Debunking “The Constitutional Monarchy Myth”

When people write about the Queen, she’s commonly described as a model constitutional monarch. While the Prince of Wales is frequently castigated for allegedly meddling in politics, most commentators assume that his mother is scrupulously neutral. But Backbench’s David Kelly has bucked that trend, arguing that the Queen is actually “immensely political.”

Unfortunately, Kelly’s claims don’t really stand up to scrutiny. Shortly before the Scottish independence referendum, the Queen told a well-wisher outside Crathie Kirk that she hoped that the Scottish people would “think very carefully about the future.” Kelly sees this as evidence of her willingness to meddle in politics, but there’s a problem with that argument–she was speaking at the behest of the British Government. According to the Guardian, her intervention was carefully crafted by her Private Secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood. Whitehall officials had become increasingly alarmed by the Yes campaign’s momentum in the finals weeks of the campaign, and they thought that a strategic intervention by the Queen could help save the Union. Now it’s arguable that the British Government shouldn’t have asked her to intervene since it could have complicated her relationship with an independent Scottish Government, but the Queen can’t be blamed for following the British Government’s advice.

Similarly, Kelly takes issue with the Queen’s remarks during her Silver Jubilee in 1977 when she told both Houses of Parliament that

I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom.

At the time, devolution was a hot-button issue, and some have seen the Queen’s remarks as an independent political statement. However, the Government would have vetted the speech ahead of time,[1] and they could have nixed anything that wasn’t consistent with their policies. But Ministers themselves stressed their support for the Union. For example, during the second reading debate on the Scotland and Wales Bill, the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, argued that

Working in union over the years, the component parts of the United Kingdom have achieved far more than any of us could have done separately. This Bill reflects the overwhelming desire of the country to preserve and maintain the unity of the kingdom.[2]

A year later, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Bruce Millan struck a similar note during the debate on the Scotland Bill, saying that the Government’s proposals were “securely based on the continuing unity of the United Kingdom.[3]” When the Queen praised the Union during her Silver Jubilee address, she was on the same page as her Ministers.

Kelly highlights the fact that the Queen personally chose the Prime Minister on two separate occasions during her reign (Harold Macmillan in 1957 and Alec Douglas-Home in 1963). This is, of course, true; at the time, the Conservatives didn’t have a mechanism for choosing a leader when the party was in office. But Kelly fails to mention that the Queen only appointed them after consultations with the Cabinet and senior Tories. It’s not as if she foisted her own candidates on an unwilling party.

Kelly also claims that, after the February 1974 General Election, the Queen “played a significant role in the negotiations between the parties, and her then preferences are often seen as having determined their outcome.” But although the Queen received regular briefings while Edward Heath tried to negotiate an agreement with the Liberals that would keep him in Downing Street, the Palace stayed out of the negotiations.

Kelly is on firmer ground when he criticizes the level of secrecy surrounding the Queen’s dealings with the Government, but he spends so much time chasing chimeras that this is only mentioned in passing. This is ironic since one could argue that the omertà that surrounds the Sovereign is much more objectionable than her Delphic comments on current events. Since her communications with her Governments won’t be released to the public until several years after her death, we can’t gauge her political influence (or lack thereof). This obsessive secrecy makes it easy for people to assume the worst, and in the long run, it may prove quite damaging to the Crown.


[1] Speeches by members of the Royal Family are always cleared by the relevant Government department. The only exceptions to this rule are the Queen’s Christmas and Commonwealth Day speeches, which are made in her capacity as Head of the Commonwealth.

[2] HC Deb, 13 December 1976, col. 983.

[3] HC Deb, 14 November 1977, col. 69.

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