Long live the kings and queens

[16-05-2023 10:48 AM]
Tom Ginsburg

As Britain’s King Charles III is officially coronated, the “empire on which the sun never set” is looking a little shabby. In addition to the United Kingdom, 14 former British colonies still maintain Charles as their monarch and head of state, but many of his subjects around the world are reconsidering the arrangement.

Barbados became a republic in 2021, and Jamaica has initiated a similar process of constitutional reform. Others might soon follow. Why should countries from Belize to Tuvalu maintain as their nominal head of state an old white man living in a middling power far away from them?

Americans, of course, find it difficult to understand why anyone would accept hereditary rulers, or why a purely ceremonial office has any value. But constitutional monarchy is alive and well in some of the world’s most developed countries. It should be jettisoned only after careful consideration of its significant benefits.

Start with what a constitutional monarchy is not: Absolute monarchy, in which kings and queens actually exercise real power. Eight countries, mostly oil-rich states in the Middle East, remain absolute monarchies.

Constitutional monarchies must also be distinguished from republics, in which the head of state is either elected by the people or by their representatives in parliament. Heads of state in republics serve only for a limited term, whereas a monarch typically holds the job for life.

So defined, constitutional monarchy is not a rare phenomenon: There are currently 34, representing 18 per cent of the roughly 193 independent countries. These are an extraordinarily successful set of countries by any standard, including most of Scandinavia, Japan, and the Benelux countries, as well as Charles’ domains of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2022, ten of the world’s top 20 democracies are constitutional monarchies, as are nine of the 20 richest countries. And eight of the ten most enduring national constitutions provide for a monarch.

The surviving monarchies have done so mostly because, over a long period of time, they yielded power to legislative assemblies elected by the people. This process of political reform started with Magna Carta in England, and played out in the nineteenth century in most other countries.

Monarchs also provide a form of political insurance, being able to step in during periods of national crisis. A famous example is King Juan Carlos I of Spain, who helped thwart a coup d’état launched in his name in 1981. He went on television and ordered the armed forces to return to their barracks, even as he was communicating individually with key generals, which helped prevent them from coordinating among themselves. The Netflix series The Crown includes a fictionalised account of Queen Elizabeth II’s intervention to head off her cousin Lord Mountbatten’s idea of a coup during Harold Wilson’s premiership.

Some supposedly constitutional monarchs, however, have been known to abet coups against their own governments. Instead of acting like King Juan Carlos to undermine military coup-makers, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej assented to ten coups during his 70-year reign. And Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Australia, Sir John Kerr, provoked a constitutional crisis when he ordered the removal of the elected prime minister, Gough Whitlam, in 1975.

In their role in investing governments in parliamentary systems, monarchs can sometimes make subtle decisions that help political parties overcome deadlocks. In other crises, the monarch can act as a focal point for national resistance to invaders. During World War II, Norway’s King Haakon VII refused to recognize the government of the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, instead choosing to leave his country for the duration of the war.

Monarchs can also protect minorities during a crisis. Constitutional monarchs in Morocco, Denmark and Bulgaria made a special point of protecting their Jewish subjects during WWII. Morocco’s King Mohammed V refused to comply with Vichy French orders to round up Jews during the war and the Danish King apocryphally donned a yellow Star of David.

In our era, the symbolic unity provided by monarchy can limit the most problematic forms of populism. Populist demagogues typically claim an exclusive, almost mystical connection with the “people”, whom they alone can protect from the elites, and demonise their opponents as “enemies of the people”. Such claims, however, are ineffective under a constitutional monarchy. The job of embodying the people is already occupied, limiting how much symbolic power any other individual can accumulate.

With a monarch atop the system, that claim falls flat. This is confirmed by data from the Global Populism Database showing that constitutional monarchies experience less populist rhetoric in political speeches.

To be sure, actually being a constitutional monarch is a job from hell. A constitutional monarch is in some sense a prisoner of society, playing only a ceremonial role, spending his or her days cutting ribbons and giving bland speeches, while having every move dissected for entertainment. No wonder some royals quit the family business: Along with Prince Harry, Princess Mako of Japan gave up her title in 2021, and Denmark’s Prince Joachim is the latest to decamp to the United States.

As Jamaicans and others consider whether to join Harry in leaving the Crown behind, they would do well to consider why constitutional monarchy has remained so successful in the twenty-first century. King Charles might appear to be the vestige of an archaic system, and no doubt his realm will shrink in the coming years. But it will not disappear, and for his remaining subjects that may be a very good thing.

Tom Ginsburg, professor of International Law and professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, is a research professor at the American Bar Foundation. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.


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