The famous saying that in the United Kingdom the Monarch reigns but does not rule is a fundamental principle of the country's parliamentary system of government. All Throne Speeches delivered with such pomp and circumstance by the Queen at the start of every Parliament are written for her by her Prime Minister. The Royals do not pronounce themselves on political matters and stay entirely above the fray - that at least is the theory. In practice we know that the Queen’s regular meetings with her Prime Ministers - going back to Winston Churchill in the early 1950s and all the way to David Cameron today - are more than just courtesy calls by the Head of Government to the Head of State. Although these discussions always remain private and never commented on, it is well-known that the Queen in her own inimitable way knows how to put across in a careful manner her opinions and her positions in the most important matters facing what is after all Her Government. Not all members of the Royal Family are as careful as she is. Prince Charles' voluminous correspondence with Parliament cabinet members has been disclosed recently as evidence of his determination to shape and influence government policies on issues that matter to him most.
Although the Queen and the Royal Family have made every attempt not to become enmeshed in the fiery debate surrounding the upcoming Brexit referendum this has not always been possible, as the media has tried to drag them in at all costs. For example, the Queen was on a commemorative visit to Germany in June 2015 and was attending a state banquet given by German president Joachim Glauck. The German President mentioned in his banquet speech that the EU was facing "major challenges" and that "an effective European Union" was "based on a stable foundation of shared values":
"A constructive dialogue on the reforms Britain wants to see is therefore essential… As a good partner, Germany will support this dialogue. For Britain is part of Europe. The European Union needs Britain. A united Europe, a strong European Union, represent stability, peace and freedom - for us all."
In reply the British Monarch drew upon her own personal experience in the Second World War and the tense decades thereafter to set out her vision of the need for cooperation between European nations in order to maintain peace and stability on the continent. She stated that:
"In our lives, we have seen the worst but also the best of our continent. We have witnessed how quickly things can change for the better. But we know that we must work hard to maintain the benefits of the post-war world. We know that division in Europe is dangerous and that we must guard against it in the west, as well as in the east, of our continent. That remains a common endeavour."
These comments were immediately interpreted by both supporters of the ‘stay in’ and ‘leave’ options of the Brexit referendum as an endorsement by the Queen of Britain's continuing membership in the EU - which of course Buckingham Palace immediately denied in the strongest terms. This incident showed how sensitive the Brexit topic is with all sides involved and how even a subtle hint by the Queen that she might favor one side over the other is seen as a potentially important gesture that may well tip the balance one way or the other. The Queen herself of course was not amused by these attempts to involve her comments on a state visit to Germany in a fiery internal political debate and she made her displeasure known in no uncertain terms.
More recently Prince William the Duke of Cambridge also became embroiled in a similar controversy when in December 2016 he delivered some remarks at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to members of Britain's Diplomatic Academy. In his speech he stated that:
“For centuries, Britain has been an outward looking nation. Hemmed in by sea, we have always sought to explore what is beyond the horizon. That sense of mission and curiosity is something that I know continues to drive our economy, our cultural and educational exports and our Armed Forces and Diplomatic Service. And wherever we go, we have a long and proud tradition of seeking out allies and partners. In an increasingly turbulent world, our ability to unite in common action with other nations is essential. It is the bedrock of our security and prosperity and is central to your work. Right now, the big questions with which you wrestle – in the UN, NATO, the Middle East and elsewhere – are predicated on your commitment to working in partnership with others.”
As expected again both the ‘stay in’ and ‘leave’ sides in the Brexit referendum debate attempted to portray the Prince’s words as proof of his support for Britain's continuing membership in the EU. The Prince of course denied any intention on his part of doing so and chastised those were attempting to use his remarks to the Diplomatic Academy and his efforts to put its work in a historical perspective as anything else but what they were. Here again the very fact that both sides attempted to either appropriate the Prince’s words or to criticize and paint them as apparently dabbling into a highly controversial political debate as proof of the enduring importance of the Royal Family in British public life and of the critical role their words could play if interpreted as supporting one side or the other in the Brexit referendum.
So just what do the Queen and Prince William really think about the UK’s continued membership in the EU? We may as well engage in various types of speculation and assume that given their experiences and interactions with fellow European Heads of State and of Government they may both have formed clear preferences one way or the other. Of course we will not know anytime soon what these actually are and therefore we will have to rely on our own interpretation of the more general comments featured in official speeches such as those quoted above to decide what these positions may be. In any case each of us should sleep soundly knowing that our own opinion and position on the Brexit referendum has a greater practical importance than that of either the Queen or Prince William since we all have both a voice to persuade others of our point of view and a vote to participate in what will undoubtedly turn out to be the most consequential decision we in Britain will have to make about our future, the future of our country, and that of our continent.