Her Majesty's Prerogative Powers

by Scott Thompson

Printed in The American Almanac, August 25, 1997.

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The idea of a ``constitutional monarchy'' is a myth. All that exists are ``oaths of allegiance'' to the monarch. Without the need for parliamentary authority, Queen Elizabeth has Royal Prerogative Powers. The following partial list of those powers is from the authoritative Burke's Peerage and Baronetage:

  • the Queen alone may declare war at her pleasure;

  • as commander-in-chief, the Queen may choose and appoint all commanders and officers by land, sea, and air;

  • the Queen may convoke, adjourn, remove, and dissolve Parliament;

  • the Queen may dismiss the prime minister and choose whom she will as the replacement;

  • the Queen can choose and appoint all judges, councillors, officers of state, magistrates;

  • the Queen can choose and appoint all archbishops (including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is primus inter pares in the Anglican Communion), bishops, and high ecclesiastical dignitaries;

  • as ``the Sovereign is first in honor, dignity and in power--and the seat and fountain of all three,'' the Queen may bestow all public honors, including creating a peerage for membership in the House of Lords or bestowing an order of chivalry;

  • the Queen alone may conclude treaties;

  • the Queen may initiate criminal proceedings, and she alone can bestow a pardon.

Some of these powers are exercised on the advice of cabinet ministers or others, and the principal vehicle through which the Queen receives such advice--apart from weekly or more frequent meetings with the prime minister--is through a body known as the Privy Council.

The Privy Council

According to the Privy Council's own public documents, there are 390 members of the Council, who are appointed for life. The Privy Council serves as a vehicle for the Queen's use of her Prerogative Powers, because it is a council with representatives from all branches of the Venetian oligarchy, including: peers from the House of Lords, the prime minister, the Law Lords, all cabinet officers, leaders of the Loyal Opposition in Parliament, prominent individuals in the City of London, and leading members of the established Anglican Communion.

The Privy Council is above Parliament, including the House of Lords, because of the Queen's Prerogative Powers. However, the Privy Council not only serves as a vehicle for exercise of the Queen's Prerogative Powers, but its offices also enact statutory powers delegated by various Acts of Parliament. It has its own Order of Precedence, which begins with HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, KG, KT, OM, GBE; then, HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, KG, KT GCB; next come George Leonard Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lord High Chancellor Lord Mackey of Clashfern; and finally arriving at [former] Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury John Major, and, very far down the list, Labour Party leader [now Prime Minister] Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. The fact that Tony Blair was made a member of the Privy Council on July 27, 1994, helps explain why there is not a dime's worth of difference between his policies and those of Tory Prime Minister Major or his predecessor, Lady Margaret Thatcher. As Blair's factional opponent in Labour, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, revealed, based upon personal experience: All members of the Privy Council must take an oath of allegiance to uphold the Queen and her actions. Such oaths are the basis of the myth that the British Empire represents a ``constitutional monarchy.''

As readers of the French Renaissance author François Rabelais would appreciate, the term ``Privy Council'' comes from the earlier days, when only the sovereign's most trusted advisers could approach, while said sovereign was engaged upon the commode.

The Privy Council takes on special importance in terms of the Prerogative Powers during times of the sovereign's marriage or demise, which are the only times the Privy Council meets as a whole body. Likewise, the Privy Council takes on added authority in the event of the sovereign's illness or absence abroad. On a change of government, which is one of the Queen's more notorious powers to exercise, or a reconstruction involving ministerial changes, the Privy Council makes the necessary arrangements. Other special duties include the preparation of proclamations for such events as the dissolution and summoning of Parliament and the declaration of national emergency. And, Prerogative Powers include the consideration of applications for the grant (or amendment) of Royal Charters of Incorporation to bodies covering a wide field, such as the original charter for the British East India Company. Crown or Privy Council nominees are often appointed to governing boards.

The Privy Council also has statutory powers that have been conferred by a variety of enactments, and they are exercised either by ``Orders in Council'' (i.e., by the sovereign in Council) or by ``Orders of Council'' (i.e., by the Lords of the Privy Council). For example, under the Local Government Act of 1972, borough status and other rights and privileges of district councils are submitted through the Privy Council. The Privy Council Office is also responsible for the annual nomination and appointment of High Sheriffs of the counties of England and Wales, pursuant to the Sheriffs Act 1887. One of the Queen's Prerogative Powers is to instigate criminal investigations, and the Privy Council assists in the preparation and issuance of warrants.

There are often junior Privy Councils in the 17 nations of the British Empire where the Queen is sovereign. There used to be a separate Privy Council for Northern Ireland, but this no longer meets and no further appointments can be made to it: Its functions have been transferred to the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. All the most important laws for Northern Ireland today are made by the Queen's Privy Council through ``Orders in Council,'' which is simply one type of secondary legislation authorized by statute (in this case the Northern Ireland Act of 1974).

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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.

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