If the outpour of grief—or public polling—in the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth II’s death is anything to go by, it is clear that Britain is still largely a nation of royalists. But as anti-monarchy sentiment attracts more attention, and as some protesters even get arrested for voicing such views, it’s worth revisiting what role the monarchy plays in Britain’s constitutional system and just how complicated it would be to abolish the institution.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the power to abolish the monarchy doesn’t lie with the monarch alone. In fact, there isn’t a whole lot that British Kings and Queens can actually do beyond the bounds of their constitutionally-defined mandate—one that primarily involves tasks such as appointing prime ministers, approving new laws, receiving foreign dignitaries, and presiding over the opening and dissolving of parliament. Over the course of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign, she would have likely held thousands of meetings with the 15 prime ministers she worked with, appointed hundreds of ministers, and given her ascent to an untold number of laws, all while having virtually zero say in who those ministers were or what their legislative agenda ought to have been. As the English poet Tennyson once noted, Britain is a crowned republic—one in which the monarch reigns, but does not rule. The Queen acknowledged these limits in her first televised address to the country in 1957. “I do not give you laws or administer justice. But I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations,” she said.
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While the lack of political power doesn’t overshadow the Royal Family’s enormous privilege—especially when it comes to its vast wealth and financial arrangements—it does help explain how such a seemingly outdated institution has persisted for so long. While the pomp, tradition, and sense of history undoubtedly play a part in the monarchy’s continued appeal, so too does the fact that the monarch is seen as an apolitical figure whose entire existence is devoted to service, and therefore above the compromises inherent to electoral politics. Constitutionally-speaking, “the monarch, in almost everything they do, has no choice,” says Robert Hazell, a professor of government and the constitution at University College London. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, this was perhaps best illustrated by the many times in which she had to play host to authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu. Such was the Queen’s lack of autonomy that, as one story goes, she once resorted to hiding in a bush in the Buckingham Palace gardens in order to avoid having another conversation with Ceaușescu, who at the time was her houseguest.
If Britain ever did decide to get rid of the monarchy, it would be a constitutional matter requiring legislation from parliament. Even before that, it would need to be endorsed by the British public through a referendum, which would have to be called for by the government (just as the Brexit referendum was). If such a vote were held today, polling from June suggests that the country would opt to keep the monarchy by a significant margin. And Britain wouldn’t be alone in doing so. Although previous referendums have led to the abolition of the monarchy in Italy and Greece, they have also reaffirmed support for the institution in Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, and Spain.
Getting rid of the monarchy, or simply rescinding it of its ceremonial duties, would constitute “a huge change,” says Hazell, in large part because it would require a complete shakeup of the way the British state is governed. Unlike in the U.S., where the elected President acts as both the country’s head of state and its head of government, Britain’s parliamentary system splits those responsibilities between the monarch, whose role as head of state is inherited at birth, and the Prime Minister, whose role as head of government is decided by the British public (or, in the case of the current occupant of 10 Downing Street, a select group of Conservative Party members).
With the monarch gone, Britain would need a new head of state, as is required in almost all parliamentary systems. This would most likely be in the form of a President, a role that already exists in parliamentary systems such as Germany and Italy. This person would have most of the existing responsibilities of the monarch, such as certifying laws, going on state visits, and speaking to the nation in times of national crisis. But an elected head of state would also likely have the responsibility of acting as “a kind of constitutional umpire,” says Hazell—something that a monarch could never be.
Republicanism isn’t a strong force in Britain at the moment, which makes the abolition of the monarchy unlikely for the foreseeable future. But that could change if the institution does, or if it fails to attract the support of the younger British population. Among those aged 18 to 24, support for the monarchy has fallen from 59% in 2011 to just 33% today.
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