United Kingdom: The Queen’s ambit

Anne Twomey explores the soft power exerted by Britain’s longest-serving monarch

The World Today
3 minute READ

Anne Twomey

Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney, Australia

Walter Bagehot was not much impressed by Queen Victoria. The influential British economist and journalist described her dismissively as a ‘retired widow’ and her heir as ‘an unemployed youth’. Yet he had the prescience to note that it was ‘an accepted secret doctrine that the Crown does more than it seems’ and that no one would be able to assess the influence of Queen Victoria until the history books were written by future generations.

Once Queen Victoria’s correspondence was published it was discovered that she was far more active and influential in affairs of state than Bagehot had ever imagined. 

Queen Elizabeth II’s role is so wrapped in government-imposed secrecy that we know little about one of the most recognized women in the world

The same is likely to be true for her great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Her substantive political and constitutional role is so wrapped in government-imposed secrecy that we know astonishingly little about one of the most recognized women in the world.

The little evidence that we have, gathered from government documents and personal accounts, indicates that the Queen exercises a kind of ‘soft power’, particularly in her dealings with the Commonwealth. 

She does not reject the formal advice of her prime ministers. Rather, she exercises influence to prevent objectionable formal advice being given to her in the first place.

How does she manage this? It is a mixture of being well informed, having effective procedures in place and being adept at applying social and political pressure. 

Within the Commonwealth, it is acknowledged that the Queen is very well informed. She not only receives reports from her personal representatives in each realm but she also has a strong network of informants, who provide inside knowledge of political affairs to her private secretary. She can therefore slip in a casual word in conversation with world leaders or use her private secretary to nip issues of concern in the bud before they develop into a problem. 

For example, in 1958 intelligence reached the Palace that the Tasmanian premier proposed to recommend himself to be appointed as state governor upon his retirement as premier. A telegram was quickly sent to the outgoing Tasmanian governor asking him to quash such mischievous ‘rumours’ by pointing out that everyone would appreciate the impropriety of appointing someone active in party politics to such an office. The Tasmanian premier got the message.

The procedures for advising the Queen are also critical to her influence. The system requires ‘informal advice’ to be provided first to the Queen’s private secretary. It is only once approval is given to the informal advice that formal advice may be given. In this way, advice to which the Queen objects can be knocked off at the informal stage by queries, stalling tactics, warnings and objections.

The final trump card

Once alerted to objections, most prime ministers are reluctant to force the Queen’s hand. Male prime ministers, in particular, have regarded such behaviour as ‘ungentlemanlike’. Few politicians are prepared to squander their political capital on a conflict with a popular Queen if it might become public. As a last resort, a private secretary may simply refuse to present advice to the Queen on the ground that it is ‘unconstitutional’.

Few politicians are prepared to squander their political capital on a conflict with a popular Queen if it might become public

Some prime ministers have more actively consulted the Queen’s wishes than others. In 1952, Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister, proposed a method of choosing the governor-general of Australia which involved each of Menzies, the Queen and Lord Salisbury listing three nominees. From among the nine nominees, the Queen and Menzies would decide jointly upon the best candidate. This method was used to appoint four governors-general of Australia, three of whom were unsurprisingly British. The Queen was no passive party to the process.

The Queen’s final trump card is her international standing and social status. Given her long experience and wealth of knowledge, she can effectively encourage a politician to act. James Callaghan recorded that it was the Queen’s encouragement that ‘tipped the scales’ in how he dealt with what was then Rhodesia in 1976 when he was British foreign secretary. 

The Queen could also dissuade a prime minister from pursuing his advice. When Gough Whitlam, the Australian prime minister, sought to remove ‘by the grace of God’ and ‘the Second’ from her royal title with respect to Australia in 1973, the Queen objected and won the day.

The Queen’s influence is most apparent and tested during a crisis.

For example, after a coup d’état in Fiji in 1987, the Queen issued public statements supporting her governor-general, rather than the deposed prime minister, as the only source of legitimate executive power and advice in Fiji. This support initially undermined the effectiveness of the coup. 

But once it was suggested that the Queen should exercise a prerogative power to amend the constitution of Fiji to discriminate in favour of indigenous Fijians and against Indo-Fijians, the Palace changed course. It pressured the governor-general to resign and said that upon his resignation, the Queen would cease to be Queen of Fiji. 

The decision of the Queen to terminate her sovereignty over Fiji was taken without any ministerial advice from Fiji or London. Her then private secretary, Sir William Heseltine, later observed that Margaret Thatcher ‘was quite opposed to the idea of the Queen, as it were, abdicating. But it wasn’t up to her because it was as Queen of Fiji that she had come to this conclusion.’ 

It will not be until long after the Queen’s death, once government and Palace records are released, that we can fully assess the extent of the Queen’s exercise of soft power in foreign affairs, particularly in the Commonwealth. But as seen from the few examples that have escaped the veil of secrecy, that influence is likely to have been significant indeed.