Most 93-year-olds, if they are fortunate enough to reach that age in good health, spend their time playing with their great-grandchildren, perhaps doing puzzles or playing cards. Not Queen Elizabeth II, who turns 93 on April 21. While her grandchildren may consider her a “cool grandma,” as the British monarch and head of the commonwealth of global nations she also has official duties, including facing the tempest of her realm’s greatest political crisis in recent memory: Brexit.
Britain’s constitutional monarch must maintain a public face of neutrality in matters political, causing many observers in America and elsewhere to wonder about her ability to intervene in the debate that deeply divides the country.
America’s system of government and laws are modeled after 18th century England and definitively shaped by our heritage. The president and Senate are, more or less, an elective form of monarch and House of Lords. Both English and American systems are liberal democracies that protect against the potential tyranny of monarch or president by the boundaries of laws and property.
Where things begin to diverge, it becomes difficult for Americans to understand the queen’s ability — or inability — to affect Brexit. The U.S. president is both head of state and head of government. The queen, on the other hand, is head of state but must remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters. She allows Parliament to make laws, and cannot vote or stand for election. She does have ceremonial and formal roles involving the government, including approving legislation (granting “royal assent”) and appointing and meeting regularly with the prime minister. She also acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride.
Yet conspiracy theorists on both sides of the Brexit debate have insisted that Her Majesty subtly favors their respective stances (“remainers” even suggested that the hat she wore when opening Parliament signaled alignment to stay in the European Union).
Whatever one’s inclination regarding Brexit, logic and reason would dictate that Queen Elizabeth would squarely support the position of leaving the EU. For 67 years, she has been her nation’s champion and diplomat; symbolically, it is her government, her armed forces. It is difficult to conceive that she would support remaining in an institution that impinges upon her nation’s decision-making ability and autonomy.
Moreover, with Europe’s moribund GDP and wanton immigration policies, it is improbable to imagine the queen wishing to subject her country to the financial and security exposure of the EU when relief is in sight.
Notwithstanding her personal inclinations for the United Kingdom’s destiny in or out of the EU, events have taken a serious toll on the nation while the world watches. After years of torturous debate, poor negotiations, unreasonable demands for referenda and three failed parliamentary votes on Prime Minister Theresa MayTheresa Mary MayOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief defends Milley after Trump book criticism | Addresses critical race theory | Top general says Taliban has 'strategic momentum' in war Will Ocasio-Cortez challenge Biden or Harris in 2024? The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' MORE’s “deal,” the way forward remains unclear.
Why then, many ask, does the queen not intercede and use her authority to provoke a solution? Observers have proposed royal interventions ranging from dissolving Parliament or delaying its business (proroguing) and choosing new leadership, to vetoing legislation (refusing to give royal assent).
Any of these proposals is difficult to conceive, considering that Queen Elizabeth has maintained her position longer than any other British monarch through a commitment to strict discretion in political matters. This may be hard for many on this side of the Atlantic to grasp, but historian and royal correspondent Alistair Bruce explains it clearly: “The U.K. has created a system whereby the monarch is not able to exercise power — although all power exists in her person. … She is an emblematic, human depository of all power, but doesn’t exercise it. Arguably, that is how the British monarchy has survived.”
A controversy was sparked by a 2016 story in The Sun newspaper (which the palace vehemently denied), claiming that at a private lunch the queen reportedly said Britain should “just get on with” leaving the European Union. Whether she did or did not say this, it seems that after all that has transpired in the interim, this would be a sensible course of action.
Lee Cohen is a senior fellow of the Danube Institute in Budapest and the London Center for Policy Research in New York. He is the New York director of the Anglosphere Society, and was the founder of the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.