At every Royal occasion, this week the birth of the future King, It’s often asserted that Monarchy is “indefensible”. I argue the main victim of the system of Monarchy is the Monarch themselves, and their immediate family. No-one would now design a monarchical government, as they did for Belgium, However many of the countries in the world with the highest standards of living are constitutional monarchies. Norway and the Netherlands, for example are not noted as Totalitarian hell-holes. Luxembourg is the richest per-capita country in the world. Most of the rest are former British Colonies, who have retained the Queen as Head of State. Some are poor, but most on the list remain decent places to live, and many are better than their neighbours. My usual defence of Monarchy is that it clearly ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.
The most likely explanation for this is that by definition, constitutional monarchies have retained the anachronistic trappings of Medieval and Renaissance kingship means they have gone a long time without revolution. Revolutions are bad, and so post-hoc ergo propter hoc, monarchies are disproportionately nice places to live.
However does some of the explanation go the other way. Is there something about monarchy in a modern context which helps with stability? There may well be.
The Monarch acts as a figurehead in a time of crisis. A constitutional monarch is better placed to do this than a politician. A politician with the strength of will to govern in a crisis is likely to be divisive. This is why Charles de Gaule broke his country’s constitution, because his Government in exile did not enjoy universal support of Frenchmen, a country which is on its fifth republic since they committed regicide. Compare with King Haakon VII of Norway who was able to return from Scotland with his troops and quickly and efficiently sweep away the detritus of a Nazi occupation, and which has enjoyed remarkable stability since the split with Sweden (itself now led by King Carl Gustav XVI, and not a known totalitarian Toilet) in 1905 despite the wars which have raged around the country.
The Monarch can act as a “Chairman” in key moments. King Juan Carlos of Spain for all his current extravagances, is popular mainly for deceiving Franco by being named as Heir Apparent, while meeting opposition leaders behind the Generalissimo’s back. He rapidly ushered in democracy on the Dictator’s death and restrained the military, much to the surprise of the Falangists who thought all along, the Prince of Spain was one of them. Without a king, the end of the dictatorship could have been as bloody as its beginning.
It is often argued that a monarch has a once-only nuclear option of refusing assent to a law, which in the UK at least would trigger an immediate constitutional crisis, which could probably resolved only by a referendum. This power of Veto may (though there’s no evidence of this ever actually happening) could be used to prevent the kind of enabling law which allows totalitarians to subvert democracy. Perhaps the mere threat prevents British politicians from even trying.
These benefits listed of monarchy are dependent upon the Country being lucky with the right Monarch at the right time. Spain needed a devious liberal, Norway needed a brave and resolute war leader in exile. However, there are perhaps means by which a Monarchy can directly influence the body politic of a country for the good.
A monarch has a direct interest in stability and continuity. This tends, all things being equal, to lead to better governance than would ideological enthusiasm. Monarchs are likely to urge their Prime Ministers be cautious. The current Monarch of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms, the peerlessly dutiful Queen Elizabeth II has personally known every Prime-Minister since Churchill and has been dealing with affairs of state since the 1950s. Are you telling me a quiet word in the ear from so experienced a Queen is a bad thing, when the Prime Minister is free to ignore it?
It can be argued a Monarch tempers some of the excesses of democracy. If one of the problems of Monarchy is the risk of an idiot on the throne, the problem of democracy is that only power-hungry, manipulative and demagogic will ever reach the top, such is the nature of the system. However even the narcissists who get to the top of the Greasy pole in a Constitutional Monarchy cannot ever hope to be head of state. Indeed far from being head of state, they have to bang their tabs in to the Monarch once a week (in the British system at least) and report to their boss “this is what I’m doing with your country this week“. This perhaps engenders a little humility in those who would seek to rule us.
The Royal Family serves the same function as a national soap-opera, giving a group of people we all “know” to some extent to gossip about over the office kettle. This need to gossip seems hard-wired, yet we share few people in common in our big, atomised, impersonal world. It’s true, this is the same function that meaningless ‘slebs perform in the magazine ‘closer’, but the interest in the royals is more universal, and may even inspire some to pick up a history book. Everyone knows who the matriarch and the curmudgeon, the wayward uncle and the black sheep of our Royal family are. We all have a little party at royal family events, making them to some extent shared and ours: we’re all somewhat invited to Royal weddings. Street parties for the Jubilee brought neighbours together. And perhaps we all feel (we monarchists at least), some of the Joy of the birth of a healthy baby boy. Perhaps the Monarch’s subjects are slightly happier as a result of being able to exercise this primeval need?
In a constitutional monarch, it is the Queen or King who is the recipient of the Peoples’ nationalist patriotic fervour. There is none left over for mere politicians, who’re generally regarded with utter contempt. This British contempt for politicians, who’re (plausibly if unfairly) thought of as corrupt and grasping slime, mainly in it for themselves, is a powerful anti-demagogue shield for the UK. The people of the UK will simply not invest their hopes fully in a president or anyone who would seek to be one, and the rallies and bunting put out for US candidates for President utterly mystify most Brits. Thanks to the child born yesterday, I can see the Kings of the United Kingdom stretching into the future until long after I am gone. Perhaps that encourages Britons to think longer-term than do Americans.
None of these effects in themselves are the killer argument in favour of monarchy. Taken together, perhaps they’re plausible enough to back up “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
The little baby boy, born to a young, rich, good-looking couple in London yesterday, whom I am agitating to be called ‘Arthur’, will one day be our King though given the longevity and rude health of the House of Windsor, it is unlikely I will live to see him crowned. He will enjoy every advantage and privilege his whole life, yet be reminded of that privilege constantly, and learn to be modest, as his Father is. Hopefully he’s be as successful in business and charity work as his much under-rated Grandfather, through whose Princes Trust he has a greater understanding of the hardships of the disadvantaged in his country than many a politician. The young man will probably serve briefly and safely in the forces, (a younger brother as the ‘spare’ will be allowed to take more risk). He will hopefully get to know his peerless great grandmother who still has a good decade left to reign, and be taught follow her example of selfless duty. And hopefully he’ll be as much fun as his Great Grandfather.
Ultimately the Monarchy is a decorative bauble on top of our democracy, but perhaps it’s not meaningless. The monarchy, as foundation of the constitution underpins the chaotic, brutal but responsive democracy that has organically evolved in the UK since 1215. Through the list of Kings and queens, one and a half thousand years of history can be told in a personal human scale, all the way back to Egbert of Wessex, and (through the Scandinavian branch of the family) the God, Woden. You wouldn’t design a democracy like that of the UK. A designed democracy looks more like that of the Weimar republic, and that didn’t turn out to well, did it? The risks of constitutional vandalism far outweigh the potential benefits.