Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The British monarchy in the twentieth century

This post does not claim to be comprehensive - simply to pick out some of the major trends in the development of the monarchy. I am indebted to the following books:
Sarah Bradford, George VI (Penguin, 2011)
Ben Pimlott, The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II (HarperCollins, 1996)
William Shawcross, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography (London: Macmillan, 2009)

The twentieth century saw the British monarchy rebrand itself so that its German roots became obliterated. It also saw a further diminution in the powers of the Crown.

Hanover to Windsor

As the son and grandson of Prince Albert Edward VII and his son George V, were members of the German ducal House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. But by March 1917, when the Gotha G.IV, a heavy aircraft, began bombing London directly this had become a liability. The king was persuaded by his private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, to abandon all titles held under the German Crown and to change German titles and house names to anglicised versions. Hence, on 17 July 1917, a royal proclamation issued by George V announced the change of name to the House of Windsor.

'A Good Riddance'
Punch cartoon 27 June
Pubic Domain

The Abdication crisis

Edward's abdication, signed by
himself and his three brothers.

From the National Archives
Edward VIII’s relationship with Wallis Simpson, a twice -divorced woman, raised three constitutional issues: the king’s relationship with the Church of England, the British Crown’s relationship to the Dominions (following the Act of 1931), and the king’s relationship with his ministers. 

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, was informed that it would be unconstitutional for the king to marry against the advice of his ministers. A morganatic marriage would require legislation, as there was no provision for it under English constitutional law. Baldwin informed the king that he did not believe the legislation would pass parliament. 

The exchange of telegrams between Baldwin and the Dominion premiers is one of the key episodes of the crisis. All the Dominion prime ministers made it clear that the marriage was not acceptable.


The royal family were strong supporters of the appeasement policy of the 1930s and shared the national enthusiasm for the Munich agreement. When Chamberlain landed at Heston aerodrome with his piece of paper, George VI sent him an invitation to come straight to Buckingham Palace, where he and his wife were invited onto the balcony and greeted by cheering crowds. 

In doing this, the king and queen acted imprudently, even unconstitutionally. Despite its popularity, the agreement was controversial and was still subject to a debate and vote in the Commons. Labour and the Liberals voted against it and one minister, Duff Cooper, resigned. 

In an interview in March 1991 Queen Elizabeth admitted that the balcony appearance was a constitutional error, though a venial one. However, the king’s private secretary, Alec Hardinge, who was a opposed to appeasement, later commented: 
‘I have been reproached for what the King did on this occasion. For me, who was among those with no faith in the prospect of conciliating Hitler, it all went much against the grain; but it seemed to me to be the correct policy for the Sovereign in the circumstances – namely, to give full and public support to the Government.’ (Quoted Shawcross, p. 443, n.)

The choice of Prime Minister

In August 1931 George V was instrumental in persuading Ramsay MacDonald to head a National Government of predominantly Conservatives and Liberals. However in 1940 George VI was forced to accept Winston Churchill as prime minister, in preference to his own choice, Lord Halifax.  In 1945 the king effectively vetoed the appointment of Hugh Dalton as foreign secretary (he became chancellor of the exchequer instead). 

Churchill’s retirement in April 1955 confronted Elizabeth II with her first important exercise of the royal prerogative. Anthony Eden was the obvious choice but she retained the right to ask whomever she wished. Churchill refused to advise her: 
‘once the Prime Minister resigns, he can't advise.'
Eden's decision to resign in January 1957 placed the queen in a dilemma.  On the morning of 10 January she summoned Lord Salisbury and Churchill in order to take their advice, and on the same day Harold Macmillan was summoned. Once the queen had sought advice she had to take it, but she had had a choice about the method of consultation.

 Harold Macmillan was the prime minister, who by the manner of his departure did most to undermine the royal prerogative. In late September 1963 he informed the queen of his decision to resign. There were at least five candidates for the succession, and it was assumed that the queen would consult widely before sending for one of them. But sick as he was, Macmillan was determined to fix the choice of his successor. On the morning of 18 October he submitted his formal resignation to the Palace. Three quarters of an hour after the announcement was made public the queen visited him in hospital for a farewell meeting – even though there was no constitutional need for it. At 1 pm, following the meeting she sent for Sir Alec Douglas Home. 

Harold Macmillan 1894-1986
Did he wrongly advise the queen
on her choice of prime minister?

She had been bounced into asking Home and this effectively bounced most of the cabinet into accepting him. According to Enoch Powell she was a victim of a violation of the constitution. Her biographer, Ben Pimlott, argued that she made a serious political mistake. As both Churchill and Eden recognised, an ex-prime minister had no right to advise the sovereign so she should not have consulted Macmillan.

In 1964 the Conservative party changed the party leadership rules to allow Members of Parliament to vote for their leader, thus ending forever the monarch’s discretionary power. This ended a centuries-old royal prerogative - perhaps to the monarch's relief?

Two further parliamentary measures might have further undermined the royal prerogative. 

  1. If the vote on the Iraq war in 2003 had created a precedent then the power to declare war has passed from the monarch to the Commons.
  2. The adoption of fixed-term parliaments in 2010 has removed the monarch's prerogative of dissolving parliament at a time of her choosing (subject to the 1911 Parliament Act).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.