What Is a Constitutional Monarchy?

Ben O'Neill

A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a hereditary or elected monarch acts as the sole head of state but is restricted by a constitution rather than having unlimited power, as would be the case in an absolute monarchy. In a constitutional monarchy, the constitution sets the parameters of the monarch's power and dictates what he or she is permitted to do. Many modern constitutional monarchies, also called limited monarchies, also have elected parliaments or congresses and might have other officials, such as prime ministers, who act as the heads of government. This type of constitutional monarchy often makes the powers of the monarch mostly ceremonial, because although he or she might officially pass laws, make declarations or perform other executive duties, the monarch often is bound by the constitution to do so only with the approval of other officials, such as the prime minister and parliament.

Most modern constitutional monarchies follow the model of government established by the United Kingdom.
Most modern constitutional monarchies follow the model of government established by the United Kingdom.

History and Practice

One of the first instances of a true constitutional monarchy was the result of Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. The revolution, enacted by a group of discontent members of the parliament, led to the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Act of Settlement laws, both of which placed direct limitations on the power wielded by the monarch. Both the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement still remained in effect in the United Kingdom in the early 21st century.

Most modern constitutional monarchies follow the model of government established by the United Kingdom. Although these countries' monarchs retain the titular roles, parliaments that have been democratically elected and are led by a prime minister possess and exert the vast majority of actual power, including the ability to make and pass legislation. Depending on the constitution in place, a country's monarch might hold certain reserve powers, such as veto power, but in most cases, the monarch's role has become one of primarily symbolic importance.

Not every constitutional monarchy has followed the British example, however. In Germany's constitutional monarchy created in 1871, the head of state, called the kaiser, continued to wield a great deal of executive influence, including the power to declare war and to appoint the head of the government, the chancellor. Although it was active for almost 50 years, this form of a constitutional monarchy fell largely out of favor after Germany's defeat in World War I.

An Influential Figure

In many countries where constitutional monarchies exist, a great deal of attention is given to the actions of the monarch, even if his or her power is significantly limited. Although many of these rulers choose to remain politically neutral, controversy can arise when a monarch directly involves himself or herself in deciding political matters. Even if his or her actual political power might be limited, the monarch typically remains a figure of great influence.

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