Can members of the British royal family run for political office?

I was just thinking about how it might be a little akward if (by a very long stretch of the immagination) Charles managed to become both King and Prime Minister. Has such a thing happened before? Are there any rules or traditions to prevent it?

Well, the last King of the U.K. to attempt to wield real political power was George III, and almost everybody knows how that turned out. (BTW, Charles is known to have studied carefully the political career of George III and to have critiqued The Role of a Citizen King while at college.)

That said, if Charles were to demonstrate a real gift for political leadership and to publicly espouse programs that had widespread public support, there’s enough power left in the royal prerogative to enable him to take a real leadership role. (Given the man himself, that’s about as likely as Britney Spears coming up with a solution to our economic problems and being elected President.) So he would not need to be Prime Minister because he could accomplish his political goals by acting as King. (The stuff in the prerogative is done on the “advice” – polite for “instructions” – of his elected ministers, in real life.)

However, there’s a difference between the monarch and the rest of the Royal Family, who are subjects governed by law the same as the rest of the Brits. They are themselves part of the nobility, who were up until recently entitled to seat, vote, and voice in the House of Lords – though customarily they only did this pro forma, making one speech and casting a few votes to prove their eligiblity to do so, then abstaining from controversial measures as a matter of expedience – “the Crown is above politics.” However, with the new electoral Lords, there is no real reason why they might not run for one of the elective seats in the Lords – though how effective, given their courtesy abstention from anything controversial, they might be, is a quite different question.

Outside Britain, it’s interesting to note that, while there have been cases ranging from Napoleon to Zog to Henri Boukassa, of Prime Ministers who assumed the throne, there’s one interesting case of an ex-King becoming Prime Minister – the head of Bulgaria’s government is the man who succeeded to the throne as a child back during World War II, and was King until deposed by the Communist takeover just after the war. And he apparently has a great deal of popular support (as did his father, a very wise monarch as monarchs go, prior to WWII).

Napoleon never was prime minister. After his coup, he apointed himself as “first consul of the republic”, but it was just a fancy word for “dictator”, and anyway had nothing to do with a prime minister. Napoleon III was elected president before his coup, but stil not prime minister.
And I’m not absolutely sure, but I don’t think Bokassa (I assume you’re refering to him, though his name wasn’t “henri”) was ever prime minister, either. He was the head of the Centrafrican army and simply orchestrated a military coup, AFAIK.

  • Has such a thing happened before? Are there any rules or traditions to prevent it?*

This is the basic plot of Bernard Shaw’s play, ‘The Apple Cart’

Article on Jean-Bedel Bokassa

According to this link, Bokassa went from the military to the presidency and later made himself Emperor.

Edward VIII also favored taking an active role in the running of his kingdom. Some people believe that this, and not his marriage to Wallis Simpson, was the real reason he was asked to abdicate.

This is somewhat debatable – he was far more outspoken as Prince of Wales than the Royal Family had been since Victoria’s death, but those who knew him well said that this was more expression of opinion than a desire to actively work at government. (In fact, George VI was and Elizabeth II was and is far more active at the Bagehotian “political duties of the crown,” such as “reviewing the boxes” [of formal government documents sent for his/her information] and critiquing the Government policies privately with the Prime Minister, than Edward VIII was as monarch.)

I agree that Edward probably didn’t have the skills to have acted as Prime Minister if the opportunity had been there. He was not a “detail” man. I think what he saw his role as being the generator of a few guiding principles which he then expected the Prime Minister and Parliament would implement in whatever manner they thought best. Of course, since 1688, the Prime Minister and Parliament has worked under the idea that they have the authority to control the big picture and not just the detail work of governing.

Not in Great Britain, certainly.

I doubt that there are any rules, but there are certainly traditions aplenty to prevent it. The King or Queen must follow the advice of his or her ministers in all cases, and the sitting government would surely advise against the monarch running for office! As Prince of Wales, I don’t believe Charles is formally bound by ministerial advice, so I suppose he could try to become PM first and then king. But this would be a gross breach of conduct by the royal family and would probably lead to the United Kingdom becoming the United Republic in short order.

However, it has happened elsewhere. According to a timely article in this week’s Economist, King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia is threatening to abdicate for the second time:

And now he may be on the verge of doing so again:

Note that even in these cases, however, Sihanouk saw the need to abdicate first.