Editor’s Note: Laura Beers is an associate professor of history at American University. She is the author of “Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party” and “Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist.” The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last month, I took my 7-year-old son on a children’s tour of the Houses of Parliament. The tour guide took us first to the Lords, where we viewed the throne the Queen sits on during the opening of Parliament – an elaborate wooden edifice, encrusted with jewels and gilded in 23.33 carat gold.
We then went to the House of Commons and saw the dents in the door where the Queen’s Lady Usher of the Black Rod, generally known as “Black Rod,” ceremonially bangs her mace against the entrance to the chamber at the start of each parliamentary session. After being barred from the Commons (a ritual dating to 1642, when MPs refused entrance to King Charles I, in an assertion of parliamentary sovereignty), she summons the members to the Lords chamber to hear the Queen’s Speech – the UK equivalent of the State of the Union in the US.
While the Black Rod ritual is meant to underscore the independence of Parliament from the Crown, it was the Queen’s gilded throne in the Lords chamber that most impressed my son. When we finished our tour, he insisted on a souvenir embossed with the Lords logo. I hung my head in shame as he showed it off to his republican father that evening, and regaled him with stories of how the Queen opens Parliament in her gold throne, wearing her crown jewels.
My husband groaned in frustration and tried his best to make his son appreciate that the Queen’s role in opening and ending Parliament is largely archaic and performative, a vestige of a pre-modern era when the monarch still had a substantive say in the making of law. The Prime Minister, not the Crown, is where the real power lies, he explained to his jewel-beguiled child.
As is so often the case, my husband was both right and wrong.
Their conversation was much on my mind Wednesday, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the Queen in an absurdly awkward position by asking her to suspend Parliament. Britain is a parliamentary democracy but is also a constitutional monarchy. Most of the time, the constitutional limits on the monarch’s power mean that the Queen largely keeps shy of politics, and the decisions of the Prime Minister and his cabinet are sovereign. Occasionally, however, the idiosyncrasies of Britain’s constitution bring Queen and Parliament into uncomfortable contact. Wednesday was one of those days.
Unlike the US House of Representatives, British parliamentary sessions do not have fixed terms. By convention, sessions normally last a year, after which parliament is prorogued – or suspended – by official order of the Queen, and goes into recess until a new parliamentary session is opened. The Queen has a role to play here too. When a new session opens, the government lays out its legislative agenda in a speech to both Houses of Parliament. But, whereas the President himself delivers the State of the Union, the Queen’s Speech, while written by the government, is delivered by the Queen herself, from her throne in the House of Lords chamber.
Johnson claimed that he asks for a prorogation of Parliament because his government was determined to give Britain a fresh start post-Brexit and he needed the latitude to lay down his government’s plans for a post-Brexit future in a new Queen’s Speech, now scheduled for October 14. Most observers, however, believe that he suspended Parliament to stymie MPs’ plans to stop a No Deal Brexit by compelling the government to ask the European Union for an extension to the withdrawal date if an agreement was not reached by Brexit deadline, now set for October 31. But Johnson needed the Queen’s assent to suspend Parliament – which she has now given. Had she refused her royal prerogative, Parliament would have remained in session. In theory at least, the Queen had the power to block the prime minister’s maneuver.
But in practice, that was never an option. A Queen last used her royal prerogative in contravention of her ministers in 1708, when Queen Anne vetoed government legislation. The monarchy’s own website asserts that “The Sovereign no longer has a political or an executive role.” That is why, while everyone from House Speaker John Bercow, to former Conservative Chancellor Philip Hammond, to actor Hugh Grant (in a particularly colorful tweet), have attacked the Prime Minister for his decision, there has been little criticism of the Queen for her part in yesterday’s drama. Grant’s tweet began, “You will not f*** with my children’s future. You will not destroy the freedoms my grandfather fought two world wars to defend.”
In the weeks to come, the Prime Minister’s decision will face at least one legal challenge. A group of MPs will argue in the Scottish courts that Johnson’s advice to the Queen was unconstitutional, as he counseled her to take an action that would effectively circumvent the will of her elected Parliament. Legally, it would not be possible to take the Queen to court. Her royal prerogative is absolute and cannot be challenged.
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But, even if it were possible, there would be little point. The Queen may officially prorogue and ceremonially open Parliament on a throne of nearly pure gold, but it is the man behind the throne, not the monarch herself, who wields the real power.