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Who Rules?

Constitutional monarchy

While parliaments were disappearing on the continent of Europe, the English parliament survived and triumphed over the king. The decisive battles took place in the seventeenth century when the Stuarts were the royal house. Charles I was executed by parliament (or a part of the parliament) in 1649 and his son James II was sent into exile in 1688. Then parliament’s place was guaranteed and monarchs were subject to its control. They became constitutional monarchs.

In 1603 when James I, the first Stuart, came to the throne, parliament was a settled part of the governmental system, but not yet a necessary part.
Kings and parliament

Parliament passed laws, but the king in his council of ministers could also pass laws. Parliament approved the land tax, but other taxes and the old feudal dues from the great landowners could be raised by the king alone. There was no question that the king could choose when to call parliament and when to dismiss it. There was no law that parliament had to be called. The king had complete freedom in choosing his ministers. The rights of the crown were still very extensive; the laws and customs of the realm gave parliament its place, but how much power each had and how conflict between the two was to be resolved was not clear.

James I and his son Charles I were both regularly at loggerheads with their parliaments. The constant matter in dispute was money. The costs of government were rising, but parliament was reluctant to agree to extra taxation. The tax-take was also threatened by self-assessment: landowners themselves valued their land for tax purposes. When the kings pressed for more money, the House of Commons demanded in return changes to royal policy. The king became incensed, dismissed the parliament and raised money by other means. This in turn alarmed the parliamentarians for if ever the king could raise enough money outside parliament, its days would be numbered. As the parliament pushed its claims, the kings more stridently proclaimed their royal rights.
James I

Sadly James I’s physical appearance did not match his royal claims. He was something of a slob who disgusted those he should have impressed. He was also highly intelligent, the most learned of the English kings, who commissioned the translation of the Bible which bears his name.

His son Charles was very different. Not as clever as his father, he was more principled and determined. He took his duties very seriously, was a devoted family man and, highly unusual in a king, faithful to his wife.
Charles I

Charles made matters worse for himself by imposing a new church policy on his people. England had been for almost a hundred years a Protestant country. Charles pushed the Church of England in what we would call today a ‘high church’ direction – that is, closer to the teaching and worship of the Catholic church. The King wanted ministers to wear robes, for worshippers to bow at the name of Jesus, and for the communion table to be raised into an altar.

All this disturbed good Protestants. The radical Protestants, the Puritans, who already thought the Church of England was too ‘popish’, feared the King’s secret agenda was to make England Catholic again. There were other disturbing signs. The Queen was Catholic and was allowed to have priests celebrate mass at court. After a hundred years’ lapse, Charles had accepted a papal ambassador at his court.

The charge of being soft on Catholicism was a disaster for an English king. Catholicism was not only a dreadful superstition in Protestant eyes; to English patriots it was associated with foreign conspiracies, rule from Rome, and continental tyranny, for the great absolute states of Europe, France and Spain, were Catholic. At crucial moments in their conflict with the King, the parliamentary leaders were able to whip up an anti-Catholic frenzy. When men believed their faith was at stake, they were prepared to go to extremes.

Charles came to the throne in 1625. In the first four years of his rule, he called three separate parliaments, all of which ended in acrimony. In 1629 when Charles sent word to dissolve parliament, the leaders of the House of Commons refused to go quietly. The Speaker of the House, who was then appointed by the King, rose to close proceedings. The parliamentarians pushed him back into his chair and held him down while they passed motions condemning Charles’s church policy and the raising of taxes without parliamentary approval.
Charles versus parliament

Charles then determined to rule without parliament. He had accordingly to become more inventive in his money raising. By ancient custom counties along the coast were taxed to raise money for the navy. Charles levied ‘ship money’ on the whole country, arguing reasonably enough that everyone benefited from naval defence. Most taxpayers complied, but John Hampden, a country landowner and a leader in the parliamentary opposition, refused to pay. He said the King’s wish did not make it lawful. Earlier he had gone to gaol rather than agree to a forced loan which was another of Charles’s moneyraising methods. The case came to court where, by a narrow margin, the judges declared ship money was legal. Hampden for a second time went to prison. This turned out to be a defeat for Charles because once ship money was legal the tax became more offensive. Payments fell away and it had to be abandoned.
Ruling without parliament

Charles was so principled that, not content with forcing his church policy on Protestant England, he must force it on Presbyterian Scotland as well. There was a riot in the chief church in Edinburgh when the new service was first performed. The Scots took a ‘solemn league and covenant’ against this blasphemy and invaded England. Charles had no alternative but to call parliament to raise the funds to repel them. It met in November 1640.

The whole parliament was against him. His church policy was condemned and all the devices he had used to raise money were declared illegal. Charles had to yield on all these matters because he had no choice. He also had to agree to the execution of his chief minister and the arrest of the archbishop who had masterminded the imposition of the church policy.
Parliament controls Charles

A constitutional monarch in the Australian Parliament
A constitutional monarch in the Australian Parliament, 1954: Queen Elizabeth II addresses the members of both houses in the Senate because the monarch does not enter the people’s or lower chamber.

Courtesy National Library of Australia

The chief grievances had now been removed, but how was England to be governed in the future? The parliamentary leaders did not trust Charles and rightfully feared that if he ever got the upper hand again they would be dead men. Though they proclaimed they were defending the ancient constitution, they proposed something new: in future the king could no longer choose his ministers; he should appoint only ministers approved by parliament. They put this demand in a Grand Remonstrance which listed all Charles’s offences. The offences were blamed not on him – for the king could still not be directly criticised – but on his ‘popish’ advisers.

They had now gone too far. More and more members of parliament feared the parliamentary leaders were bent on dangerous innovations: they did not want to see a hobbled king and feared that the Church of England would be stripped of its bishops and turned into a Puritan affair. The King now had a party in parliament.

Perhaps encouraged by this, Charles planned a coup which he hoped would put an end to his troubles. With 400 armed men he invaded the House of Commons to arrest the five parliamentary leaders. Even then he was breaking a taboo: the House of Commons was in charge of its space and the King had no right to be there. The rule that monarchs and their representatives do not enter the lower house of parliament still holds today; they go to the upper house and request the members of the lower house to join them.
Charles’s counter coup

Success may have excused Charles’s offence, but the parliamentary leaders had been tipped off and had escaped. Charles demanded that the Speaker tell him where they were, but the Speaker was no longer the King’s servant. He replied that ‘he had neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the house shall direct me’.

Charles’s attempt was further proof to the parliamentary leaders that he could not be trusted. They began to raise military forces without the King’s permission. The King withdrew from London to Nottingham and summoned loyal subjects to fight for him. The civil war began. It was an odd contest. The two parties were not fighting because they had fundamentally different ideals. Both declared that the government should consist of King, Lords and Commons. The parliamentary leaders did not envisage a government without a King, but they could not trust Charles. The King accepted that there should be a parliament, but he could not work with the parliamentarians who had so savagely harassed him.
The issues

The King lost the civil war, but ‘parliament’ did not win it. When the war began almost half the parliament was with the King. The parliamentarians who fought the King soon fell out amongst themselves and power passed to the army they had created and to its leader, Oliver Cromwell. It was he who determined that the King must be tried and executed. He drove out of the much reduced House of Commons those members who were opposed to this. Only 90 of the 500 elected in 1640 were left to endorse it. The King met his end nobly; he refused to acknowledge the legality of the court which tried him and was calm and composed as he knelt down to be beheaded.
Civil war

Cromwell then ruled as military dictator. He attempted to rule with parliaments, but like James and Charles he always quarrelled with them and sent them packing. Cromwell and his followers were strict Puritans so that at the end of all its troubles England had to endure a wowser dictatorship. Charles had offended the Puritans by recommending dancing after church; Cromwell now offended London by closing its theatres.
Cromwell’s rule

After Cromwell died, one of his generals took charge and, sensing the national mood, called a new parliament to invite Charles’s son to return from exile and claim the throne. No new constitutional arrangements were made or promises extracted from Charles II. The parliament had simply declared that ‘according to the ancient and fundamental laws of this kingdom the government is and ought to be bold formula. Briefly a formula which was totally unacceptable had emerged.
The restoration of Charles II

When the civil war was over Cromwell’s common soldiers had joined in the debate about how England should be governed. A group of ‘Levellers’ argued that all men should be allowed to vote. Cromwell and his officers soon put them right: government existed to protect property, which is what the leaders of both sides in the war believed.
The Levellers

The battles between king and parliament soon resumed and continued throughout the reign of Charles II and his brother James II, who succeeded him. The quarrel no longer centred on money. All that Charles I had agreed to before the civil war remained law, so the prohibition on raising taxes outside parliament stood. Charles II simply bypassed parliamentary control of finance by receiving secret payments from Louis XIV, the great absolute monarch of France.
Kings and parliament

Religion continued to be the divisive issue. The Church of England, abolished during the civil war, was re-established on Charles’s return. Those who refused to be members of it were denied freedom of worship and were prohibited from holding public office. This affected both the radical Protestants, for whom the Church of England was not Protestant enough, and the Catholics who, of course, could never join a Protestant body. Charles and James were both sympathetic to Catholicism. Charles declared on his deathbed that he was a Catholic; James was open about his conversion to Catholicism. Charles got his money from Louis XIV on condition that he support the French against the Protestant Dutch and promote Catholicism in England.
Protestantism in danger

Charles’s method of supporting Catholics was, by use of his royal power, to suspend the laws on religious discrimination. This gave relief to radical Protestants as well as Catholics, but Charles was mistaken in thinking that the Protestants would rally to his support. They did not want their freedom if it meant freedom for Catholics. A wave of anti-Catholic feeling swept over the country and parliament declared that the king had no power to suspend laws. Charles bowed before the storm and removed his Catholic brother James from his position as Lord High Admiral in the navy.

But the man ineligible for a government job was to be the next king. Charles had plenty of illegitimate children by his mistresses, but his Queen had no children. During the last years of his reign, parliament tried repeatedly to pass a law to exclude James from the throne. Whenever they took the matter up, Charles dismissed them. On this issue two parties formed, one of which still exists. The Whigs were those wanting to exclude James; the Tories (today’s conservatives in Britain) protected James, not because they favoured him necessarily but because they didn’t think that subjects should choose

y king, lords and commons’ – and had left undefined the relationship between them. So the turmoil and disputes of the civil war and Cromwell’s rule had produced no acceptable alternative to the their king. They were prepared to accept even a Catholic king rather than risk the turmoil of another civil war.

When he became king, James was totally undeterred by all the controversy he had caused. He proceeded openly to favour Catholics and put them in official positions of influence. After carefully choosing the judges, he obtained a court verdict that the king could suspend the laws. The most frightening thing he did (along with his wife) was to produce a male heir. By his first wife James had two daughters, Mary and Anne, who were Protestants, as he was when they were born. Now his second wife had given James a son who would take precedence over his half-sisters. England faced the prospect of a line of Catholic monarchs.
James II

This was too much even for the Tories. Parliamentary leaders of both parties committed an act of treason. They invited William, the Protestant King of Holland, to invade the country. William was married to James’s daughter Mary and was himself a grandson of Charles I.
Glorious Revolution 1688

When William and his army landed, support for James melted away. The commander of his army, waiting for the right moment, went over to the other side. James fled to France, which allowed parliament to declare that the throne was vacant. It invited William and Mary to be joint king and queen. England had chosen its monarch! This time there was a written agreement about the monarch’s powers, a document known as the Bill of Rights. It declared that the king had no power to suspend the laws parliament made, that only parliament could impose taxation, and that it must meet regularly. All subjects were to have the right to a fair trial and the right to petition the monarch. This settlement, achieved finally so easily and without bloodshed, acquired the name the Glorious Revolution.
The Bill of Rights

The new arrangement was the first liberal system of government. It limited the power of the king, who could only rule through parliament, and it granted subjects some basic rights. It was not a democratic system. Only property holders voted for parliament, which was made up of the great landowners. Ordinary people enjoyed the civic right to a fair trial; the only political right they had was to petition the king.
A liberal system of government

The parliamentarians who set up this system did not think of themselves as liberals; liberalism as a doctrine developed later in the eighteenth century. They were backward-looking revolutionaries who always declared they were only struggling for their ancient rights and liberties. In one sense Charles II and James II were better liberals than their parliamentary opponents because they did not want to deprive people of their rights on account of their religion. What drove the parliamentarians to their furious attacks on the Stuart kings was the desire to protect the Protestant religion and to stamp out

Catholicism. Out of this illiberalism came a liberal system of government. To preserve it, the parliamentarians declared in the Bill of Rights that in future no English monarch could be a Catholic. That provision still stands and applies to the monarch of Australia as well.

The Bill of Rights did not reduce monarchs to figureheads. They could still choose their own ministers and shape government policy. However, since ministers could only govern if they were acceptable to parliament, which controlled the money, gradually the balance between king and parliament shifted. Parliament chose the ministers and the king had to accept them and act on their advice. This is the system of government in Australia today. It is called the Westminster system because Westminster in London is where the British parliament sits.
The Westminster system

The powers of the monarch as head of the government were never formally taken away. It is only by convention that the monarch acts on advice of ministers. If you read our Commonwealth constitution literally, you will gain a totally wrong impression of how our government works. The monarch still appears as head of the government and there is no provision that the governor-general (the monarch’s deputy) has to act on the advice of ministers. That happens because of the conventions of the Westminster system.

Some democratic reformers argue that when power was in effect taken from the monarch, some of it ended up in the wrong place. The prime minister is the new monarch! The prime minister and ministers can use the monarch’s old power to declare war and enter into treaties. They may consult parliament on these matters, but they are not obliged to. The reformers want to make this an obligation.
Is the prime minister the new monarch?

The signing of treaties has become controversial in Australia. Treaties now deal with a huge range of matters, not simply peace settlements and trade agreements. By signing an international treaty on, say, the environment, the Commonwealth government acquires the power to pass laws on the subject even though the constitution had left the matter to the States.

The monarch and those acting in place of the monarch have not lost all power. The so-called reserve powers remain. They are the powers which allow the head of state to be an umpire in times of crisis and the ultimate protector of the constitution. They are not defined in law and there is some dispute over their extent. One power that is agreed on is the right of the monarch to dismiss a government that is acting illegally or unconstitutionally. The monarch remains the guardian of the Westminster system.
Reserve powers

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