Prince Charles, the Divisible Crown, and Royal Discretion

Prince Charles has caused controversy by allegedly comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler during his recent tour of Canada. The remarks, which were made during a visit to the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax, have caused a mini-tempest, including a stern denunciation from a Russian newspaper, which warned that the remarks could complicate UK-Russia relations.  This kerfuffle is interesting because it illustrates the blurred lines between the Crowns of Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as the ambiguities surrounding Prince Charles’ position within the UK itself.

First, a brief history lesson. In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which effectively placed the self-governing Dominions (e.g. Canada, Australia, New Zealand) on the same constitutional footing as the United Kingdom. From that point on, the British Parliament could only legislate for those countries if invited to do so by the Dominions themselves. It also meant that the Crowns in each of the Dominions became legally distinct entities. This means that Queen Elizabeth II reigns over Canada as ‘Queen of Canada,’ and not as ‘Queen of the United Kingdom.’ This is more than just a semantic issue. It means that the ministers of each Commonwealth Realm (the term ‘Dominion’ has largely fallen out of use) have the exclusive right to advise their Queen. In other words, David Cameron can’t advise the Queen on Canadian affairs, and Stephen Harper can’t advise her on British affairs.

By Dan Marsh (Flickr: Prince Charles (derivate by crop)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Dan Marsh (Flickr: Prince Charles (derivate by crop)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

When Prince Charles visits Canada, he does so as a deputy to the Canadian Head of State; he’s not visiting on behalf of the United Kingdom. With that in mind, one could argue that Russia should be directing its saber rattling at Canada rather than the United Kingdom. But to the average person, I suspect the lines between the Crowns are much blurrier than they are to a constitutional scholar. You can see it in the way the local  media cover royal tours of the Commonwealth Realms. It’s not uncommon to see the royal family referred to as ‘British’ even when they’re acting in their non-British capacities. I suspect that the average Joe or Jane on the streets of Toronto, Sydney, or Auckland might agree with Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, who said thatI find it a bit of a Nancy story that the Queen of England can really be the Queen of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.” One can hardly blame them for coming to that conclusion. The Queen might have 16 different sets of titles, but since she spends most of her time in the United Kingdom, it’s only natural that people tend to forget that she’s also Queen of Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu, &c.

Prince Charles’ remarks have also caused controversy within the United Kingdom. Although the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was quick to defend him, there’s been some sniping from the Labour backbenches. Mike Gapes, an MP and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, tweeted that “[i]n constitutional monarchy policy and diplomacy should be conducted by parliament and government. Monarchy should be seen and not heard.”

Gapes’ basic thesis is correct. It is the Sovereign’s ministers who determine the government’s policy, not the Sovereign. In the end, she must accept her ministers’ advice, no matter how unpalatable or wrongheaded it may be. The Sovereign is free to criticize  government policy in her private discussions with ministers, but public criticism is out of the question since the Crown must appear politically neutral.

But Prince Charles isn’t the Sovereign, and he occupies a much different place in the constitution. The need for royal discretion is largely a byproduct of the unique relationship between the Queen and her ministers. They are, to borrow a phrase from Sir William Anson, “the authorized exponents of the King’s pleasure,” and that constitutional fiction would come tumbling down if there were a public breach between the monarch and her government. Since Prince Charles’ views are, constitutionally speaking, irrelevant, one could argue that he’s as free to share them as anyone else. I think Nick Clegg put it nicely when he was asked about Prince Charles’ remarks during an appearance on  BBC Breakfast: “I have never been of this view that if you are a member of the royal family somehow you have to enter into some Trappist vow of silence.”

That being said, there are practical reasons why Prince Charles might want to err on the side of discretion. Before the advent of modern mass media and the 24-hour news cycle, the heir to the throne didn’t have to worry about every little comment being endlessly parsed and dissected. But in this digital age, everything has an afterlife, and the things Prince Charles says now could come back to haunt him when he’s king. The controversy over his remarks in Canada may be little more than a tempest in a tea cup, but it’s still a good idea for him to tread cautiously.

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2 Responses to Prince Charles, the Divisible Crown, and Royal Discretion

  1. The idea of a divisible Crown is a barren legal argument. Virtually no one outside academia will regard the British Queen as a different entity to the Canadian Queen. There are fundamental constitutional, legal and practical reasons why the Crown remains undivided. Of course the Queen in right of Canada will implement government policy differently to that of the Queen in right of New Zealand. That does not mean that the Crown is divided between those realms any more than if the Queen in right of Manitoba is in conflict with the Queen in right of Alberta. Does anyone argue that the Queen of Canada has similarly been divided between the provinces?

    • jasonloch says:

      I’m afraid I disagree. While it’s true that, in practice, most people don’t draw a distinction between the British Monarchy and the Monarchies of the various Commonwealth Realms, that doesn’t mean they aren’t distinct from one another in a constitutional sense.

      When the Queen acts in her capacity as Sovereign of a Commonwealth Realm, she does so on the advice of her Ministers in that particular realm. Put another way, David Cameron can’t advise the Queen on the appointment of New Zealand’s next Governor-General, and John Key can’t advise her to dismiss the British Lord Chancellor. Even though the Queen of New Zealand happens to be the same person as the Queen of the United Kingdom, they act independently of one another.

      The Commonwealth Monarchies have been legally distinct for some time. In 1926, the Balfour Report (UK) declared that the Governments of the self-governing Dominions had the exclusive right to advise the Sovereign regarding affairs within that Dominion. Although the British Government continued to defend the idea of an indivisible Crown until after World War II, political developments in the 1930s made that notion increasingly untenable.

      When Edward VIII abdicated, the Dominions acted to implement his decision within their respective polities. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand chose to assent to the British Abdication Act, the Irish Free State passed separate legislation, while the South African Government held that the King had precipitated a demise of the South African Crown as soon as he signed the Instrument of Abdication. Because of these varied approaches, Edward’s reign ended on three different days: December 10 (South Africa), December 11 (UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and December 12 (Irish Free State). If the Crown were indivisible, the Dominions wouldn’t have had to act on their own.

      When World War II broke out a few years later, most of the Dominions opposed the idea that they were bound by the British declaration of war. The Governor General of New Zealand issued a declaration of war shortly after the UK, but he did so on the advice of the New Zealand Government. In Canada, the Government decided to consult the Parliament, so George VI didn’t sign a declaration of war until a week after the UK had declared hostilities. South Africa also declared war after a vote in their Parliament, while the Irish decided to remain neutral. The fact that the King of Canada could be at war with Germany while the King of Ireland was not lends further credence to the notion of a divisible Crown.

      The British Government finally conceded the divisibility of the Crown in 1953 with the Royal Style and Titles Act. This legislation established the Queen’s titles within the UK, but it explicitly stated that it only applied to Britain and Britain’s dependencies. The other Commonwealth Realms were free to adopt whatever titles they thought fit. Some realms chose to maintain references to the United Kingdom in their monarchical titles; others did not.

      This might not seem like a terribly important issue, but it affirmed the right of each national Parliament to make laws regarding their own Monarchy. In practice, of course, this power isn’t exercised fully since each of the Commonwealth Realms has agreed to recognize the same person as their Head of State. But the individual Crowns remain separate, and each country is free to alter the laws that govern them at any time.

      In a federal system such as Canada or Australia, the states/provinces have their own Crowns as well. As Lord Bingham of Cornhill observed in R v. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs ex parte Quark Fishing Limited [2005] UKHL 57:

      It is now clear, whatever may once have been thought, that the Crown is not one and indivisible…The Queen is as much the Queen of New South Wales…and Mauritius…and other territories acknowledging her as head of state as she is of England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom.

      In essence, a Canadian Lieutenant Governor plays the same role in the provincial sphere as the Governor General plays in the federal sphere, and the same is true for an Australian Governor.

      Of course it’s arguable that the dividing lines between the various Crowns are obscured by the fact that the Queen’s relationship with the United Kingdom invariably overshadows her relationship with her other realms, but that doesn’t mean that those lines aren’t there.

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