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The real power of King Charles III
The sovereign of the United Kingdom still has immense appointment power over other nations
An oft-repeated fun fact is that the United Kingdom is technically a theocratic monarchy. King Charles III, after all, is not only the head of state but is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The common refrain is that both roles are largely ceremonial. The real leader of the United Kingdom is the Prime Minister, while the leader of the Church of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is true to a large extent; the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom runs the government and the Archbishop of Canterbury is responsible for the theological teachings of the church.
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That said, the King of England does, potentially, have a few immense powers. There are grey areas in any country’s constitution, but the United Kingdom is unique in that it does not have a written constitution. The scope for a constitutional crisis is larger, especially in areas that have relied on centuries of tradition rather than codified law. Most notably, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is appointed by the King. In practice the King invites the winner of the most recent election to be Prime Minister. The Sovereign is expected to stay out of politics so the “appointment” is a formality. However, a rogue King could test those bounds and could potentially appoint someone else. The most recent controversial appointment occurred in 1963, when Harold Macmillan, the outgoing Prime Minister, recommended that Queen Elizabeth II appoint Alec Douglas-Home to be his successor. Queen Elizabeth duly did so, even though it was not clear if Douglas-Home would have the full support of his party. The threat of a rogue Sovereign appointing a truly undeserving Prime Minister is widely known. I doubt it will ever happen just because it seems like a move with tremendous downside and little upside.
The larger power King Charles has, however, is the appointment of Governors-General of the British Commonwealth. The full list of Commonwealth countries with a Governor-General is here. Governors-General are the Sovereign’s representatives to countries that still consider the British Monarch to be head of state. Surprisingly, to me at least, Governors-General still appoint the Prime Ministers of their respective countries, and has many other substantive powers.
Take Australia as an example. After a politician in Australia wins an election, he or she cannot become Prime Minister until the Governor-General of Australia allows it. That is, a winner of a democratic election in Australia is not allowed to take office until someone appointed by the King of England says it’s ok. That same unelected person can also remove a Prime Minister, and can even block any bills that have passed through parliament from becoming law. It is an enormously powerful position, and it lies entirely outside of the democratic institutions of Australia.
Most disheartening is that the powers of the Governor-General of Australia are not academic; in 1975 the Governor-General dismissed a democratically elected Prime Minister and appointed the leader of the rival party to be the next Prime Minister. This was done without warning and is unappealable. Amazingly, afterward the Australian Government debated removing this power from the Governor-General’s office but decided not to. Even today, the Governor-General of Australia, David Hurley, could call the Prime Minister of Australia, one of the most powerful people in the world, into his office and dismiss him. Officially Queen Elizabeth had no role in the 1975 decision, although it’s hard to imagine an appointee of the Queen deciding to fire a democratically elected leader without at least telling the Queen in advance.
Canada has a similar system, although no Prime Minister there has been dismissed by the Canadian Governor-General in the last century. Beyond that, the Provinces of Canada each have their own Lieutenant Governors, also appointed by the king, which function in a similar matter. For example, in 2017 the Premier of British Columbia, who is roughly equivalent to a governor in America, asked the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve parliament and call for a new election. The Lieutenant Governor refused and the Premier resigned. Additionally, and law that passes through a Province’s legislature has to be approved by the Lieutenant Governor. This is also usually a formality, until it isn’t. In 1961 the legislature of Saskatchewan passed a mining bill that the Lieutenant Governor blocked because he thought it was not in the public interest and was illegal.
The issue in all these cases is not whether any of these decisions were good or bad. After the Australian Prime Minister was fired in 1975, the opposition party did win the next election by a healthy margin. In 2017, the Premier of British Columbia did not have a majority in the Provincial Legislature. The issue is that a 21st-century democracy should not be giving these powers to an official who is appointed by the hereditary sovereign of another country. It flies in the face of everything democracy stands for. There is little upside, and eventually one these appointees will use their powers in a direct affront to democracy.