Why British monarch stays above politics

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Queen dragged into 'Brexit' debate
01:37 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Buckingham Palace dismisses report of Queen backing British exit from EU

Constitutional role of British monarchs is to steer clear of politics

Queen Elizabeth II has political views but never makes them known in public

London CNN  — 

The storm over Queen Elizabeth II’s reported views on the European Union and whether Britain should vote in a referendum to leave the EU cuts to the very heart of royal neutrality.

Palace rejects UK newspaper report that Queen Elizabeth ‘backs Brexit’

The Sun newspaper published a front-page article Wednesday with the headline “Queen backs Brexit,” a term used to describe a potential “British exit” from the EU.

In a dismissive statement about the report, Buckingham Palace said: “The Queen remains politically neutral as she has for 63 years. … The referendum is a matter for the British people to decide.”

What’s monarch’s role?

Ever since her ancestor King Charles I lost his head in 1649 following the English Civil War with Parliament, British monarchs’ constitutional role has gradually distilled to this: representing the whole country – and steering clear of politics.

The abdication crisis of 1936 underlined this reality when it became clear that Parliament would not even allow Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee he loved, and remain king.

So the reason for Buckingham Palace’s frustration is simple: The royal family’s position requires the support of parliamentarians – on either side of the political divide. To support one party – or cause – will only lead to trouble further down the line.

Elizabeth II: Young Queen who grew into a modern monarch

Of course, this is not to say that the Queen has no political views. Several of her prime ministers have recalled the sound political advice she has given in the meetings she holds with them every week – but those words have always remained private.

And while the royal family realizes it can only survive by appearing to be above the political fray – it is far from being politically naive. In 1917, near the end of World War I, the family changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more English-sounding Windsor amid widespread anti-German feeling.

Silence is golden

On rare occasions her thoughts have made it into the public domain. BBC correspondent Frank Gardner revealed in 2012 that the Queen told him she was surprised that radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza was still free. The journalist later apologized for disclosing the monarch’s remarks.

And during the Scottish referendum campaign, Elizabeth told a well-wisher outside a church that she hoped people would “think very carefully about the future.” It was a rare moment of candor for someone well aware that anything she says in public has the potential to be picked up by reporters.

The situation is slightly different with other members of the royal family. Her heir, Prince Charles, is an outspoken supporter of environmental causes and frequently writes letters to government ministers expressing his views. Her husband, Prince Philip, is also famed for his forthright observations and jokes.

Think you know the prince of gaffes? Take our quiz

Royal aides say Prince Charles will cease to express his opinions when he becomes king. Gradually he is being prepared for his future role: With a mother who has prided herself on never putting a foot wrong in public, Charles will realize the truth of the adage that silence is golden.

CNN’s Peter Wilkinson contributed to this report.