Some of you may be familiar with Today I Found Out, a popular YouTube channel that makes explanatory videos on a wide range of topics. Today’s video featured a subject near and dear to my heart: the Queen’s powers. I’ve generally been impressed with their work, so I had high hopes for the video. But as it turned out, my optimism was misplaced. While the video got a lot of things right, it made some truly egregious mistakes.
The biggest howler concerns the power to dissolve Parliament. According to the video, if Her Majesty doesn’t like the outcome of an election, she could call for more elections until she got the Parliament she wanted. This simply isn’t true. While it used to be that the Sovereign could dissolve Parliament and call for new elections at any time by virtue of the royal prerogative, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 put the kibosh on that. Since then, the Monarch has had no say in the dissolution of Parliament (not even a formal one). Now, a Parliament automatically dissolves after five years. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act does allow early dissolutions and elections in certain circumstances, but MPs make that call, not the Queen.
Another of the video’s dodgy claims is that Her Majesty can have anyone arrested and seize their property for the Crown. This was certainly the case in the past, but these powers were curtailed as far back as the Middle Ages. For example, a celebrated clause in Magna Carta declares that:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
This same principle would be restated over a century later in the statute 28 Edw. 3 c. 3. Although later monarchs (e.g., the Stuarts) tried to circumvent it, Parliament fought back. In 1640, Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act, which declared that the Monarch and the Privy Council could not arbitrarily dispose of people’s property. Furthermore, people who had been imprisoned by order of the Sovereign or the Privy Council were allowed to challenge their detention through the writ of habeas corpus. These provisions remain the law of the land to this day, and they act as a bulwark against the sort of royal despotism that the video envisions.
My final quibble is admittedly rather nitpicky. The video claims that the Queen refused Crown Consent to prevent Parliament from debating a bill that would have required parliamentary authorization for military action in Iraq (it should be noted that Queen’s Consent is not the same as Royal Assent; for a more detailed discussion, see this post). While it’s true that the bill didn’t proceed because Queen’s Consent wasn’t signified, it’s misleading to imply that this was the Queen’s doing.
The bill in question was introduced by a backbench MP, veteran left-winger Tam Dalyell, and therefore it was his responsibility to obtain the Queen’s Consent. However, it seems that Dalyell, a longtime republican, refused to do so on principle. A BBC article from the time quotes him as saying, “I am not going crawling to the Queen. This has nothing to do with her.” The Queen can hardly be held responsible if Dalyell didn’t follow the rules.
Even if the Queen’s Consent were formally refused, it would still be wrong to describe it as a personal act of Her Majesty. Like the vast majority of the Sovereign’s powers, the power to grant Consent is exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. If Consent were refused, it was Tony Blair’s doing, not the Queen’s.
I like Today I Found Out, but I think they came up short on this one. Looking through their sources for the video, I couldn’t help but notice that they relied heavily on media reports. This was arguably a mistake–even reputable outlets like the BBC, The Guardian often make mistakes when covering constitutional matters. The British constitution is incredibly complex, and it’s riddled with caveats and exceptions. A superficial glance can easily produce misleading generalizations.
Incidentally, if you’d like to read more about the Queen’s powers, you might want to check out this post I wrote a while back. And if you have any questions, feel free to ask!