The Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – a truly historic occasion – gives us reason to learn about the role of the ‘crown’ in the life of Britain, Australia, and the Commonwealth. It is an inspiration
If you go to the United Kingdom, take time to visit the Tower of London with an optional excursion to the crown jewels. It’s costly but worth it. You will not forget the exquisite beauty of the diamonds, pearls, and accessories of the monarchy. The Imperial State Crown, worn at the coronation of the monarch, weighs just over one kilogram, and is replete with 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emerald, and 5 rubies. The glory and splendour of this crown is beyond description.
Now we have this rare occasion of a monarch, the only one most of us has ever known, representing a nation and family of nations, commemorating the remarkable milestone of seventy years on the throne. It is called the platinum jubilee, the first in British history.
In commemoration of Elizabeth II’s seventy year milestone, we offer a ‘crown chronicles’ series of three articles. The first article is about the crown itself. The second part will be about the monarch and the third will focus the role of the Christian faith in the Queen’s life and reign.
Definition: When we define ‘crown,’ it not just a diamond-crusted hat that sits on the monarch’s head. The Imperial State Crown, like all other visible crowns, is a priceless symbol of the abstract but very real thing we call the monarchy itself. The crown means the monarchy and is more than just one individual. This particular crown/monarchy represents the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, other realms, and the fifty-four nations of The Commonwealth. (NOTE: This article will pivot between the crown in Britain & in Australia. They are virtually identical though the exercising of them differs. For example, Britain does not have a Governor-General, while the other crowned realms do).
An Old/New Crown: America’s founding fathers, who codified their grievances against King George III in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, would not recognise the British crown today. It has truly evolved over the centuries.
At first, the King was a dictator, and absolute monarch. Then came parliamentary government and a power struggle ensued. Some monarchs, like James I (who gave us the King James Bible), insisted in the divine right of kings. Parliament disagreed. An English civil war broke out because of this in the 1640s, resulting in a win for parliament and the execution of James’ son, Charles I. Finally came the formulation we have today:
- Parliament makes the laws;
- The Crown assents to legislation.
- Thus we have a constitutional monarchy.
Geoffrey White defines constitutional monarchy as
“…a state where the people through parliament are sovereign, but where the monarchy represents that sovereignty and who is ceremonial Head of State. The monarch enjoys position by consent of the people, either through Acts of Parliament or a written constitution” (WHITE 1997:46).
The crown is to be scrupulously neutral in political affairs, thus creating an apolitical head-of-state who represents the entire nation, not a partisan faction. The crown is duty-bound to act on the advice of elected ministers, particularly the prime minister. In addition, Walter Bagehot masterfully put it in 1867 that the role of the crown-monarch retained “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.”
The Crown has a source of power which does not need ministerial advice and that’s the exercise of Reserved Powers. They can be used at the monarch’s absolute discretion but apparently there is no abuse; the various legislative, judicial, executive and crown powers are finely tuned and balanced. We will revisit this topic shortly.
What does it all mean? The Constitution, be it British or Australian, is wrapped around a thousand year old crown, which sits at the apex and centre of all governmental power. This ingenious constitutional formula, which evolved over centuries, has a marvellous combination of balance of power, separation of power, continuity of history, heritage, customs, tradition and national identity, thus ensuring safe, stable governance. The genius of the crowned constitution is this: as it stands at the hub of the wheel of power, it denies absolute power to all other governmental branches. The Crown, in essence, becomes a constitutional umpire.
The 1901 Australian Constitution states that the people of the former British colonies, like Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, etc. agreed to united in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth both under the Crown of the United Kingdom and the Constitution itself. All this was prefaced by the words: “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God.”
The Crown is absolutely central in the Australian Constitution, with the word ‘Queen’ mentioned thirty-nine times; ‘Her Majesty’ eleven times; and ‘Crown’ four times. The people decided on this ‘crowned arrangement’ and it is the people who can change it by constitutional referendum.
Queen & Country
According to the Constitution, the ‘crown’ is represented by Elizabeth II, whose legal status is ‘Queen of Australia.’ The same applies to Canada, New Zealand, and in the other nations where she serves as head of state. Note what the Queen cannot do:
- Exercise executive power;
- Visit the country except by invitation.
The Queen’s sole constitutional function is to appoint the Governor-General by recommendation of the Prime Minister. The G-G, who is a local Australian, New Zealander, Canadian, etc. – not a British civil servant – exercises all the prerogatives of the monarch, even when the Queen is present in the country. By countersigning the Governor-General’s appointment, the selection process is ‘de-politicised;’ the G-G does not owe his/her job to the PM, but to the Queen, ensuring that they act objectively and with principle.
Reserve Powers: Let’s take a moment and revisit the ‘Reserve Powers.’ These have evolved over the centuries and represents the all-important checks and balances needed for a stable government. Though not rules of law or even codified, they are binding. Only the Crown, be it the monarch or governor-general, can exercise them. Like the heavy-duty emergency brakes that stop a runaway vehicle, the reserve powers are only used when the government is no longer entitled to rule or fails to function.
The most famous example of the use of reserve powers was the dissolving of the Whitlam Labor Government of November 1975 by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr. While this move was contentious, everything was resolved in a matter of weeks. There were no riots, assassinations, or any bad long-term effect. America was reeling over two years of the Watergate scandal that brought down a US President and would have dragged on longer but for the pardon given by his successor. The reserve power safety-switch for democracy was successful and swift. The G-G said, in essence, let the people decide. The electorate was the ultimate arbiter of the crisis. Australians voted in a federal election and upheld the G-G’s decision.
While a symbol, the Crown is a very potent one. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott put it this way:
“In (apartheid) South Africa and in (republican) Fiji, the establishment of a republic gave freer rein to the enemies of freedom—not because the Queen was herself defending Indian shopkeepers or the residents of black townships, but because the existence of the Crown denied complete power to politicians. The Crown achieves its object simply by existing. The Crown does not need to act—it simply needs to be” (ABBOTT 1995:74).
In summary, the purpose of the Crown is the embodiment of a nation, its people, history, heritage, type of government, culture, civilisation and religion. It sits at the centre and height of the constitutional arrangement, separating all other branches of government while avoiding involvement in the day-to-day running of the state. Its apolitical nature causes it to be leadership beyond politics and representative of all people of the realm. Parliament has the real power but the crown can, in an emergency, intervene in a stalled political system to break the logjam. It is a true national treasure, greater than diamonds and pearls.
ABBOTT Tony. The Minimal Monarchy And Why It Still Makes Sense For Australia. Kent Town SA: Wakefield Press, 1995.
WHITE Geoffrey. Monarchists, Royalists and Republicans: A New Strategy For Constitutional Consensus. Macedon VIC: White Crest Publication, 1997.