entire law just written off entirely. There are still bits of our laws that basically go back all the way to Magna Carta; the modified version written in 1297, "The Great Charter of the Liberties of England, and of the Liberties of the Forest", is still on the books.

Which makes planning budgets over more than the lifetime of one parliament a bit tricky.
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:24 AM on February 17, 2011

11 years later, all of the men who presided over his trial were executed as traitors and regicides

Thomas Harrison's speech on the gallows quoting the Psalms is moving in its courage ('he stood by his principles and made no attempt to escape' post-Restoration; Pepys thought he was 'looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition') to my mind:
God hath covered my head many times in the day of Battle. By God I have leaped over a wall, by God I have runned through a Troop, and by my God I will go through this death.
Sorry for the non-answer, just not often the topic of the regicides comes up.
posted by Abiezer at 2:31 AM on February 17, 2011

Oops, last line in the blockquote is obviously me, not the redoubtable Major-General.
posted by Abiezer at 2:32 AM on February 17, 2011

Is there a mechanism enshrined in law by which the British monarchy could be removed by a popular vote?

Isn't it called a general election? If a party ran on a republican manifesto and was elected, wouldn't they then have a legal mandate to abolish the monarchy? I think at that point, having to ask the Queen to approve the government is a moot point.
posted by londonmark at 3:15 AM on February 17, 2011

Nope. That's why, back in the good old days, we used to get rid of them by taking their heads off.
posted by Decani at 3:41 AM on February 17, 2011

Argharghargh. Have any people answering this actually read a book on English constitutional law?

Answer: The UK is governed by the Crown in Parliament - the union of the monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. No Act of Parliament is valid without Royal Assent. This means that Parliament cannot depose a monarch without his or her assent. However -

King James II (technically James II of England and Ireland, and James VII of Scotland) was King of England, and a Catholic. Most people in England were not Catholic and didn't want to be ruled by a Catholic dynasty. They put up with him because James II's heir was his daughter Mary, a Protestant, so they regarded the problem as one that would go away. Unfortunately, in 1688 King James II fathered a son who would presumably be raised a Catholic. As a male, the son would take precedence over his sister and inherit the throne.

James II's nephew William was Mary's wife. He was involved in both Royal and Parliamentary politics in the UK and he conspired with leading UK political figures. Long story short, James II fled England and Parliament invited William and Mary to reign as joint monarchs. I'm sure you see the problem. If an Act of Parliament requires Royal Assent, then how can Parliament appoint a new monarch without the assent of the old one? The solution for this was basically for the new monarchs to assent to their own appointment. Lots of people have pointed out the logical fallacy in this.

So the the correct answer is: there is no law, and without Royal Assent there can be no law which provides for the deposition of the British Monarch. However under the right circumstances this might happen, and British constitutional law and theory would survive.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:43 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

A similar question; could Congress write a law getting rid of the post of President and Vice President? I understand it's part of the constitution, so presumably a constitutional amendment would do the trick - as long as the President didn't veto the amendment?

Sorry to abet the derail, but the U.S. President has no (formal) say over Constitutional amendments whatsoever. If two-thirds of each house of Congress voted that the office of the President were to be abolished and all its powers vested in the Speaker of the House, and three-fourths of state legislatures were to agree to it, the now-former-President would have to hire a moving van.

Practically speaking, does the chief of the executive branch have a tremendous amount of influence over proposed Constitutional amendments? Betcher ass he does. But he's not actually part of the process.
posted by Etrigan at 4:43 AM on February 17, 2011

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