Queen Elizabeth II’s Role in Government—and 28 Things She Has the Power to Do
What does the queen of England do, exactly? A lot more than you might think, considering she doesn't actually rule the country.
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Long live the queen
On February 6, 1953, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne upon the death of her father, King George VI. In so doing, she became the 40th British monarch since William the Conquerer took control of the land in 1066. Back then, the British Sovereign had nearly absolute authority over the matters that concerned the kingdom and its subjects. These circumstances began to change in 1215, when King John signed the Magna Carta, acknowledging certain limits to the sovereign’s powers with respect to rights like taxing citizens without adequate governmental representation.
Whether King John realized it or not, his signing of the Magna Carta set the wheels in motion for a gradual diminishing of the sovereign’s powers over the ensuing centuries. Today, the United Kingdom stands and functions as a constitutional monarchy under which a hereditary sovereign (in this case, the queen) is head of state but not the head of the government. The power to govern resides in an elected governmental body known as parliament and in the delegates of it with regard to devolved matters (those that have been delegated to local governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).
With royal mania hopping the pond and settling in stateside, you’re probably familiar with the royal family tree and the reasons why Queen Elizabeth isn’t stepping down anytime soon. Now for the tough questions: What does the queen of England do exactly? And perhaps more importantly, what does she even have the power to do? Read on to find out.
Serve as queen of more than just England
Go ahead and ask “What does the queen of England do?” Just don’t overlook this key fact: The Queen of England isn’t just the queen of England. She’s also the queen of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, which join England to compose the United Kingdom. She’s also the Queen of the 14 other nations that currently make up the “Commonwealth realm,” including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. All 15 Commonwealth realms together comprise 150 million people.
What constitutes the queen’s “rule” over the Commonwealth realm is still up in the air. Although the power to govern resides in parliament, and the royal family (a.k.a. The Crown) fully acknowledges that its role is largely ceremonial, the queen possesses a great many powers and responsibilities.
As the British Monarchist League explains, the role of the queen is far from just ceremonial but rather “encompasses a wide spectrum of official duties [and] constitutional powers,” which include those that can be exercised without the consent of any other member or agency of the government.
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Choose to rule (or not to rule)
Because the queen ascended the throne as a result of a hereditary right, some viewed her reign as a “divine appointment.” But that’s just a royal family superstition. The crown is a choice for the queen, and if she wanted to, she could take a page from her uncle’s book and abdicate, which is how her father, George VI, became king. Though the 95-year-old monarch’s health has been in the spotlight in recent months, there is no reason to believe that the queen will abdicate, now or ever.
What she can’t do, though, is install a regent, like heir apparent Prince Charles. That only happens when a monarch is incapacitated, and it’s a highly unusual circumstance. The last regency was during the reign of King George III in the early 1800s.
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Serve as head of the Commonwealth of Nations
To answer the question “What does the queen of England do?” is to consider all countries affected by her reign, not just England. Those include the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of around 54 independent countries aimed at fostering cooperation among member nations and advancing their economic and social interests.
Most of the members are under British rule (like the Commonwealth realms) or were at some point in the past (like India, Pakistan, and Barbados). The Commonwealth of Nations also includes Rwanda and Mozambique, both of which chose to join the association despite having no historical ties to the monarchy.
In her role as the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the queen meets every two years with heads of government from the member nations to discuss issues, assign priorities, and enact policy. Given that the UK has now officially withdrawn from the European Union, its relationships with the other Commonwealth nations has never been more critical. Royal lovers, learn how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love.
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Pick the prime minister
The queen may have few reserved powers (decisions that are within the “royal prerogative”), but those she holds are important. Take, for instance, her power to appoint the prime minister, the highest ranking official in British government. That said, she can’t pick a PM willy-nilly. She has to follow the Cabinet Manual, a formal set of rules that say the sovereign ought to say out of party politics.
In most cases, she appoints the leader of the party that won a majority of seats in the House of Commons (a branch of parliament) during the most recent general election. And while staying out of politics is priority number one for the queen, there are circumstances in which she may be called upon to exercise her discretion, such as when a prime minister dies or resigns while in office. Here’s what will happen when Queen Elisabeth II dies.
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Appoint members to the House of Lords
Members of the House of Lords—one of parliament’s three branches—are appointed by the queen after approval by the prime minister. Her selection is based on what she believes individuals will bring to the table in terms of knowledge and experience with respect to UK business, culture, science, sports, academia, law, education, health, and public service. Together with the House of Commons, the House of Lords is tasked with all matters related to lawmaking.
Appoint Supreme Court justices
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United Kingdom. Like the US Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court has the final say on all legal matters that come before it, including how laws are to be interpreted and whether a law should be stricken by parliament. Choosing the justices who will be making those decisions is an important responsibility and one that rests with the queen. She appoints justices on the advice and recommendation of a panel of legal experts from each of the UK’s nations, according to the BBC. Read more for fascinating things you never knew about Prince Harry.
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Initiate the process of “forming a government”
Without the “formation of a government,” parliament can’t conduct its business (in fact, it doesn’t even exist until it’s formed). It’s up to the queen to invite the prime minister appointee to Buckingham Palace, where she’ll ask the PM to “form a government,” a meeting known as the kissing of hands. Assuming the answer is yes, the prime minister begins work immediately. Stroll down memory lane with these photos of a young Princess Diana.
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Open parliament each year
Part of the royal tradition is the queen’s annual opening of parliament for its lawmaking session. And as much as it remains within her prerogative, the queen has never willfully delayed parliament’s opening. The only times that she delegated the responsibility to others were during her pregnancies.
Kick off parliamentary business
Before parliament can get down to business, the queen must make a speech. The twist: the annual “Queen’s Speech” at the opening of parliament is always written by members of parliament. It’s used as a starting point for House discussion and debate.
But wait, you’re thinking, isn’t the queen supposed to remain apolitical? Yes, and in reciting the Queen’s Speech, she is, in fact, speaking politically. But it is well known that the words are not hers and that she is just “reading” her speech. Did you know businesses need permission to use the word “royal” in the United Kingdom?
Parliament may have the power to make, change, and abolish laws, but the queen must sign off on a proposed act of parliament before it officially goes into effect, a process known as royal assent. So while the queen is constitutionally required to remain politically neutral, it’s within her prerogative to put the kibosh on a potential law. Still, no British sovereign has refused to give royal assent to an act of parliament since 1708. What’s more, most monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth II, don’t even show up in person to give royal assent. The last to do so was Queen Victoria in 1854.
Summon the prime minister
One of the queen’s responsibilities is to stay abreast of what’s going in the government. To do so, she can exercise her power to summon the prime minister for meetings (royal speak: audiences). The queen typically gives a weekly audience to the prime minister, during which she has both a right and a duty to express her opinions on matters of government.
The practice doesn’t stand in opposition to the queen’s duty to remain politically neutral because the audience is considered private and all communications remain strictly confidential. Moreover, after having expressed her views, the queen abides by the advice of her ministers.
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End the parliamentary session
It is within the queen’s royal prerogative to end the current session of parliament. This is separate from the dissolution of parliament, which refers to the formal closing of the session. Until the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011, it was also within the queen’s power to dissolve parliament. Yet even when she had this power, she never used it, and the last monarch to do so was Queen Victoria in 1830. Check out these fascinating perks that come with being part of the royal family.
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Open Welsh lawmaking sessions
Since 1999, Wales has had its own form of elected government, known as the National Assembly of Wales, which introduces legislation concerning matters that have been delegated from the UK parliament. These include matters of health, housing, tourism, the environment, and agriculture. As with the UK parliament, the queen is empowered with opening the National Assembly each session.
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Ratify Welsh legislation
Since 2007, the queen has been responsible for formally appointing Welsh ministers, including the first minister (the highest ranking member of Wales’ National Assembly), and granting royal assent to formal acts of the National Assembly. In other words, she confirms bills into law. The queen also holds audiences with the first minister, though she acts on advice provided by her UK ministers when dealing with Wales. Browse these rarely seen royal family Christmas photos.
Open Scotland’s parliamentary session
From 1707 to 1999, all Scottish lawmaking was in the hands of the UK parliament. But on the cusp of the new millennium, Scotland’s new parliament met for the first time. Since then, the Edinburgh-based Scottish parliament has dealt with domestic matters, while the UK parliament in Westminster, England, has dealt with issues pertaining to the United Kingdom. Just as she’s charged with opening the UK parliament and Welsh National Assembly, the queen is responsible for opening the session of the Scottish parliament.
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Ratify the laws of Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland Assembly has been around since 1998, and like the local governments of Wales and Scotland, it’s the main source of authority with regard to all Irish lawmaking matters that have been devolved from parliament. Queen Elizabeth II is tasked with opening the annual lawmaking session and providing royal assent to all legislation passed by the governing body.
Appoint the members of Privy Council
The UK Privy Council is responsible for a number of executive responsibilities, including extending legislation to British territories overseas, granting royal charters, and issuing orders and proclamations. It also advises the queen on her duties, including how to exercise her royal prerogative. Members of the Privy Council are appointed by the queen, although she takes the advice of the prime minister.
Approve Privy Council orders and proclamations
Privy Council meetings are held once a month at the discretion of the queen. At that time, members must obtain the queen’s royal assent to orders that the council has discussed and approved. The queen also needs to approve the council’s proclamations, formal notices concerning issues like the dates of bank holidays and the summoning of a new parliament.
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Break the law without prosecution
The notion of sovereign immunity is said to have arisen out of the British common law, which once held that the sovereign, being divinely appointed, is not capable of doing wrong. It’s because of the notion of sovereign immunity that all British legal cases are in the name of the queen versus the defendant, which carries with it the implication that the queen cannot take legal action against herself. And that is precisely the case. As the royal family’s official website points out, “civil and criminal proceedings cannot be taken against the sovereign as a person under UK law.”
Nevertheless, the queen is said to carefully ensure that all of her personal activities are lawful. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II enjoys a squeaky-clean reputation, according to British Heritage magazine.
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A British sovereign’s right to pardon convicted criminals has long been known as the “royal prerogative of mercy,” though a 2017 House of Commons briefing paper doesn’t count this particular power as one of the queen’s reserved powers. Originally intended to prevent the execution of a criminal, the royal pardon is rarely used in the modern-day United Kingdom, which long ago abolished the death penalty.
But it’s not all about life or death. The queen can use the royal pardon to reduce an inmate’s prison sentence, and in 2013, she used it to grant a posthumous pardon to World War II code-breaker Alan Turing, who received an indecency conviction in 1952.
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Drive without a license
Young Queen Elizabeth served as a driver and a mechanic during World War II, but she’s never had to take a driving test, she’ll never be issued a ticket for a moving or parking violation, and she will never have to take a five-hour class to help reduce her car insurance premiums.
That’s because the queen is not legally required to possess a driver’s license in order to drive to her heart’s content. Why’s that? Well, technically speaking, all driver’s licenses are issued in the queen’s name. Similarly, the queen stands exempt from having to display a license plate on her state car.
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Exceed the speed limit
Going somewhere in a hurry? Too bad you’re not Her Royal Highness, who can go as fast as she likes without getting ticketed. British speed limits don’t apply to vehicles used for police, fire and rescue, ambulances, or the Serious Organised Crime Agency when following the speed limits would prevent those folks from doing their jobs, a representative from the Department for Transport told The Sun newspaper. Because the royal family is driven by the police, their driver is exempt from speeding laws.
Travel without a passport
If you were to open up a British passport, you’d see that it was issued in the name of the queen. No, she doesn’t personally sign each and every passport. But just having them issued in her name means she doesn’t have to issue herself one. (Fun fact: She also has the power to withdraw them.)
The queen isn’t required to carry a passport around when she travels, according to the official website of the royal family, but the same can’t be said for any other member of the royal family. All other members, including Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth’s grandchildren, have passports.
Avoid paying taxes
The queen doesn’t have to pay taxes, but she does—at least some of them. “The Queen pays tax,” reads the royal family’s official website before going on to clarify that once, in 1992, the queen volunteered to pay income tax and capital gains tax and that ever since 1993, the queen’s “personal income has been taxable as for any other taxpayer.” It also notes that “the Queen has always been subject to Value Added Tax and pays local rates on a voluntary basis.”
Less clear is whether the queen, who (along with the rest of the royal family) has an astonishing net worth, has paid her personal income taxes. By noting that the queen conducts herself “in strict accordance with the law,” the royal family’s website seems to suggest she has.
Command the armed forces
Unlike many a U.S president, the queen has a genuine and longstanding relationship with the British Armed Forces, dating back to before she ascended the throne. In 1945, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and while she’s one of many members of the royal family who have served actively, she is the first female member to have done so.
Although the queen is no longer an active member, she continues to maintain a close relationship with the armed forces, visiting regularly. And once a year, the troops display the flags of their regiments for the queen at the Trooping the Colour ceremony, which is also a birthday party for the queen.
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It’s a millennia-old tradition for the British monarch to recognize those who have shown great “service, loyalty, or gallantry” by bestowing gifts. At one time, those gifts were physical, such as money or land. Today, they are in the form of official honors, including knighthoods and peerages.
Recipients of these honors are announced twice a year: once on New Year’s Day and once on the queen’s official birthday. Although “anyone can nominate anyone else for an honour,” as the government’s regulations specify, all such honors must be approved by the queen. The prime minister is tasked with making recommendations to the queen, and before her approval is formalized, the proposed honoree must accept.
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Appoint archbishops and bishops to the Church of England
Although she is styled as “Her Majesty,” Queen Elizabeth II’s official title is “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.” That last bit—Defender of the Faith—refers to the fact that the queen is the head of the Church of England.
The British sovereign has been the head of the Church of England since 1534, when Henry VIII’s divorce drama led to his renouncing the Catholic Church. As head of the church today, the queen appoints archbishops, bishops, and deans of the Church of England, albeit on the advice of the prime minister. Fun fact: Here is what the royal family actually does all day (yes, they have jobs).
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Own all the dolphins in the United Kingdom
Yep, you read that right. A bizarre statute from 1324 states that the king (or queen) of England has ownership of “whales and surgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm.” The law, which is in existence today, covers dolphins in UK waters as well. And if you think that’s not quite enough wildlife for the queen, you’ll be chuffed to know she owns the swans in the Thames too.
Can’t get enough Queen Elizabeth II trivia? Read these 33 fun facts about her.
- The Royal Family
- The National Archives: “Regency Act 1937”
- The Commonwealth
- BBC: “What is the UK Supreme Court?”
- House of Commons Library: “The Royal Prerogative”
- Institute for Government
- UK Parliament
- British Monarchist League: “The Queen in Government”
- The Scottish Parliament: “About the Scottish Parliament”
- The Sun: “Above the Law? The reason why the Prime Minister and Royal family can legally break the speed limit”
- NI Direct: “The Northern Ireland Assembly”
- British Heritage magazine: “Can Queen Elizabeth get away with murder?”
- UK Government: “How the honours system works”
- A Treatise on the Fishery Laws of the United Kingdom: “Crown’s Right to Royal Fish”