Constitutional monarchy

Sahas Dahal
11 min readOct 6, 2020


A constitutional monarchy is a form of monarchical government established under a constitutional system which acknowledges an elected or hereditary monarch as head of state. Modern constitutional monarchies usually implement the concept of trias politica or “separation of powers”, where the monarch either is the head of the executive branch or simply has a ceremonial role. Where a monarch holds absolute power, it is known as an absolute monarchy. The process of government and law within an absolute monarchy can be very different from that in a constitutional monarchy.

In representative democracies that are constitutional monarchies, like the United Kingdom, the monarch may be regarded as the head of state but the prime minister, whose power derives directly or indirectly from elections, is head of government.

Although current constitutional monarchies are mostly representative democracies (called constitutional democratic monarchies), this has not always historically been the case. There have been monarchies which have coexisted with constitutions which were fascist (or quasi-fascist), as was the case in Italy, Japan and Spain, or with military dictatorships, as is currently the case in Thailand.

Differences between constitutional and absolute monarchies

Absolute monarchy

In theoretical absolutism, a monarch rules with total power. Towards the end of the Middle Ages and following the Reformation, religious wars, the decline of the church, and a growing middle class resulted in the emergence of absolute leaders to provide guarantees of order. The concept of “divine right” often, as in the case of King James I/VI (King James I of England, James VI, King of Scots) covered as a justification for abuses of absolute power.

In a situation where one individual who is not necessarily knowledgable about economics makes all economic decisions, the economy can be seriously damaged by imprudent allocation of funds. For example, Louis XIV of France abused his control of money by spending it on his Palace of Versailles and on wars that did not benefit France. According to Early Modern France, (Robin Briggs, 1998, ISBN), at the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the French Royal Family was in debt 2 billion livres or about $21 billion. This debt, combined with the awkward tax structure of the country, was a contributing factor in the French Revolution. However, other historians argue that the tax-exempt status of the nobility and the Church was a more important cause of France’s budget deficit.

If the absolute monarch favors one group over another, a reduction of personal freedoms may result. King Louis XIV demonstrated this when he overrode the Edict of Nantes and forcibly exiled the Huguenots from France.

Constitutional monarchy

A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a king or queen reigns with limits to their power along with a governing body (i.e. Parliament), giving rise to the modern adage “the Queen reigns but does not rule”. A constitutional monarchy was able to form in England across different periods of history for a complex combination of reasons: sometimes due to a lack of strong leadership, and at other times due to strong leaders short of funding, who needed to raise money to prosecute wars, and needed to address public grievances to ensure this money was forthcoming. Historically, the English had not believed in the “Divine Right of Kings”: ever since Magna Carta in 1215, the monarchy had been regarded as a contractual political instrument. In the 17th Century, abuse of power by the Stuart dynasty, and their attempts to import the doctrine of “Divine Right” from Scotland, caused the English to question the royal authority and revive earlier safeguards against executive power. Parliament took several key steps to limit the power of the King. They revived the English instrument of impeachment, which held the King’s ministers to be responsible for his actions; hence the King’s servants could be executed for implementing unpopular policies. They forced Charles I to sign the Petition of Right that re-affirmed that the King must go through Parliament to enact new laws, taxes, etc. After signing the Petition of Right, Charles I immediately ignored it, precipitating the English Civil Wars, and the eventual beheading of the King for treason. This sent a message to future monarchs of England that they did not have absolute power. During the reign of Charles II, Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus. The Habeas Corpus Act said that any prisoner taken by the King would be given a trial. This prevented the King from simply removing his enemies by sending them to jail. When James II took the throne many people did not appreciate it when he flaunted his Catholicism. Therefore Parliament flexed its muscles once again by asking William of Orange to overthrow the king. William and his wife Mary came from the Netherlands and overthrew James II without bloodshed. This was called the “ Glorious Revolution”. Once William and Mary had gained control of the throne, they completely supported the constitutional monarchy. Together they signed the Bill of Rights, which severely limited the power of the king, and gave more freedom to his subjects. One supporter of constitutional monarchy was John Locke. He wrote in his “ Treatises on Government” that a direct democracy is the best form of government. He wrote that people are able to improve and rule themselves, and that people have three main rights. These rights are life, liberty, and property, and it is the government’s job to protect these rights. He also wrote that if the government is unjust the people have the right to overthrow it, a doctrine that was invoked during the American Revolution.

This evolution in thinking would eventually spawn such movements as universal suffrage and political parties. By the mid 20th Century, the political culture in Europe had shifted to the point where all constitutional monarchs had been reduced to the status of effective figureheads, with no effective power at all. Instead, it was the democratically elected parliaments, and their leader, the prime minister who had become the true rulers of the nation. In many cases even the monarchs themselves, who once sat at the very top of the political and social hierarchy, were given the status of “servants of the people” to reflect the new, egalitarian reality.

Constitutional monarchies today

The most significant family of constitutional monarchies in the world today are the sixteen Realms of the Commonwealth of Nations, all independent parliamentary democracies under a common monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. Unlike the United Kingdom, almost all of the other countries within the Commonwealth have written constitutions with complex processes for constitutional change. Through political crises, peaceful constitutional drafting and international debate, the Westminster conventions concerning the constitutional monarch have gained much clearer definition in the other fifteen Realms than in the United Kingdom. In many of these constitutions, the monarch or the representative of the Crown is regarded as an integral part of the executive and legislative branches of government, and that position is explicitly protected, at least in part, by the written constitution.

Unlike some of their continental European counterparts, the Westminster monarch and her representatives retain significant “reserve” or “prerogative” powers, to be wielded only in times of extreme emergency or constitutional crises (e.g., Australia 1975, Grenada 1983, Solomon Islands 1994), usually to uphold parliamentary government. In such instances, a lack of understanding by the public of constitutional convention can cause controversy. For example, in the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government in Australia, Governor General John Kerr was widely blamed for his intervention over the supply crisis, much to the bewilderment of British and Canadian constitutional scholars. Instead a number of these authorities such as Lord Hailsham (the former Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom) and Senator Eugene Forsey (the leading Canadian constitutional authority on the reserve powers of the Crown) argued that the blame for the crisis in Australia and its outcome should have been directed at the then Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, who was both politically responsible for refusing supply and causing the immediate crisis, and who was formally responsible for the Whitlam dismissal under the Westminster conventions concerning exercise of the reserve powers. Based on this controversy, legal commentators have since argued that public understanding of the Crown’s constitutional role must be heightened if monarchs are to survive even the legitimate exercises of their duties in a time of crisis.

With the exception of post-war Italy, no modern, democratic constitutional monarchy has voted to abolish itself, but Greece voted against reestablishing its constitutional monarchy after the military government had been ousted.

Though many of Europe’s past and present leftist parties contain anti-monarchy factions, to date few have openly declared a preference for flat-out monarchial abolition, and instead use their powers to curtail and reform alleged “un-democratic” or “prejudiced” elements of the monarchy. For example, in recent years the age-old tradition of “males first” order of succession to the throne has been abolished in some European constitutional monarchies, allowing for eldest daughters to assume the throne before their brothers.

One common view as to why modern constitutional monarchies continue to survive is that the individual royal families themselves have remained popular. Today, most contemporary royal families go out of their way to project a modern image to the citizenry of a monarchy that is both caring and interested in the people and their country. Many members of modern royal families frequently make donations or participate in charity events, visit poor or sick citizens, and make public appearances at high profile sporting or arts events. Such moves can help make a monarchy seem contemporarily relevant, especially when the royals themselves get involved within the community. As long as a monarchy can remain popular in the public eye, there is little reason for the politicians to meddle, and those who do can easily find themselves at the receiving end of harsh public criticism.

Other defenders of constitutional monarchies argue that royal families promote tourism, and are a (key) tradition associated with patriotism and national pride. For example, in many constitutional monarchies the monarch’s birthday is a national holiday, and an event marked with public patriotic events and parties. In recent years many royal families have also become popular targets of tabloid journalism and gossip, which although often argued as being intrusive and destructive, continues to prove that many find royals interesting simply as celebrities. A further argument speculates that abolishing a popular monarchy may be a pointless endeavor anyway, as even a “deposed” royal family could presumably still live their royal lifestyle and capture public attention, making any republican replacement seem illegitimate. Historically, when monarchies have been abolished the royal family was usually exiled to a foreign country to prevent their presence from interfering or distracting from the new republican government. However, such moves were usually done during periods of conflict and turmoil with the monarchy. If a democratic country was to abolish its monarchy today, an exile for the royal family would likely be denounced as cruel, and would thus not be seen as a practical option.

In the 20th century, a much more politically sophisticated view in favour of preserving constitutional monarchies in parliamentary democracies has emerged, for example, in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, in terms of the usefulness of an observer within the Executive who is unaffiliated with political parties, who does not owe her job security to the Prime Minister of the day, and who can afford to scrutinise political controversies that may sweep the incumbent Prime Minister from office. She has no policy powers — that is the domain of the elected government, headed by the Prime Minister — but she is a required, formal co-signatory to political instruments, who has a personal stake in protecting constitutional government from non-justifiable abuses. The most famous advocates of this view were Canadian historian Eugene Forsey (later a Canadian senator, whose defence of the monarchy formed part of his doctoral thesis in history at Oxford) and Australian lawyer H.V. Evatt (later a High Court Judge and Australian attorney-general, whose treatment of Westminster law concerning the monarch and reserve powers was the basis of his doctoral thesis in law). It is interesting to note both Forsey and Evatt were social democrats, heavily involved in the labour movements of their respective countries. Their work built on that of Alpheus Todd, the 19th Century Librarian of the Canadian House of Commons. Todd’s encyclopedic work effectively contradicted the popularly-known, class-obsessed treatise by Walter Bagehot, whose opinions on the monarchy as a “bauble” to distract the “lower” classes remain influential in Britain. In recent decades Bagehot has been effectively discredited, his historical, political and legal assumptions disproved. (For example, his belief that the Queen’s position exists solely at the pleasure of the British Parliament, without reference to the electorate, does not withstand detailed scrutiny.)

Ironically, given the public perception of wealth and privilege associated with monarchy, the Todd/Evatt/Forsey case argues that the reserve powers of the Crown and the peculiar nature of the office render it a useful, if limited, asset against the “presidential” aspirations of prime ministers, and a superior safeguard for Executive oversight than anything available in a republican context. The case suggests she is an external observer who, when combined with the conventions of ministerial responsibility, enhances the democratic accountability of the Executive branch to the elected legislature, and the accountability of the elected legislature to the electorate. Put simply, requiring prime ministers to bow the knee and show deference and humility on a regular basis is a useful way of keeping their egos under control.

(See Nigel Greenwood, “For the Sovereignty of the People”, Australian Academic Press, 1999, for a discussion of the Crown as a legal and political instrument of parliamentary democracy in the Westminster system, giving a detailed examination of Todd, Evatt and Forsey, and a contrast-and-compare of modern US and French problems with 20th Century executive lawlessness; e.g. the post-Watergate findings of the US congressional committees re the absence of an executive figure outside the corrupted chain of command. See also Evatt and Forsey on the Reserve Powers, Legal Books, Sydney Australia, 1990; Todd, A., Parliamentary Government in England, Longman Green, London 1869.)

Previous monarchies

  • The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, formed after the Union of Lublin in 1569 and lasting till the final partition of the state in 1795 operated much like many modern European constitutional monarchies. The legislators of the unified state truly did not see it as a monarchy at all, but as a republic under the presidency of the King. Poland-Lithuania also followed the principle of “Rex regnat et non gubernat,” had a bicameral parliament, and a collection of entrenched legal documents amounting to a constitution along the lines of the modern United Kingdom of Great Britain. The King was elected, and had the duty of maintaining the people’s rights.
  • France functioned briefly as a constitutional monarchy during the post-Napoleonic age, under the reign of Louis XVIII and Charles X, but the latter’s attempt at reinstating absolute monarchy led to his fall. Louis-Philippe of France was also a constitutional monarch.
  • Napoléon Bonaparte, as Emperor of the French, was a constitutional monarch, though he was ousted from France before his line could continue.
  • The German Empire from 1871 to 1918, (as well as earlier confederations, and the monarchies it consisted of) was also a constitutional monarchy, see Constitution of the German Empire.
  • Prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran was a constitutional monarchy (briefly) under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, which had been originally established during the Persian Constitutional Revolution in 1906.
  • Portugal until 1910 was a constitutional monarchy and the last king was Manuel II of Portugal.
  • Hawaii was a constitutional monarchy from the unification of the of the smaller independent chiefdoms of Oʻahu, Maui, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi and the Hawaiʻi (or the “Big Island”) in 1810 until the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893.
  • The Grand Duchy of Finland was a constitutional monarchy though its ruler, the Tsar of Russia was an autocrat and absolute ruler in his home country.
  • In all historical sources as well as modern literature on systems of government the United Kingdom is given as a first constitutional monarchy, as well as an example of constitutional monarchy. These distinctions show that a constitutional monarchy does not require that the constitution be codified (written).
  • Japan is the only country with a reigning emperor.
  • Luxembourg is the only country with a reigning Grand Duke.

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