The modern monarchy - effective and popular
The British monarchy consistently has the support of some 80% of the public.
The monarch is Head of State. But under the British Parliamentary system she exercises very little actual political power. She does however fulfil a number of important legal functions. For example, the Queen gives assent to Acts of Parliament, appoints the Prime Minister and other Ministers as well as judges and many other public officials; she awards peerages, grants honours (knighthoods, CBEs, OBEs, MBEs, etc.) and performs other formal acts. Most of these powers would have to be exercised by the Head of State of the UK even if the monarchy were abolished.
However, in doing these things the monarch is only rarely allowed to exercise her own choices or discretion: she must act on advice from individuals who are democratically accountable, normally her ministers. By convention the monarch does not participate in party politics.
Real political power is exercised by the Prime Minister as Head of Government and by ministers accountable to Parliament. The clear principle behind these arrangements is that those exercising political power should be directly or indirectly accountable to the electorate. Since the monarch exercises very little political power, the case for election of the Head of State on the basis of that principle is weak.
In practice, the role and functions of the Head of State in the UK are much greater than the exercise of formal legal powers on advice and therefore rather wider than the roles of Heads of State in other countries.
The Queen is Head of the British Commonwealth. Her daily public activities and those of other members of the royal family include hosting or making state visits in which the Head of State is not associated with any political party - for instance the symbolically very important royal visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011. Members of the royal family establish or act as patrons of a range of charities (for example, The Queen’s Award for Enterprise, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, the Prince’s Trust) and thus support their fund raising campaigns. They open new public buildings and institutions (hospitals, universities etc.) and visit civil society institutions; they express the public’s appreciation for the service rendered by citizens at many levels, recognising military distinction (Victoria Cross) and the suffering of survivors of members of armed forces killed in war (Elizabeth Cross).
These activities - and there are many others - are about supporting civil society and understandably they contribute to the popularity of the monarchy.
The same is true of much of the royal pageantry surrounding formal state occasions. The institution is a reminder of the country’s history and an example of the duty of public service that people expect of the state generally.
The monarchy has evolved and been modernised over the years in response to social developments and changes in public opinion: the rules of succession no longer discriminate on grounds of gender; the bar on marriage to a Catholic has gone; the monarch’s formal power to choose the date for a general election has been removed.
The institution will continue to evolve and there is, indeed, need for further reform. Like all public institutions the monarchy must keep up with the times. The requirement that a new Privy Councillor must kneel to the monarch and kiss her hand is an example of an archaic custom that is now in question.
The remaining scope for the monarch to make personal choices when exercising her formal legal powers should be removed. The choice of Prime Minister should be made by the House of Commons. The Prime Minister should not have the power, through advice to the monarch, to exercise unregulated ‘royal prerogative’ powers and patronage which should be subject to formal statutory regulation. The relationship between the monarchy and the Church of England should be kept under review.
The institution, though not perfect, works well. And it is popular.