Constitutional monarchy formed by updating the royal family

A monarch is a person who holds the highest position and commands the nation, and if that is hereditary, we tend to imagine that they are dictators with absolute authority.

However, the British royal family is based on the constitutional monarchy system. In other words, although they are monarchs, they are restricted by the constitution. It is a completely different system from an absolute monarchy.

There is a long history behind the British royal family becoming the one based on the constitutional monarchy. Firstly, a king who united the regions of England emerged around the 9th century. Then, in 1066, William I started the Norman dynasty. This dynasty led to the current British royal family.

Initially, successive crowns were indeed absolute monarchs, and they ruled the country without their authority being restricted by anyone.

However, King John of England, who ascended the throne in 1199, struggled for power between nobles, lords, and the church. In order to end this conflict, in 1215, he granted a document stating that privileges would be granted to them. This is the so-called Magna Carta.

In this, approval of freedom and protection of the church, and that the king has to follow certain rules concerning the taxation on citizens are stated.

Moreover, Article 39 states that British citizens can only be punished based on trial at a court . This means that even a king cannot arbitrarily punish citizens. Some of the Articles of Magna Carta remain on the present British statute book.

Basically, King John restricted his authority himself, and by distributing it to nobles, lords, and the church, he chose to end the conflict and coexist with them.

However, James II, who was enthroned in 1685, resumed absolutism and tried to invalidate some laws. But he came into conflict with the church and Parliament, as expected. As a result, James II fled abroad, and in 1689, his daughter Mary and her husband William ascended to the throne together.

At that time, they approved the Declaration of Right submitted by Parliament, which is a declaration stating that even the crown should abide by the laws created by Parliament, etc. This became the Bill of Rights.

At that time, Parliament consisted of local influential figures, such as nobles and major landlords. It was a little different from representatives of citizens, but at least it could create a mechanism for Parliament to restrain the power of the crown.

This series of events was called the Glorious Revolution because they advanced without bloodshed and became the foundation of the constitutional monarchy, which is the unique system of the British monarchy.

The Glorious Revolution achieved restrictions of the crown from the perspective of Parliament, while it enabled the royal family to update itself adapting to the times and survive from the perspective of the royal family.

For example, as we see in the French Revolution, the royal family which dwelled on absolute monarchy did not match the times and ceased to exist in the end. It could be said that the British royal family has a history of 1000 years because it updated itself adapting to the times.

Queen Elizabeth made efforts to gain the support of the people

Updates of the British royal family are not only limited to the distant past. Queen Elizabeth, who was on the throne for 70 years, also made efforts to gain support from the people. For example, years 1992 and 1997 can be seen as critical years for the royal family.

In 1992, then the Prince of Wales Prince Charles and the Princess of Wales Princess Diana were estranged, and Prince Andrew, the second son of the Queen, also suffered a separation scandal. Separation is regarded as a preparation for a divorce. Therefore, in the U.K., where Christian ethics were strong, it was considered something unfavourable.

Moreover, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, a residence of the Queen. However, the royal family, whose publicity was worsening owing to the divorce scandals of the princes, was criticized for spending public funds for the restoration of the castle.

Inferring such sentiments of the people, the Queen opened Buckingham Palace and other sites to the public for viewing for a fee in order to raise money by themselves for the restoration cost of the castle. These measures were welcomed by citizens and tourists because they could see inside the palace, which was usually not accessible.

The Queen called this year her “annus horribilis.” But five years later, in 1997, Princess Diana passed away in a car accident. When this happened, British people were truly deeply distressed.

However, since Princess Diana was divorced in the previous year and was not a member of the royal family any more, Queen Elizabeth did not issue any message of condolence and kept silent. This was met by a severe backlash, being regarded as an attitude which is not empathetic toward the citizens’ feelings.

In fact, under the democratic system, the argument to abolish the monarchy has always been discussed, but at that time the argument became most heated. The Queen took this situation seriously and issued a message of condolence via a television broadcast.

From such experiences, I think that Queen Elizabeth strongly recognized the importance of the royal family to be always empathetic toward the people and gain their support.

The royal family started to show its citizens plainly their activities for philanthropic organizations and charities which they had always committed, and they interacted more with people when they participated in such activities.

Moreover, the rule of succession had prioritized males since in 1701, but in 2013, the Parliament changed the rules in such a way that the first child would ascend the throne regardless of gender. We can say that this revision of the rule towards gender equality is an example of update of the royal family adapting to the rules in modern society.

It is considered that Queen Elizabeth became widely adored by the British people because of these various efforts.

What is the significance of the continuation of the royal family?

In fact, an argument to abolish the monarchy is by no means just an impractical theory. British monarch is also the head of state in 16 countries in the world, including Canada and Australia, but there has always been an argument to abolish the monarchy in those countries. Indeed, in November 2021, Barbados, a Caribbean island country, transitioned to a republic.

As a result, the number of countries having the British monarch as a head of state decreased to 15 worldwide. This could also happen within the U.K.

The U.K. is said to be a country with an unwritten constitution. If a constitution is defined as something positioned superior to the laws established by a parliament as well as something that cannot be easily revised or modified, indeed there is no constitution in the U.K.

However, the U.K. has made a mechanism to secure citizens’ rights and maintain democracy via important laws, such as the aforementioned Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, and the aggregation of customary laws.

In other words, although they do not have a constitution, monarchs and Parliament respected and followed this aggregation, including the statutes. In that sense, it was treated as a constitution. The constitutional monarchy is also based on such “constitution.”

On the other hand, it is a fact that an Act of Parliament is easier to revise than a so-called constitution in other countries, including Japan. Thus, in the U.K., which is based on the constitutional monarchy upon statutes and convention, if the citizens do not wish to have the royal family, it is quite realistic for it to be abolished.

In that sense, the survival of the royal family in the U.K. was possible largely because they made their own efforts. And if such efforts are not continued in the future, there is the possibility that the royal family will be abolished.

But conversely, what is the significance of continuing the existence of the royal family?

Walter Bagehot, a journalist and an essayist in the 19th century, thought that there was a merit in dividing the representatives of the parliamentary politics as the “head of the government” and the monarch, who is the symbol of unity of the people, as the “head of state.”

For example, even if a head of a government, such as a president or a prime minister, governed well, evaluations of such persons would be divided. In politics, it is difficult to completely convince everyone because politics as such has a ruling party and an opposition party and is something that coordinates various values and interests.

On the other hand, a monarch, who is the head of the state, can act for the people, from a position independent of political debates. By doing so, the monarch can be a symbol of unity of the people.

For example, when Emperor Showa visited the U.K. in 1971, Queen Elizabeth said that they should become friendly to each other.

It was a time when memories of World War II still remained strong. Many British citizens had negative feelings about Japan. However, the Queen’s remark to the Japanese emperor to become friendly, was very important and influential. Through this, the British people’s view to Japan would change.

Conversely, if then prime ministers had said the same thing to each other at that time, many people might have been offended.

Someone who is not in a political position could therefore have a political impact. Queen Elizabeth was strongly committed to the issue of racial discrimination as a Commonwealth (a political association consisting of former British colonies) issue. This is said to have been the background to the abolition of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa.

In fact, the British royal family was aware that the royal family had a role which could not be played by the head of government. Therefore, it could be said that in order to play such a role, they kept updating themselves.

Charles III, who is the new king, has always had a strong interest in environmental issues, recycling issues, organic agriculture, etc., since he was young and has been active since the 1970s. At that time, when British society was in the high economic growth period, he was even criticized by industrial circles.

However, such activities based on his belief are now supported by many British people.

I think the reason for the existence of the constitutional monarchy in a democratic system is that the citizens believe that the monarch’s activities are committed to something which citizens think is necessary.

* The information contained herein is current as of February 2023.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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