Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

University President & Professor of Political Science





Modern constitutional democracies can be classified within the framework of three typologies, each of which consists of two contrasting categories of constitutional democratic political regimes -- (1) constitutional monarchy and constitutional republic, (2) parliamentary system and presidential system, and (3) majoritarian democracy and consensus democracy. In the case of each typology, the American system of government falls into one category and the British system falls into the other category. Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy, while the U.S.A. is a constitutional republic. A parliamentary system operates in Britain, and a presidential system operates in the U.S.A. The British governmental system is a majoritarian democracy, whereas the American system is a consensus democracy. In Part Three of the course, the three typologies will be employed to compare and contrast American constitutional democracy with the style of constitutional democracy that functions in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This mode of comparative political analysis will be followed by use of the principles of judicial review and legislative supremacy to compare and contrast the American and British constitutional systems.


What is a constitutional monarchy? What is a constitutional republic? How do the two forms of government differ?

1. Constitutional Monarchy (U.K.):

Constitutional Monarchy--A Definition. In a modern constitutional monarchy, or limited monarchy, the government is carried on in the name of one person who inherits his or her title and office but whose political authority is limited by law. The government, though carried on in the name of an hereditary chief of state, is genuinely constitutional, representative, and democratic in character. The authority of the Monarch is strictly limited by the Constitution. The real powers of government are solely or primarily in the hands of the people's elected representatives, especially those who are members of the majority party or coalition in the lower house of the legislature. The Monarch either shares political authority with the elected representatives and their leadership or, as is the case in Great Britain, has virtually no real authority and is a mere figurehead ruler, a purely symbolic and ceremonial sovereign.

A Constitutional Monarch as Chief of State. Whether a particular constitutional, represent- ative democracy is a constitutional monarchy or a constitutional republic turns primarily on the nature of the office of chief of state and the method by which that office is filled. The chief of state, in either a republic or limited monarchy, is the ceremonial leader of the entire political society and sovereign state, the symbol of national unity and patriotism. In a constitutional monarchy, the chief of state is an hereditary monarch in whose name the government is carried on. The office of Monarch (King or Queen, Emperor or Empress) is held by the head of the dynasty accepted by the political society or nation as its legitimate royal family. When the reigning Monarch dies or abdicates, the office and title of Monarch are inherited by the member of the royal family who is next in the line of auccession.

Governing Power in a Constitutional Monarchy. The Monarch is not an absolute monarch. Political authority is not lodged solely or primarily in the Crown. Real governing power is held and exercised by thr voters' elected representatives. A modern constitutional monarchy, as we have seen, is representative and democratic as well as constitutional.

The Role and Authority of the British Monarch. In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, every aspect of the Kingdom's government is carried on in the name of the Queen. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are referred to as "Her Majesty's Government" and as the "Ministers of the Crown." The Prime Minister has been called "Her Majesty's Chief Minister" and the "Chief Minister of the Crown." Britain's military forces are referred to as "Her Majesty's Armed Forces," different branches of the military service labeled respectively the Royal Air Force," the "Royal Navy," and the "Royal Marines." (The Army is referred to as the "British Army.") Each ship in the Royal Navy is called "Her Majesty's Ship," or "HMS." The British courts are referred to as the "Royal Courts," and each prosecutor is officially known as the "Crown's Attorney."

The Queen symbolically and ceremoniously wields governmental power in Great Britain. For example, she (1) appoints the Prime Minister and the other Cabinet ministers, (2) appoints judges to fill vacancies on the Royal Courts, (3) opens and closes the annual meetings of Parliament, (4) at the beginning of each session of Parliament, delivers before it the "Speech from the Throne," which sets forth the Cabinet's legislative program, (5) assents to legislative bills passed by Parliament, and (6) receives ambassadors from foreign governments. All of these official actions of the government are taken by and in the name of the Crown. As regards taking these official actions, however, the Queen does not possess independent decisionmaking authority. Except in a very limited number of cases, the Monarch cannot legally and constitutionally follow her own judgement or preferences and act against the wishes of the leadership of the majority in the House of Commons.

In appointing the Prime Minister, the Queen adheres to the convention dictating that she appoint to that office the member of Parliament who is clearly the recognized and accepted chief leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. In appointing the other Cabinet members, the Monarch must follow the advice of the Prime Minister. In appointing judges, the Queen must act on and in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister or the Lord Chancellor. In opening and closing a meeting pf Parliament, the Queen must act in strict accord with the statutes, customs, and conventions of the Constitution. In delivering the Speech from the Throne, the Monarch reads to Parliament a speech written by the Cabinet, the content of that speech having been determined by the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In assenting to bills passed by Parliament, the Queen always gives her consent, following the convention dictating that she shall never veto a parliamentary bill. Like all other official actions of the Crown, the Queen's receiving foreign ambassadors is a purely symbolic and ceremonial function; the Prime Minister and Cabinet make the government's decisions on matters of foreign and defense policy.

In brief weekly meetings between the Monarch and Prime Minister, private discussions of current public-policy issues are carried on, giving the Queen the opportunity to present her views to the Prime Minister. In these discussions, the rights of the Crown are limited to (1) the right to be consulted, (2) the right to encourage, and (3) the right to warn. While the Prime Minister will listen courteously and respectfully to the Queen as she expresses her views, the decisions on public policy are actually made by the Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers--the leaders of the majority of the voters' elected representatives in the House of Commons. The influence of the Crown is not likely to be strong enough to modify public policy, if the Prime Minister and Cabinet have already decided on a given course of governmental decisionmaking and action, which is almost invariably the case.

The British House of Lords. Until recent reforms, existing and functioning in Great Brit- ain's governmental system was an institution characteristic of European constitutional monarchies of the past--a non-elective, largely hereditary upper chamber of the national legislature. Today, the House of Lords, as the non-elective (not popularly elected) upper chamber of the British Parliament, is a largely appointive body. The great majority of the seats in the House of Lords are filled by appointment. 572 of the 688 seats are held by life peers--persons appointed by the Crown, on the advice of the Prime Minister, to serve non-hereditary, life terms as voting members of the chamber. As of August 1, 2002, hereditary peers held only 90 seats in the Lords and bishops held the remaining 26 seats. As the House of Lords continues to evolve and constitutional reforms continue to be adopted, the practive of allowing hereditary noblemen (lords, dukes, marquises, earls, counts, barons, etc.) to inherit seats and voting power in Britain's upper legislative chamber is on its way out.

The House of Lords no longer plays the vital role it once played in the British govern- mental system. At one time, the House of Lords could effectively check and restrain the House of Commons. In previous centuries, a majority in the House of Lords had the power of absolute veto over a legislative bill favored by a majority in the House of Commons--the same type of veto which each of the two houses of the United States Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) possesses and frequently exercises over legislative action supported by a majority in the other house. Today, the House of Lords is virtually powerless. Under the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 (statutes that have attained constitutional status), the House of Lords (1) cannot amend or veto a money bill (i.e., a tax or appropria- tions bill) passed by the House of Commons and (2) has only a weak, delaying veto over other types of legislative bills, a veto that the Commons can override without great difficulty. The Commons can override the Lords' amendment or veto of a non-money bill by passing the bill in each of three consecutive sessions of Parliament held during a period of not less than one year

The House of Lords is further limited by the theory of the "mandate," which is now one of the important conventions of the British Constitution. This convention dictates that neither the House of Lords nor the opposition party shall attempt to block passage of a legislative bill relating to a public question on which a clear majority of the voters in the last national election unambiguously expressed themselves.

The Real Governing Power in the British System. Due to the substantially weakened position of the House of Lords in the legislative decisionmaking process, the House of Commons is, for all practical purposes, the British Parliament. In form and theory, Britain's Parliament is still a bicameral legislature consisting of the popularly elected House of Commons and the non-elective, largely hereditary House of Lords, with the two chambers sharing the legislative authority of the Kingdom. In reality, however, the authority to make final decisions on the enactment of statutory legislation is in the hands of a majority of the voters' elected representatives in the Commons. And while the House of Lords continues to function and the British government is still carried on in the name of the Monarch, the power to make and implement decisions on national public policy is exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, supported by a majority in the House of Commons.

Other Contemporary Constitutional Monarchies. The British system of government is not the only constitutional monarchy in the world today. Other examples of present-day constitutional monarchies include the governmental systems of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

2. Constitutional Republic (U.S.A.):

Constitutional Republic--A Definition. A modern constitutional republic is a constitutional, representative democracy characterized by (1) a chief of state chosen by some method of election and (2) a total absence of inherited offices in the government. The system of government is constitutional, representative, and democratic in character because govern- mental power is limited by the Constitution and is exercised by representatives chosen in popular elections in which the bulk of the adult citizenry has or can easily obtain the legal right and opportunity to vote. The widespread electoral suffrage and the exercise of politi- cal authority by elected representatives make the governmental system a representative democracy; the fact that the power of government is limited by a body of fundamental law makes the political regime constitutional; and the elective, non-hereditary office of chief of state and the total absence of inherited offices in the government make the regime republi- can in character.

The Chief of State in a Constitutional Republic. As was indicated in the discussion of constitutional monarchy, the distinction between the two types of modern constitutional democracy, republicanism and limited monarchy, turns primarily on the nature of the office of chief of state and the method by which the office is filled. In a republic, there are no inherited offices in the government, this absence or exclusion of hereditary positions applying to the office of chief of state in particular. A republican chief of state, usually styled "the President," is chosen through the election process. The President, or chief of state, is selected by direct popular vote, by the legislature, by an electoral college, or by some other method of election. Every public office in a republican government is filled by election (direct or indirect) or by appointment according to law, with all law that is not part of the Constitution being made or subject to modification by and with the consent of the people's elected representatives in the legislature. (Statutory law is enacted by and can be changed or repealed by the legislature. While common law is judge-made law, it is subject to modification by legislative statute.)

Republicanism and Titles of Nobility. In a modern republic, hereditary titles of nobility are not recognized by law and are generally forbidden. There can be no chamber of the legislature made up of non-elective seats which, by law or custom, go automatically to persons holding inherited titles of nobility and/or inherited landed estates. There can be no governmental body such as the British House of Lords has been, up until recently.

The U.S.A. as a Constitutional Republic. In the United States of America, the President, who is both the nation's chief of state and the effective head of the executive branch of the national government, is elected by the voters through the medium of the Electoral College. The members of both houses of Congress are chosen in direct popular elections. Pursuant to the relevant provisions of the Federal Constitution, federal judges as well as U.S. am- bassadors to foreign governments and international organizations and other high-ranking officers in the executive branch of the national government are appointed by the President, subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. All other federal officers and employees are appointed or employed in accordance with the relevant statutory laws enacted by Congress. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution denies both the national government and the states the authority to grant titles of nobility and prohibits officers of the national government from accepting such titles from foreign monarchs.

Not only is the U.S. national government a republic, but the governments of the fifty states are also republican in form. The U.S.A. is a federal constitutional republic, composed of one national republic and fifty state republics. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution imposes on the national government the obligation to guarantee to every state in the American federal union a "republican form of government."

Other Contemporary Constitutional Republics. In addition to the U.S.A., examples of constitutional republics in the world today include the Federal Republic of Germany, the Republic of France, the Republic of Italy, the Federal Republic of Austria, the Swiss "Confederation" (Switzerland), the Republic of Ireland, the State of Israel, the Hellenic Republic (Greece), the Republic of Finland, the Republic of Iceland, and the Republic of Costa Rica.

Return to Top of Page

Return to Beginning of PSc. 201H Course


Go to Part Three, Section B,