In Politics, The Queen Exercises Right to Remain Silent

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip in 2009

The Queen is a close adviser to Britain’s Prime Minister, but she does not take public stands on issues. BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt examines how the royal family stays above the political fray. (Follow Mr. Hunt on Twitter.)

It’s a right that was achieved at considerable cost. It’s a right which the Queen does not exercise.

Nearly 100 years ago, a woman called Emily Davison was killed after she threw herself under the horse of the Queen’s grandfather, King George V. She was protesting at the government’s continuing failure to give women in Britain the vote.

She sacrificed her life for a cause that achieved its goal in 1928, when women were granted equal voting rights with men. The Queen was two years old. In the intervening years, the Monarch hasn’t been near a ballot box.

There’s no law which says she can’t. But the Queen and her advisers have decided it would be unconstitutional for the Sovereign to vote given her crucial role as a symbol of national unity. She is meant to be above the political fray, not enmeshed in it. This self-imposed ban applies to all of the Windsors.

One of the Queen’s greatest achievements has been her ability to keep her personal opinions, particularly her political ones, private. We can all speculate about what the views of an aristocratic lady in her 80s might be, but they’re unlikely ever to be revealed.

As Head of State, the Sovereign — who’s there to provide stability, continuity, and a national focus — doesn’t become publicly involved in the party politics of government. But she is entitled to be informed and consulted, and to advise, encourage, and warn ministers.

She meets her prime minister once a week. Rather like U.S. presidents, she’s seen them come and go. Her first was Winston Churchill. When he emerged from Buckingham Palace, having said “Goodbye” at the end of his time in office, the wartime leader wore a top hat and he had a cigar in his mouth.

Prime Minister David Cameron meets the Queen

David Cameron is the Queen’s 12th prime minister. Like all his predecessors, he meets her on his own. The only other creatures in the room are her corgis.

The Queen has talked of how the politicians “unburden themselves” during these weekly audiences. They have been likened to a visit to a counselor or a psychiatrist.

Reflecting on his time in power, Tony Blair has made the point that there were only two people in the world a British prime minister can say what he likes to about his political colleagues. One, he said, was the wife. The other was the Queen.

Watching all this, from the sidelines, has been the Queen’s son and heir, Prince Charles. With a considerable amount of time on his hands, and no established constitutional role, the prince has championed countless causes — from the dangers of genetically-modified crops to the peril posed by climate change — with gusto.

His supporters insist Charles acts as a catalyst for debate and change and is always careful to remain separate from any party political debate. His critics portray him as a meddlesome prince who will continue to interfere even when he occupies the throne.

In the past, he has certainly courted controversy. In 1999, during a visit to the UK by the-then Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, Prince Charles boycotted a banquet hosted by the visiting leader because he did not approve of the Chinese regime and because he is a great supporter of the Dalai Lama.

Such a boycott would have been untenable if Charles had been King. The visit was seen as heralding a new era in Anglo-Sino political and trade relations. It was also held in recognition of the growing importance of China as a world power.

So, the Prince of Wales has, for now, some latitude. But what will he do once he does fulfill his destiny? Will he grow silent and follow the example of his mother?

He provided some thoughts on the matter in a recent Vanity Fair interview. The prince said he would most likely see the role “in a different way” than his predecessors “because the situation has changed.”

And at the time of his 60th birthday, three years ago, Charles talked of his desire to still have a role championing the big themes he cares about. “I wouldn’t call it meddling,” he said. “I would call it mobilizing.”

So, Charles, a more “political” animal than his mother, is likely to reign in a different way. But some things will remain constant, especially the weekly audience between the Monarch and his or her prime minister.

The only absentees when the King and his PM meet will be the Queen’s corgis, who’ve attended such audiences, week-in, week-out, for 59 years now. As the former Prime Minister John Major once remarked, if the dogs had been bugged during the Cold War, the Russians would have known all of Britain’s secrets.