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For Educators

Teacher Resources: Forms of Government — Constitutional Monarchy

The fourth episode of "Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work" follows Queen Elizabeth II as she performs some of her official duties as Head of State of the United Kingdom. The program provides a dramatic illustration of Britain's constitutional monarchy and the important role the Queen plays in Her Majesty's government.

Below you will find resources from the program that teachers can use as a starting point for discussions about the constitutional monarchy form of government and the key differences between the political systems of the United States and the United Kingdom.

How to use these resources in the Classroom:

Step 1: Introduce the topic of constitutional monarchy

Talking Points:

  • Constitutional monarchy (also known as limited monarchy) is a form of government in which an elected or hereditary monarch acts as Head of State.
  • Unlike an absolute monarchy, where the king or queen is the sole source of power, in a constitutional monarchy the monarch's power is limited and shared with other parts of the government.
  • The best-known example of constitutional monarchy is in the United Kingdom where Queen Elizabeth II acts as Head of State while an elected Parliament holds the power to make and pass laws.
  • Characteristics of the British Parliamentary system:
    • Parliament is the supreme legislative body of the government with the power to make and pass laws. It is bicameral, with an upper house (the House of Lords who are generally appointed) and a lower house (the House of Commons who are publicly elected).
    • The Prime Minister and Cabinet hold the executive power in the government and make the decisions about how the government is run. The Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers are also elected members of Parliament. The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister chooses the Cabinet, usually from his or her own party.
    • As Head of State, the Sovereign (Queen Elizabeth) is considered the official head of the government. She retains an important (although symbolic) political role in the country, formally appointing prime ministers, approving certain legislation and bestowing honors.
  • The power of the monarch in the modern British system is mostly symbolic and ceremonial, summed up by the saying, "the Queen reigns but she does not rule." In other words, as a constitutional monarch, the Queen plays an important role in the government, but does not have any real power. She cannot make or pass legislation and must remain politically neutral. As Head of State, she performs many official duties but almost always acts on the advice of her elected ministers.
  • Britain's constitutional monarchy developed over a long period of time. Until the end of the seventeenth century, British monarchs had the right to make and pass legislation. Over time, the powers of the monarch were limited, both by laws enacted by Parliament and by changing political practices and customs. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the day-to-day exercise of political power was gradually taken over by Parliament, the Prime Minister and the cabinet eventually developing into a modern constitutional monarchy.

Step 2: Watch the Video Clip

These two video clips will describe for students the annual State Opening of Parliament, marking the beginning of the British political season. In this dramatic ceremony, all of the important elements of the British constitution gather to illustrate their respective roles in the government. Here are the key elements of the ceremony:

  • In grand style, the Monarch comes to Parliament to deliver a speech from her throne in the House of Lords.
  • As the House of Lords assembles, the Queen sends her messenger, known as Black Rod, to the House of Commons to summon the elected representatives to the House of Lords to hear her speech.
  • In a symbol of the Commons' independence, the door to their Chamber is slammed in Black Rod's face and not opened until he has knocked on the door with his staff of office.
  • The Commons assemble in the House of Lords to hear the Queen's speech outlining her Government's plans for the coming year. Although the Queen delivers the speech, the content is entirely written by the Government and approved by the Cabinet.

The purpose of all this pomp and circumstance is to show that although Parliament gets its authority from the Queen, the elected Government is in charge. The State Opening is not a celebration of Royal Power but of a constitutional compromise which allows the Monarch to sit on the throne and an elected Government to rule.

Step 3: Take the Constitutional Monarchy quiz with your class

crownQuiz: Constitutional Monarchy
Does the Queen reign or rule? Test your knowledge.

Step 4: Classroom discussion questions

What are some of the key similarities and differences between constitutional republics (such as the U.S. system) and constitutional monarchies (such as the British system)?

Why do you think the United Kingdom has kept the monarchy? What benefits does the institution bring to the country?

What did you think of the political ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament? Do you think such elaborate rituals serve a practical purpose?

Do we have similar political ceremonies in the United States? How do they symbolize and illustrate our political system?