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Donald Scarinci, founding partner of Scarinci Hollenbeck. (Photo: Donald Scarinci.)

Scarinci: Death of Queen Elizabeth Shines Light on UK’s Constitutional Monarchy

By Donald Scarinci, September 20 2022 12:00 am

The extraordinary reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, which included mourners waiting 24 hours to pay their respects, highlights that the monarchy still fills a very important role in British life.

While the Queen did not make laws or dictate policy, she served as Head of State and was a unifying force for more than seven decades. She was the living symbol of a nation and its constitution that incorporates the power of the monarch since the Anglo-Saxon rule of the island.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Elizabeth’s funeral is also a reminder that the monarchy remains steeped in rich tradition. For Americans trying to keep up, this article offers a brief looks at how a constitutional monarchy works and what we can expect in the reign of Charles III.

The UK’s Constitutional Monarchy

There has been a supreme monarch in England since Alfred the Great’s united the Anglo -Saxons against the Danes in the ninth Century. Until modern times, the Monarch’s power was absolute.  In today’s constitutional monarchy, the sovereign’s powers are limited.  The monarch is more like a living symbol and point of unity for the nation.  The power to make and pass legislation is granted to an elected Parliament.

Officeholders in the U.S. take an oath that includes the following words: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same… So help me God.”

Members of Parliament take a very different oath which they must re-take whenever there is a new monarch: “I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles, his heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”

Unlike the U.S., the United Kingdom does not have its constitution memorialized in a single document. Rather, it has centuries of laws, practices, and formally documented traditions. As described by Robert Blackburn, professor of constitutional law at King’s College London, the UK’s constitution exists “in an abstract sense, comprising a host of diverse laws, practices and conventions that have evolved over a long period of time.”

The monarchy plays several important roles in British government. As Head of State, the monarch is required to be completely neutral with respect to political matters. They do not vote, but they do have important ceremonial and formal duties, which include opening each new session of Parliament, granting Royal Assent to legislation, and approving Orders and Proclamations through the Privy Council.

The monarch also serves as “Head of Nation.” In this less formal and more symbolic role, the king or queen “acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognizes success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service,” as set forth on the royal family’s website.

The Royal Line of Succession

The death of Queen Elizabeth triggered a series of carefully planned protocols. To start, because the new Sovereign succeeds to the throne as soon as his or her predecessor dies, Prince Charles, the Queen’s eldest son, immediately became King Charles III.

 

The new monarch is formally proclaimed at an Accession Council to certain Privy Counsellors, Great Officers of State, the Lord Mayor and High Sheriffs of the City of London, Realm High Commissioners, and other attendees. The Privy Council officially proclaimed His Majesty as King Charles III at St James’s Palace on September 10, 2022. After the proceedings, a proclamation of King Charles as the monarch was read publicly from the Proclamation Gallery of St James’s Palace by the Garter King of Arms.

Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth and accession of King Charles, his wife Camilla became the “Queen Consort,” which is the traditional title for the wife of a reigning monarch. The title of “Queen” is bestowed only on female rulers who became monarch through the line of succession (i.e., Queen Elizabeth II).

The funeral arrangements for Queen Elizabeth are also established by tradition and convention. As part of his first duties as king, King Charles travelled to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales to attend services honoring the Queen. Four days after her death, a procession was held from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall. After lying in state for four days, the Queen’s coffin was transported to Westminster Abbey for her funeral.

With the funeral ceremonies concluded, all eyes are on King Charles III, who is now the reigning monarch and head of state. The monarchy is facing growing pressure to “modernize” and reduce its size and budget. As to his role in the government, King Charles has so far signaled that he will follow his mother’s example. In his first remarks following her death, King Charles expressly vowed to “maintain the precious principles of constitutional government which lie at the heart of our nation.”

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