The Royal Prerogative is a body of customary authority, privilege, and immunity, recognised in common law jurisdictions possessing a monarchy as belonging to the Crown alone. It is the means by which some of the executive powers of government are possessed by and vested in a monarch with regard to the process of governance of their state are carried out. It is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny but an individual prerogative can be abolished by legislative enactment.

Though originally exercised at the will of the monarch, in modern constitutional monarchies the Royal Prerogative is exercised by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister and cabinet.

There are still situations in which the monarch may chose to exercise his or her Royal Prerogative independently from the elected politicians. Such situations are extremely rare, and only occur in emergencies.

Not all constitutional monarchs have royal prerogative that can be exercised independently however. For example, the King of Sweden and the Emperor of Japan have specific government duties that cannot be exercised with any degree of individual restraint, no matter what the circumstance.

Though some republican heads of state possess similar powers they are not coterminous, containing a number of fundamental differences, not the least of which being that they do not operate in common law systems in which common law courts can impose limits on their exercise.

Table of contents
1 The Royal Prerogative in the United Kingdom
2 See Also
3 Additional Reading

The Royal Prerogative in the United Kingdom

In the Kingdom of England (up to 1707), the Kingdom of Great Britain (1707-1800) and the United Kingdom (since 1801), the Royal Prerogative historically was one of the central features of the realm's governance. Some key areas of British system of government are still carried out by means of the Royal Prerogative. However the usage of the Royal Prerogative has been diminishing.

Contrary to widespread belief, the Royal Prerogative is not unlimited. In the Case of Proclamations (1611) during the reign of King James I/VI, English common law courts judges emphatically asserted that they possessed the right to determine the limits of the Royal Prerogative. Since the Glorious Revolution (1688), which brought co-monarchs Queen Mary II and King William III to power, this judicial interpretation has not been challenged by the Crown.

Among the powers theoretically possessed by the monarch in the United Kingdom under the Royal Prerogative are:

  • The power to select and dismiss ministers;
  • The dissolution of parliament and the calling of elections;
  • The powers of clemency and pardon;
  • The awarding of dignities and honours;
  • The declaration of war;
  • The declaration of an emergency;
  • The granting of Charters of Incorporation;
  • The collection of tolls;
  • The issuing of passports and their revoking;
  • The expulsion of a foreign national from the United Kingdom;
  • The creation of new common law courts;
  • The creation of new universities;
  • The appointment of bishops and archbishops in the Church of England;
  • The printing of the authorised Church of England version of The Bible;
  • The publication of all statutes, legislative instruments and Orders-in-Council.

The monarch is also immune from prosecution in the courts, though the scope of the immunity that once attached to the Crown has reduced. In particular, several acts of parliament have allowed agents of the Crown (i.e. government employees) to be sued in the courts.

Although many powers are included in the royal prerogative, some powers are notable for their absence. In particular, the British monarch does not have the power to deprieve an individual of their life, liberty, or property as these rights are said to derive from the Fundamental Laws of England. As a consequence, the monarch does not have the power to tax without the consent of Parliament and this has significantly limited the power of the monarchy. The unsuccessful efforts of Charles I of England to raise money to finance the royal administration through royal prerogative sources not subject to parliamentary approval (such the collection of tolls on ships) was one of the major causes of the English Civil War.

Most powers execised by the British government in international and foreign affairs come from the Royal Prerogative. These include

  • The accreditation of diplomats;
  • The granting of Sovereign Immunity;
  • The negotiation of treaties;

Many uses of the prerogative in foreign affairs are called Acts of State.

Among the odder royal prerogatives are:

  • The power to order a subject of His or Her Majesty not to leave the realm;
  • Royal ownership of swans.

In practice, constitutional convention requires these powers are all exercised by the Prime Minister and cabinet, who instruct the monarch as to when to use them.

Prior to British involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair in a major break with precedent sought parliamentary approval for British participation in the war. However Parliament's decision was in constitutional terms advisory as the actual decision would be taken by the exercise of the Royal Prerogative. Blair indicated that should parliament not approve, he would not formally advise Queen Elizabeth II to exercise the Royal Prerogative and declare war. Given that Blair had an overwhelming Labour majority in the British House of Commons and had the support of the opposition Conservative Party, there was little likelihood that parliament would vote down the motion recommending participation in the war. It remains to be seen whether a future government with a small majority or in a minority in the House of Commons will seek parliamentary approval prior to the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.

Former left wing Labour MP Tony Benn campaigned for the abolition of the Royal Prerogative in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, arguing that all governmental powers in effect exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister and cabinet should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and require parliamentary approval. His attempts were unsuccessful, with later governments arguing that such is the breath of topics covered by the Royal Prerogative that requiring parliamentary approval in each instance where the prerogative is currently used would overwhelm parliamentary time and slow the enactment of legislation.

In Commonwealth Realms, the Royal Prerogative is very similar in nature to the prerogative in England, but is exercised by the Monarch's representative, the Governor General.

See Also

Additional Reading

  • Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution
  • Joseph Chitty, The Prerogatives of the Crown (monograph from 1820)
  • Stanley de Smith and Rodney Brazier, Constitutional and Administrative Law
  • A.B. Keith, The King and the Imperial Crown (1936)