Royal Power in King Charles III

By Shannon Stockwell 

King Charles III, opening tonight at The Geary Theater, features a king at loggerheads with his ministers. But when did power shift from the British monarch to his ministers?

The Palace of Westminster. By Rennett Stowe. 
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It began with George I (1714–27) who relied heavily on his cabinet to help him rule because he did not speak English. After he began to distance himself from his cabinet, he had almost no role in the development of laws.

Because George I wasn’t involved in making laws, he couldn’t reasonably be held responsible for the outcomes of those laws. This actually solved one of the fundamental problems of the monarchy: opinions, by their nature, can be wrong, but a monarch was meant to never be wrong. If a monarch had opinions, how could he or she be prevented from making mistakes? The answer was that by disconnecting himself from policy making, George I could never be mistaken; instead, his ministers took responsibility. This convention supported the concept of the infallibility of the sovereign.

It wasn’t until Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837 that the idea of an apolitical monarch became solidified. In fact, it was largely her husband, Prince Albert, who introduced the idea of a monarch staying above party politics. It’s not that Albert believed the sovereign should be apolitical or uninvolved with politics; he simply believed that if people saw the monarch as a neutral figure, uninfluenced by political bias, he or she would be that much more trustworthy.

In holding this view, Albert was trying to strengthen the influence of the monarchy, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. From political neutrality grew the convention that the monarch should never mention his or her political opinions in public. Because of this, the public believes that the monarch has no political effect whatsoever.

But that’s not necessarily true. Queen Elizabeth II has weekly private meetings with the prime minister, which no one else is permitted to attend. The meetings are unrecorded and extremely confidential. British constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor says, “It is . . . because relations between sovereign and a prime minister must remain confidential that it is impossible ever to form an accurate estimate of the influence of the current sovereign.”

Today, it is definitely considered unconstitutional for the British monarch to publicly express a political opinion. But there’s no constitutional convention that prescribes how the heir to the throne should behave.

A.C.T.’s production of King Charles III opens tonight and runs through October 9. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the relationship between the king and his ministers, along with other articles about the cultural and historical context of the play? Click here to purchase Words on Plays.

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