Constitutional Monarchy

How can you have a constitutional monarchy when you don’t have a written Constitution?

While Britain does not have a single constitutional document like the one ratified by the United States in 1788 — or the one rejected by Chilean voters earlier this month — it still has laws and carefully documented traditions that together form a Constitution, one that binds the king.

A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which the monarch can only rule within the limits of a constitution. It can also be called a parliamentary monarchy, and it effectively means for the UK that the country’s monarch acts as non-political head of state under our unwritten constitutions, although plenty of constitutional monarchies have written constitutions.

Beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215, and the initial restraints on royal power, and continues though a thicket of legal dates to 1701, when Parliament intervened in the royal succession.) Together, they make the king a constitutional monarch: an embodiment of power and statehood with no personal public role in politics, and tight constraints even on private influence.

As a compromise between placing blind trust in a lineage of kings and queens who have inherited their power and a belief in the political wisdom of the people being ruled, modern constitutional monarchies are usually a blend of monarchal rule and representative democracy. 

Most monarchs hold formal reserve powers, and in most constitutional monarchies the general convention is that the government officially takes place in the monarch’s name. For instance, in the UK there is Her Majesty’s Government, faced in our adversarial system by Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Formal powers that the UK’s monarch possesses is that of dissolving parliament or giving Royal Assent to legislation.

However, monarchs don’t set public policy nor choose political leaders, which is why the Political scientist Vernon Bogdanor has defined a constitutional monarch as “a sovereign who reigns but does not rule.” So, a constitutional monarch acts as a visible symbol of national unity, and the exercise of their powers are generally a formality, without the sovereign enacting personal political preference. So, in “The English Constitution”, Walter Bagehot identifies the right to be consulted, advise and warn as the three main political rights a constitutional monarch can freely exercise.

William IV, the last monarch to arbitrarily dissolve Parliament by using the royal prerogative

Today, the monarch exercises the prerogative almost exclusively in line with the advice of the government. Leyland notes that:

The present Queen ... is kept very closely in touch with the exercise of governmental power by means of a weekly audience with the prime minister during which she is fully briefed about the affairs of government ... [But it] should be emphasised that the prime minister is not under any obligation to take account of royal opinions. In simple terms, the prerogative is used by the Prime Minister and Cabinet to govern the realm in the name of the Crown; although the monarch has the "right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn", an action in that role involves no exercise of discretion.

Today, some prerogative powers are directly exercised by ministers without the approval of Parliament, including the powers of declaring war and of making peace, the issue of passports, and the granting of honours. Prerogative powers are exercised nominally by the monarch, but on the advice of the prime minister (whom the monarch meets weekly) and of the cabinet.[48] Some key functions of the British government are still executed by virtue of the royal prerogative, but generally the usage of the prerogative has been diminishing as functions are progressively put on a statutory basis.

The UK's constitutional traditions were seen to have be stretched when, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to drive through his legislation on leaving the European Union. One use of executive powers, a weekslong suspension of Parliament, drew a rebuke from Britain’s Supreme Court.

Our constitution basically depends on very British sentiments of decency and fair play, and it assumes people who reach high office will respect conventions, precedents and unwritten rules,” Professor Meg Russell, the director of the Constitution Unit at University College London


While the monarch of the United Kingdom also serves as Canada’s head of state, the Canadian people are governed by an elected prime minister and a legislative parliament. In the Canadian Parliament, all laws are proposed by a popularly elected House of Commons and must be approved by the royally appointed Senate.


The King of Sweden, while the head of state, lacks any defined political power and serves a largely ceremonial role. All lawmaking power is vested in the Riksdag, a single-chambered legislative body composed of democratically elected representatives.


In the world’s most populous constitutional monarchy, the Emperor of Japan has no constitutional role in the government and is relegated to ceremonial duties. Created in 1947 during the country’s post-World War II U.S. occupation, Japan’s constitution provides for a government structure similar to that of the United States.