The British Monarch vs. the American President and the power to veto parliamentary/congressional legislation
A speculation about why the British Monarch ALWAYS signs parliamentary bills into law while the American president occasionally vetoes congressional bills.
- The English/Scottish Monarch and the Royal Assent
- The United States Constitution and the powers of the President and Congress
- The foundation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the decline of royal power
- The 20th Century
- Towards a unicameral, Commons-only UK Parliament
- Toward devolution/Independence in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland
- The future Charles III and William V
The English/Scottish Monarch and the Royal Assent
While the ruling sovereign in pre-United Kingdom England and Scotland at first were absolute monarchs, but later ceded legislative powers to the English and Scottish parliaments. Nevertheless, all parliamentary bills in both Scotland and England had to be approved by the ruling king (or queen), in what was called the royal assent.
After England and Scotland in the 17th Century shared the same monarch but retained separate parliaments, the royal assent was still required for parliamentary acts to become law. Of course, the English Civil War of 1641-1649 and the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in England were still the result of fighting over royal and parliamentary authority. These events limited the authority of the English ruler.
The United States Constitution and the powers of the President and Congress
The so-called Founding Fathers who won independence for the United States of America and later wrote the American Constitution vested the legislative powers in an elected Congress composed of a House of Representatives and a Senate, and executive powers in an elected President.
It can be assumed the bicameral structure of Congress was patterned after the bicameral structure of the British Parliament (composed of it's elected House of Commons and aristocratic House of Lords).
The American Founding fathers gave the American President the power to refuse to sign bills passed by congress (called the veto). The presidential power to veto congressional legislation was probably patterned after the power of the British monarch to refuse the royal assent to parliamentary bills.
The first US President to veto a congressional bill was Thomas Jefferson in 1802, that involved a proposed federal law involving bankruptcies. Another notable presidential veto of congressional legislation took place in 1832, when Andrew Jackson vetoed a bill rechartering the Bank of the United States
The foundation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the decline of royal power
The United Kingdom, commonly called Great Britain or simply Britain, was founded in 1707 by the merger of England and Scotland into a single kingdom with a common parliament. Queen Anne, the last ruler of pre-UK England and Scotland and the first sovereign of the United Kingdom, in 1708 vetoed the Scottish Militia Act. That was the only time the ruler withheld the royal assent for any parliamentary bill after the formation of the United Kingdom, although virtually all the rulers of the UK had the THEORETICAL power to veto parliamentary acts.
During the 18th Century, the kings of the UK usually deferred to the Parliament in the selection of prime ministers and other members of the cabinet, and generally deferred to the wishes of Parliament by signing virtually ALL bills passed by the two parliamentary houses.
A large part of the reason could be that the first four Kings George and William IV was not only the rulers of the UK, but also monarchs of the German state of Hanover. After all, it was a tremendous burden to manage the affairs of both the United Kingdom and the kingdom of Hanover. This lasted from 1714 to 1837.
In the case of Queen Victoria, who ruled the UK (but not Hanover) from 1837 until her death in 1901, the reason why Victoria never vetoed a parliamentary bill by withholding the royal assent was the fact that she remained a largely depressed woman and sovereign after the death of her husband in 1861. She thereafter was mostly a private figure, and therefore deferred to the wishes of Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the cabinet.
There were certain potential exceptions: George III and Goerge IV threatented to veto bills regarding the emancipation of British Catholics and the closer regulation of the East India Tea Company. George III's threats to withhold the royal assent forced the members of Parliament to drop the Catholic emancipation and tea company bills, though George IV did reluctantly sign a bill passed by Parliament giving civil rights to Roman Catholics.
The 20th Century
By the 20th Century, it was established custom in the United States that the President would at least occasionally veto legislation passed by Congress while in Great Britain the ruling monarch always signed parliamentary legislation into law.
The last time a UK sovereign SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED vetoing a bill passed by the UK Parliament was George V in 1914, when he considered withholding the royal assent from a bill granting more self-government to Ireland. Goerge eventually signed the bill.
Yet, during this century, there were potential trends that could eventually cause a ruler of the United Kingdom to veto legislation by withholding the royal assent.
Towards a unicameral, Commons-only UK Parliament
The House of Lords had by the 20th Century assumed a dwindling authority to check the increasingly powerful House of Commons. The Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949 prevented the Lords from seriously blocking money bills passed by the Commons and also stipulated that any non-money bill passed by the Commons but rejected by the Lords two years in a row could DIRECTLY be sent to the sovereign for royal assent.
Moreover, in 2009 was established the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, totally stripping away the judicial powers of the House of Lords.
Furthermore, the British Labor Party leaders (whose party has largely replaced the Liberals/Whigs as leading rivals to the Tories/Conservatives) have at times advocated the TOTAL ABOLITION of the House of Lords.
If Britain gained a single-house, Commons-only Parliament, it must be assumed that unlike the United States, the United Kingdom lacks a written constitution. The only real check on the powers of a Commons-only Parliament would be the power of the ruler to withhold the royal assent.
The only question is if Queen Elizabeth II or a future UK monarch would actually sign a bill completely abolishing the House of Lords. If the royal assent WAS granted to a bill establishing a Commons-only Parliament, that means the potential to veto parliamentary bills by withholding the royal assent would far more likely to become reality.
Toward devolution/Independence in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland
Not only does Britain have the central UK Parliament, but there are also elected, regional parliaments in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Therefore, these three regions, while part of the UK, also have a degree of regional autonomy. Like the UK Parliament, bills passed by these three regional parliaments are required to receive the royal assent of the UK sovereign, although royal assent is routinely granted.
In the case of Northern Ireland, thanks to a 1998 political settlement, there is virtually no chance of Northern Ireland becoming independent of the United Kingdom (and therefore as a result become part of the Republic of Ireland).
In Scotland and Wales, the chances of becoming independent of the UK is greater, thanks to the parties of Scottish and Welsh nationalists. The Scottish and Welsh parliaments, unlike the UK parliament, are unicameral, single-house bodies. There is a question whether an independent Scotland and Wales would ever have written constitutions to restrict the authority of their current regional, potentially national-independent legislatures.
What's most likely in such a scenario with an independent Scotland and Wales (and a truncated UK reduced to England and Northern Ireland) is the UK sovereign as monarch of independent Wales, independent Scotland, and a smaller United Kingdom and the ability to grant (or withhold) royal assent to the bills passed by the elected legislatures of all three nations.
There is also the question of whether Queen Elizabeth II or a future UK ruler would sign any bill passed by the UK parliament granting independence to Wales or Scotland.
The future Charles III and William V
What about Prince Charles, son of Elizabeth II? How would he react when his mother dies and he assumes the throne as King Charles III, with the issues of a Commons-only Parliament or Scottish and Welsh independence? Would he sign bills passed by the United Kingdom Parliament abolishing the House of Lords or establishing Scotland and Wales as independent nations (albiet with him still as Scottish and Welsh king and the ability to grant or withhold assent to bills passed by the parliaments of an independent Scotland and Wales)?
In my opinion, King Charles would veto any bill abolishing the House of Lords, but would still sign bills granting independence to Scotland and Wales.
The current Prince Charles son Prince William, when HE assumes the UK throne (if not the throne of an independent Scotland and Wales), since as William V is not that much of a traditionalist, likely would sign bills passed by the UK Parliament granting independence to Scotland and Wales and establishing a Commons-only Parliament for a United Kingdom reduced to England and Northern Ireland.
Therefore, as a result, Britain will now be composed of three independent nations (Scotland, Wales, and a truncated UK) with separate elected legislatures but a common monarchy. However, since these three nations would lack written constitutions, they would still rely on their sovereign's royal assent power to prevent the excesses of professional politicians.
Finally, there might be a British monarch with the same willingness to veto legislation like a President of the United States of America.