Sunday, December 7, 2008

Figure-Head of State?

The question is often asked: what's the purpose of a head of state in a parliamentary system?

The American head of state, the president, supervises the executive departments, commands the military, leads his political party, etc. But in a parliamentary system, those functions are performed by the prime minister, who is head of government, but not head of state.

In the U.K., for example, many people love such pageantry as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but attach no political significance to the activities of Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, last week when, for the umpteenth time, the Queen presided over the State Opening of Parliament, she read the Queen's Speech, the British equivalent of the American State of the Union Address, from a script given to her by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government, as is the standard practice.

But, every once in a while, a "figurehead" head of state is in a position to influence the political goings-on. The current effort to topple the Harper Government in Canada, which I wrote about here, here and here, is an example of such circumstances.

Formally, Queen Elizabeth is Canada's head of state. But, as a practical matter, her representative in Ottawa, Governor General Michaelle Jean, performs the functions of a head of state. It was Jean who decided to suspend Parliament until January, thereby postponing a no-confidence vote. And if such a vote eventually brings down the government, she will be called on to decide whether to allow the opposition parties to form a governing coalition, or to call a new general election.

Some other examples:

King Juan Carlos of Spain is credited with ending an attempted coup d'é·tat in 1981, by forcefully speaking out against the rebels. Juan Carlos had taken the throne after long-time dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975. A gradual process to institute democracy was well underway by 1981. In hindsight, the defeat of the coup is considered a critically important step toward creating the robust democracy that currently exists in that country.

I'm absolutely certain that I've heard stories from Britain about subtle royal intervention in the uncertainty that followed an indecisive general election in February 1974. But I can't find any confirmation of that on the Web. It was the only U.K. general election in modern times in which no one party won an absolute majority. Prime Minister Ted Heath, a Conservative, eventually resigned, and the Labor Party, which had a slightly higher total of seats in the House of Commons, formed a minority government. Did Heath jump, or was he pushed (or at least nudged) by Elizabeth's courtiers?

Though less dramatic than that, one ongoing way in which the Queen definitely influences politics is the weekly audience with the prime minister. They meet behind closed doors, without staff, and they observe total secrecy afterwards. The Queen brings at least two strengths to these meetings:

  1. In her 56 years on the throne, she has met regularly with every prime minister since Churchill, so she has a lot of history to draw on, in advising the prime minister of the day.

  2. While she doesn't make the political decisions, she sees a lot of the paperwork about those decisions, because she must formally sign off on them. She reportedly studies those papers diligently, so she's likely to have some familiarity with any issue a prime minister brings up during their meetings.

Walter Bagehot, a 19th-century British writer, summarized the limited political role of modern British monarchs:

The Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights - the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.

The monarch's political role is limited, but not non-existent.

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