Eight astonishing powers the Queen has from owning dolphins to vetoing laws

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At 95, Queen Elizabeth II is the world’s longest-reigning monarch, having been on the throne for an incredible 69 years.

Recognisable worldwide and an emblem of British society, we are used to seeing Her Majesty in brightly coloured outfits carrying out official engagements.

And in her time on the throne, the world has drastically changed – including the powers she actually has.

We might think the Queen doesn’t have any real clout, as this goes to the government and Prime Minister instead.

But she has several surprising abilities from the random (owning all of the dolphins) to the paramount (vetoing laws), though she rarely exercises this.

As the Queen has been forced to scale back her duties as she recovers from a sprained back, it’s often wondered if she will pass the baton onto her son, Prince Charles.

This is unlikely, but it has left many people thinking about the powers the Queen actually has.

Owning the swans, whales and dolphins

The Queen technically owns the swans, dolphins, whales and sturgeons in English and Welsh waters
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As the song goes, “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves”.

Well, the Queen does actually technically rule what’s underneath them.

In a centuries-old tradition, she owns all of the unclaimed mute swans in open water in England and Wales, but only actually exercises ownership on certain stretches and tributaries of the River Thames around Windsor.

This bizarre legislation was created back in the 1400s, when swans were coveted as fancy food in banquets and feats, and rights of ownership were granted by the Queen to a select and lucky few.

Hundreds of years ago, swans were carefully guarded and counted, and there were severe penalties for killing or injuring one – and you could even face prison for stealing an egg.

Swans are no longer eaten today and are in fact a protected species – it was legally treasonous to eat them right up until 1998.

Killing or injuring a swan can get you fined or even jailed for six months
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It’s not treason any more if you injure a swan, but you could be fined up to £5,000 – and if you kill one you could even be imprisoned for up to six months.

Aside from the Queen, there are only three organisations also allowed to own swans – Abbotsbury Swannery since the 14th Century, and the Vintners and the Dyer since the 15th Century.

It’s not just the swans that Her Majesty owns – since 1324, she also technically claims all the sturgeons, whales, and dolphins in the waters around England and Wales, and if you catch one and want to sell it, as a gesture of loyalty you must make a request to the Queen.

And the rule has been put into practice recently, too.

In 2004, a Welsh fisherman was investigated by the police after catching a 10-foot sturgeon – but the Palace decreed he could keep it.

Driving without a license, and travelling without a passport

Queen Elizabeth II can drive – but she doesn’t need to carry a license
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Our driver’s licenses are issued in the Queen’s name – so doesn’t actually need one in order to drive.

The Queen also doesn’t technically need a number plate on her car, either.

However, she does carry a license anyway, having learnt to drive back in World War II, when she operated a first-aid truck for the Women’s Auxillary Territorial Service aged 18.

She also loves surprising people with her driving abilities – taking King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, then a prince, for a spin around Balmoral in 1998.

“As instructed, the crown prince climbed into the front seat of the front Land Rover, with his interpreter in the seat behind. To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off,” wrote Former British Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles in the Sunday Times.

“Women are not – yet – allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen.”

Cowper-Coles added: “His nervousness only increased as the Queen, an army driver in wartime, accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads, talking all the time.

“Through his interpreter, the crown prince implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead.”

And the jet-setting Queen doesn’t need to remember to pack a passport when she flies, as they are issued in her own name so she does not require one.

Choosing the Poet Laureate

The Queen appoints the Poet Laureate – who is currently Simon Armitage
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The Poet Laureate is an honorary position appointed by the monarch of the United Kingdom, currently on the advice of the prime minister.

There is an expectation that the holder will write for significant national occasions.

Currently, the role is held by Simon Armitage, who the Queen chose to succeed Carol Ann Duffy in May 2019.

The poets tend to serve for ten years before they are replaced.

Signing and vetoing laws

Before any bill becomes law, it must be approved by the Queen.

Once a proposed law has passed both houses of Parliament, it comes to the Palace for approval – something called Royal Assent.

Royal Assent is different to Queen’s consent, which means the Queen must consent to any law being debated in Parliament that affects her own interests.

According to The Guardian in 2013, Royal Assent has been exercised more than 1,000 times as the Queen or Prince Charles vetted laws before they were approved by parliament.

They included matters ranging from “justice, social security, pensions, race relations and food policy through to obscure rules on car parking charges and hovercraft”.

There was even “one instance [in which] the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member’s bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament,” the publication wrote.

Representatives refused to comment on how many times she had requested alterations to legislation during her reign.

Creating Lords, knights, and forming the government

The Queen personally knights people – including Captain Sir Tom Moore, who raised over £32 million for the NHS charity
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The Queen personally presents citizens who have made a special contribution to society with honorary titles, including damehoods and knighthoods.

On the advice of elected government ministers, she can also appoint Lords who sit in parliament.

Until 2011, the Queen could also dissolve Parliament and call a general election, but now a two-thirds vote in the commons is required to do this before a five-year fixed-term is up.

In a general election, she will usually appoint the MP with the majority support of voters and the House of Commons.

And if the PM resigns, the Queen will consult her advisors on who should succeed them.

The Queen is also the Colonel-in-chief of the armed forces, presiding over military ceremonies and appointing new archbishops, bishops, and deans as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

She can also declare war, grant royal pardons, and requisition civilian ships for military use if the need ever arises – though this decision would be made by the PM.

Not paying tax

The Queen is not legally required to pay tax, but she has been voluntarily paying income tax and capital gains tax since 1992.

And in the unlikely event she’s short of cash, the Queen can pop down to the private ATM in the basement of Buckingham Palace, provided by prestigious bank Coutts.

Exemption from Freedom of Information requests and prosecution

Letters sent by Prince Charles were eventually released – but this would not happen again under current rulings
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After a legal battle with The Guardian over letters Prince Charles sent to Whitehall ministers, the Royal Family won the right to become exempt from Freedom of Information requests.

These “black spider memo” documents were eventually released in 2015 after a ten-year legal fight – but this kind of thing won’t happen again now there is the current ruling.

Not only that, the Queen is immune from prosecution and cannot be compelled to give evidence in court.

Her website explains: “Although civil and criminal proceedings cannot be taken against the Sovereign as a person under UK law, the Queen is careful to ensure that all her activities in her personal capacity are carried out in strict accordance with the law.”

If the Queen did break the law, she would likely be forced to abdicate.

Firing the Australian government

Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked by a representative of the Queen in 1975
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The Queen is the head of state in Australia, meaning she has powers over the government.

Back in 1975, her representative Government General Sir John Kerr fired Prime Minister Gough Whitlam after a government shutdown due to lack of funding in a row over the budget.

It has since been described as the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australian history.

Kerr appointed a replacement, Malcolm Fraser, who immediately passed the spending bill to fund the government.

Three hours later, Kerr dismissed the rest of Parliament and Australian citizens voted for their representatives from scratch.

The Queen is also the head of state in several Commonwealth Realms or former British colonies, though it’s mostly a ceremonial role.

This includes Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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