The government of the United Kingdom is the responsibility of Parliament – which consists of the Monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The particular relationship which exists between them is enshrined in a constitution – with the result that, in the United Kingdom, we live in what has become known as a ‘Constitutional Monarchy’.
Normally, living under a Monarch would mean living under a ruler possessing absolute right to make and enforce law – although such a power could be delegated with varying degrees of liberty according to the principles of the Monarch. The latter kings of the Stewart dynasty in Scotland, who also ruled over England and Ireland from the union of the crowns in 1606, were passionate advocates of what came to be known as the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ – a belief that the Monarch was God’s representative, with God like authority, on the throne of the nation. However, thanks largely to the influence of the Covenanters of the 17th Century, of whom the Reformed Presbyterians are heirs, we now live under a constitutional monarchy – which means that we are subject to a Monarch whose power is limited by a constitution.
A constitution is a collection of laws which are designed to lay down a permanent basis for government. In a Constitutional Monarchy, the Powers of the Monarch are limited according to the terms of the constitution, which is itself the creation of Parliament – that is, of the Monarch in association with the other bodies possessing legislative power in the land.
Although the Magna Carta in England had struck out in this direction, it is hard for us now, in the 21st century, to appreciate how radical this thinking was when it first began to appear in Scotland. The publication of ‘Lex Rex’ (‘Law is King’) by the covenanter Samuel Rutherford, which argued the case for the law being King rather than the King being the Law (effectively ‘Rex Lex’), was deemed revolutionary and dangerous at the time. The book went on to become a seminal work of political philosophy in both Britain and America, having a considerable role to in the development of constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom and Republicanism in the United States of America.
Along with the Monarch, the British Parliament consists also of the Houses of Lords and Commons. The Lords are appointed to their position in government by the Monarch – on the recommendation of the Prime Minister – while the Commons are elected by all those who are qualified to vote for them in the United Kingdom. Significantly, as we noted above, no-one is allowed into office, in either House, without taking the Oath of Allegiance to the Monarch (more of which later).
As noted above, the constitution is itself the creation of the Parliament. And, while the Monarch retains immense constitutional powers – as we shall see – most people believe that these powers are more apparent than real (more ‘de jure’ than ‘de facto’) and that real sovereignty lies in the Houses of Lords and Commons – and particularly, since the 1911 Act of Parliament, in the House of Commons.
For now, it is enough to note that the government of Britain is in the hands of Parliament – but to note also that that the powers of Parliament, including those of the Monarch, are to be safeguarded by the Monarch herself who, as Head of State and Parliament, is bound to preserve the constitution of the nation by an oath known as the Oath of Coronation (again, more of that later).