It happened today - March 11, 2016

The Queen has been thinking about it for a long time. For it was on March 11 of 1708 that Queen Anne was the last British/Canadian monarch to veto a bill. With good reason.

First, she vetoed the bill with good reason. It was to arm the Scottish militia, as the English was armed, in the wake of the 1707 Act of Union. But with a French fleet sailing for Scotland, Her Majesty’s ministers warned her that this militia might be disloyal and so she refused her assent.

Second, there’s a good reason for the lovely old formula Anne used in casting her veto, whereby when a monarch accepted a bill he or she said “Le roi/la reine le veult” and when they spiked one they used the elegant tactful circumlocution “Le roi/la reine s’avisera” (The king/queen will think about it.) We are reminded that in politics, as the stakes are high and so are the feelings, rituals that express courtesy as a matter of habit are especially valuable when they might be hard to summon as a matter of fact.

Third, it is with good reason that monarchs lost the habit of vetoing bills. It used to be routine; Anne’s immediate predecessor William III (of Orange) did it six times. But in those days the separation of the branches was far more robust in Britain than it later became and the monarch held a far more prominent place in the executive branch than would be the case by the 19th century. These were important checks and balances incorporated, of course, in the American system whereby the President can veto legislation.

Gradually that system broke down in Britain. As late as 1834, King William IV (whose most notable achievement, unless you count 10 illegitimate children with the actress Dorothea Bland, was doggedly to live to see his niece Victoria achieve majority rather than have his sinister brother Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, become regent), dissolved Parliament rather than accept a Whig ministry he considered unsound. But when the election returned a Whig majority, he accepted it.

From then on it was the cabinet and prime minister, not the monarch, who headed the executive branch and set its agenda. And so it was they, not the queen or king, who decided what bills lived or died in the legislature. Which sounds good but isn’t. Whereas monarchs occasionally vetoed bills, Prime Ministers came to dictate them as a matter of course. In the end this fusion of the legislature and executive, despite the veneer of legitimacy in drawing ministers from the elected house, was bad for the independence of the legislature and the liberties of the citizens who elect it.

The solution is not to have the monarch veto bills. There is even some doubt whether such a thing is still constitutional given that more than three centuries have passed since the last exercise of the power. My guess is that the Queen could still reject a bill if it were sufficiently egregious, though such a bill is most unlikely to pass. But with the executive we don’t elect having half-absorbed and wholly tamed the legislature we do elect, we need some kind of restoration of checks and balances.

This isn’t the Queen’s problem any more. Rather, citizens and legislators need to think about it. Hard. With good reason. But not too long.