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Reserve power

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A reserve power is a power that may be exercised by the head of state of a country in certain exceptional circumstances.

Reserve powers of constitutional monarchs

Heads of state in countries with either an unwritten constitution (e.g., the United Kingdom) or a constitution that consists of a written text augmented by additional conventions, traditions, Letters Patent, etc. (e.g., the Commonwealth of Australia) generally have reserve powers. The head of state can be a monarch or the monarch's representative in a constitutional monarchy.

Typically these powers are:

  1. to appoint a Prime Minister;
  2. to dismiss a Prime Minister;
  3. to refuse to dissolve Parliament;
  4. to force a dissolution of Parliament;
  5. to refuse or delay the Royal Assent to legislation. [1]
  6. Royal Prerogative

There are usually strict conventions concerning when these powers may be used, and these conventions are enforced by public pressure. Using these powers in contravention of tradition would generally provoke a constitutional crisis.

Some political scientists believe that reserve powers are a good thing in that they allow for a government to handle an unforeseen crisis and that the use of convention to limit the use of reserve powers allows for more gradual and subtle constitutional evolution than is possible through formal amendment of a written constitution. Others believe that reserve powers are vestigial and potentially dangerous parts of a constitution.

Reserve powers often originate in situations in which the head of state begins with vast discretionary powers which over time become more difficult to execute in practice without provoking a constitutional crisis. As a society becomes more democratic, conventions and limitations on the power of the head of state become increasingly established and constitutional evolution occurs by establishing conventions rather than by formal amendment of the constitution. As a result, reserve powers often exist in the context of constitutional monarchies.

Within the Commonwealth of Nations until the 1920s, most reserve powers were exercised by a governor-general, on the advice of the British government, normally in the form of written instructions issued to him when he took office. For example, the first Governor-General of the Irish Free State, Tim Healy was instructed by the British Dominions Office in 1922 to withhold the Royal Assent on any Bill passed by the two houses of Oireachtas Éireann (the Irish parliament) that attempted to change or abolish the Oath of Allegiance. However no such Bill was introduced during Healy's period in office (1922-1928). By the time the Oath was abolished, some years later, the Irish Governor-General, like all Commonwealth governors-general, was formally advised exclusively by the Irish government, following a Commonwealth conference decision in 1927 to remove the role of formally advising a governor-general from the British government and give it instead to the national government in each dominion.

In the United Kingdom, The Queen has numerous theoretical "personal prerogatives", but in practice there are no circumstances in modern Britain where these could be justifiably exercised; most of them (save one) have not been exercised for over 100 years. Her Majesty's personal prerogatives are: (a) the appointment of a prime minister. This was last done in 1974 when there was a hung Parliament and The Queen appointed Heath as prime minister; nowadays, political parties elect their own leaders so this removes the possibility that this prerogative might be used. In a hung Parliament as in 1924 and 1974, precedents show that The Queen would send for the leader of the largest (or next-largest) party able to command the support of a majority in the House of Commons; (b) the refusal of a dissolution of Parliament when requested by the Prime Minister. This was last reputedly done in 1910 (but George V later changed his mind), but certainly not within the past 100 years; (c) the dismissal of a Prime Minister and his Government. This was last done in Britain in 1834; (d) the refusal of the Royal Assent, last done in 1708.

It should be noted that The Queen's personal prerogatives are quite distinct from those of her Governors-General; in 1975, the Australian Governor-General dismissed the Government, causing a massive outcry still felt today in the republican movement (The Queen's Private Secretary later admitted The Queen thought Sir John Kerr had acted "prematurely"). Arguably, Sir John Kerr damaged the monarchy in Australia far more and irreparably than The Queen or her family could ever have done.

Reserve powers in republics

Reserve powers can also be written into a republican constitution that separates the offices of Head of State and Head of Government. This was the case in Germany under the Weimar Republic and is still the case in the French Fifth Republic. Reserve powers may include, for instance, the right to issue emergency legislation or regulation bypassing the normal processes.

In most states, the head of state's ability to exercise reserve powers is explicitly defined and regulated by the text of the constitution. In particular, the Basic Law of postwar Germany strictly limits the reserve powers available to the President to prevent the situation in which the executive could effectively rule without legislative approval, which was the case in the Weimar Republic. In particular, he cannot rule by decree and he can only dissolve parliament if the latter fails to support someone as Chancellor.

The abuse of sweeping reserve powers by Adolf Hitler, given to him in the Weimar constitution by the frail and easily influencable President Paul von Hindenburg, has often been cited as an important factor in the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1920s.

The Constitution of the French Fifth Republic allows the President of France to dissolve the French National Assembly (and thus calling for new legislative elections), and, more strikingly, the possibility of exercing exceptional powers (article 16): that is, take measures of a regulatory or legislative nature outside of the normal procedures. This last possibility has only been exerced once, in 1961, during a crisis related to the Algerian war of independence. In 1962, the Conseil d'État ruled itself incompetent to judge measures of a legislative nature issued by the president under article 16; however, the Constitutional Council must be consulted on such measures. Critics of this disposition allege that it potentially allows for dictatorial rule by decree.


[1] To withhold the Royal Assent amounts to a veto of a Bill. To reserve the Royal Assent in effect amounts to a decision neither to grant or refuse a dissolution, but to delay taking a decision for an undetermined period of time.

Last updated: 05-07-2005 09:23:38
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04