Elizabeth II is the Head of State of the United Kingdom and fifteen other member states of the Commonwealth of Nations. These countries are constitutional monarchies, meaning that they operate under an essentially democratic constitution, the Queens principal role being to represent the state. Very often, she is viewed as a symbolic and apolitical personage with no real power. But is this entirely true? Does the Queen really possess purely nominal authority, or can she in fact exercise her will in any public action? This is not an easy question to answer. I will attempt to do so by focusing mainly on one of her most important theoretical prerogatives: the right to grant or deny royal assent to laws passed by Parliament.
A difficulty in judging the extent of the authority presently held by the monarchy lies in the fact that the British constitution has not been codified into one single document and much of it remains unwritten. The extensive power that the monarch once indisputably possessed, including the right to administer justice, dissolve Parliament or pardon crimes, was largely a matter of common law and not statute. What laws were codified (the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Act of Settlement of 1701 standing among the most important) served more to restrict the Monarchs power than to entrench it. Thus, the residual powers still reserved to the Queen continue to be more a matter of constitutional convention than of written rules. Formally, no Act of the British Parliament becomes a proper law until it is given assent by the Queen. Yet in practice, Elizabeth II assents to all bills, irrespective of her opinion on them. The last time a British monarch rejected a law was in 1708, when Queen Anne vetoed the Scottish Militia Bill, and even then, she did so at the request of her ministers. Since then, the right of royal assent has fallen into disuse, leading some constitutional theorists to claim that a new convention obligating the monarch to assent to all bills has arisen. This view was famously stressed by Walter Bagehot in his 1867 volume The English Constitution:
…the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death-warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her. It is a fiction of the past to ascribe to her legislative power. She has long ceased to have any.