The British Constitution: not in the textbooks

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a constitutional monarchy in which the crown has strictly limted powers, most of which are only held in theory and executed instead by the Prime Minister, via the mechanism of Royal Prerogative.

That’s what you’ll get from a textbook.

The much-vaunted value of the unwritten British constitution is its flexibility, its ability to absorb the blows of historical change. The nineteenth-century Whig view of British history used to hold that it was a glorious march towards a rational, fair and democratic society. Over the years these ideas were thoroughly discredited by their lack of reference to the horrors of Empire, the continued dis-enfranchisement of women and the fact that it was only the wealthy property owners who got to participate in the first place.

Much of this thinking persists, not just in the corridors of academia and power but in the homes, workplaces and minds of many. The Queen is a kindly and maternal national figure, the guardian of a benign constitutional arrangement which is a full of beautiful, Britsh excentricities and contradictions. She asks the leaders to form a government, even though she has been advised of whom to ask. Many people mistrust politicians and the monarchy has done a very good job of appearing to be above that unsavoury melee.

Information came to light last week, however, that the Queen and Prince Charles have rights of veto over parliamentary law. What is more, these powers can be exercised without any public scrutiny. Charles has been consulted on at least 12 draft bills in the last two parliamentary sessions. This only came to light after a Freedom of Information request by the Guardian.

The British monarchy are only the very upper eschelons of a still extant elite, the aristocracy of old, whose wealth has not been based on agriculture for many centuries, but who have currently occupy a space mostly away from the public gaze. The textbooks also say that the constitution exists to protect the British people.

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