Monday, November 09, 2020

Questions of constitution


Questions of constitutions.


I invited you to send me questions by email and someone sent me a question about constitutional monarchies, parliamentary democracies and anglophone countries. Thank you to them.

They pointed out that some of the expressions used can be a little confusing – what is the difference between a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, and which epithets apply best to which countries?


A constitutional monarchy is a state which has a king or queen, but in which their powers are limited to what is written in a constitution or accepted in an unwritten constitution. This is more or less in distinction with an absolute monarchy. In Britain, before the English Revolution (or as some people call it, the English civil war), the king could impose some taxes on his own initiative, dissolve parliament and rule without it if it suited him, and so on. This was one of the reasons behind the civil war in England, which opposed parliament and king (note that at this time parliament did not represent democracy, which was still considered an extreme idea – parliament was elected by rich people only).

After the republic under Cromwell, the son of the executed king was asked to come back and be king again. However, as one scholar has said « what has been written by the sword cannot be undone by the pen » and so the king came back under very different conditions. He could no longer rule without parliament, and shortly afterwards it was enacted that parliament should decide how much money he received – paying him a salary in effect. This was now a constitutional monarchy, and the fact that the constitution was not a single written document did not change much.

All the countries which Elizabeth is queen of today (including Australia, Canada and New Zealand) are of course constitutional monarchies, as are Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands etc.

 The expression « parliamentary democracy » refers to the fact that the parliament is at the centre of decision making (it may be a bicameral or a monocameral parliament). So, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and many more are parliamentary democracies. In general the head of state in a parliamentary democracy has mostly a symbolic role. The centre of power is the Prime Minister, responsible at least in theory to parliament.

Other democracies like France or the USA are presidential systems. The parliament is important, but the most important decision maker is the president. In these countries the head of state is not a symbolic role.

You will find here an explanation of Britain's unwritten constitution


And here a recent argument about the subject


Send me by email other questions you have!

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