Why monarchies and democracies shouldn’t mix

Can one man, woman or family truly embody the spirit and soul of a nation?

Except for Canadians as well as a sprinkle of fringe lunatics still hoping to reinstall the defunct throne in Brazil, it is safe to say that most Western Hemispherians are staunchly republican. We did after all, fight bloody wars all across the American continent back in the 18th and 19th centuries to rid ourselves of the yoke of European kings. For us, monarchies are an anachronism: at best a silly spectacle of that uniquely European fetish for pompousness and tradition; at worst, another form of authoritarian brutality as is more often seen in the monarchies of the Middle East. I, of course, share that view, although after living six years in the United Kingdom one would think I have a new found appreciation of at least some virtues of the constitutional monarchical system. After all, what better symbol of the nation than the House which has ruled over this sceptered isle for centuries and that is beloved by over two-thirds of the population? Is this not a harmless and superior alternative to bringing the nation together than the nationalist jingoism of right-wing regimes, or the fiscally destructive populism of the radical left?

If you love democracy, you should find this appalling

If you love democracy, you should find this appalling

My answer is a categorical NO. Monarchy, through its perpetration through hereditary privilege, is by its very definition incompatible with the ideas of liberal democracy. While I’m not surprised that it generally shares the consent of the conservative elites, that it can also count on the support of many supposedly enlightened “liberals” is truly beyond me. After all, the monarchy apparently enjoys the support of 69% of Britons and 53% of Spaniards (notwithstanding the king’s elephant-hunting trips to Africa while the country is mired in recession and unemployment), and surely a similar amount of Dutch, Danish, etc. That’s a much larger number than the main right-wing party in these countries would typically get in your average election, proving there’s a lot of lefties who love their king or queen.

If you’re living in a country like the UK, arguments in favor of the monarchy abound: just read the Telegraph whining about snobbish republicans and using that as a justification for the monarchy’s preservation (a straw man argument if there ever was one). In any case, the one argument I will not bother with is the one about cost. Why? Because I think it’s actually the weakest argument. To a large extent, the monarchy is self-sustaining although this is largely due to its large land holdings through the Crown Estate. It only receives about £33 million a year from the government’s purse which is a pittance in the grander scheme of things, although it would certainly be enough to hire a few thousand teachers or nurses. But anyway, putting cost aside, here’s my rebuttal of numerous arguments made on royalist websites such as monarchy.net and sovereignty.org.

From monarchy.net:

“One of the advantages of the constitutional monarchy is that it can remove a large number of the ceremonial and figurehead and nation-unifying roles from the head of government allowing the person to concentrate on matters governmental.”

Well, this assumes that most heads of government are incapable of performing the duties of head of state. In fact, in most presidential systems they do so quite well and quite effectively. Proponents of parliamentary systems, however, seem to be quite oblivious to the fact that his separation of powers and of roles is largely superfluous in practice. In a presidential system, the head of government is the head of state, and nobody doubts his or her capacity to fulfil both roles as running a country and representing it aren’t mutually exclusive. Does the queen sign treaties? Does she represent Britain in the UN (better yet, does she represent Canada or Australia)? Of course not. She does nothing. Which is why her position as “head of state” is meaningless because if the head of state is a figurehead, then the state itself is a figure (worse yet, it implicitly defines the primacy of the government over the state).

“Elected presidents are concerned more with their own political futures and power. Constitutional monarchs are not subject to the influences which can corrupt short-term presidents. A monarch can represent centuries of history whereas elected Presidents in their nature devote much energy to undoing the achievements of their predecessors and setting traps for their successors. With monarchs it is the reverse- they build on the achievements of their forebears in order to strengthen the position of their successors.”

Wait, aren’t constitutional monarchs almost entirely ceremonial? So if a constitutional monarch does not have any practical political power, then it really matters not whether they are more concerned about their own political futures: they have none and presumably never will. It is rather contradictory that this argument is given in the paragraph immediately after the one that emphasizes the great virtue of the constitutional monarch as a figurehead and a symbol of the nation.

“You often hear it asked why should the opportunity to hold the highest position in the land be denied the person in the street. But it is a question of how you define our highest position in the land. It is clear that the Prime Minister is the most powerful – a post which is of course open to anyone. The monarchy retains only residual powers which are hardly ever used and if they are, they are only exercised on the advice of the government of the day”

More contradictions! Does anyone proof read these arguments for logical consistency? In any case, this is probably the crux of the argument against monarchy. It’s not against the institution per se, but on how it perpetuates itself: through hereditary privilege. I believe that some of the less diehard republicans would actually accept a midway solution whereby a monarch could be decided through more democratic means, even if it were for a life term. This is not an alien concept to democracy: US Supreme Court judges are appointed for life. The election of the Pope is another example. As it is, denying the position of head of state to anyone other than the Windsor family is a concept that should be naturally appalling for anyone who believes in liberalism and even some modest degree of egalitarianism. A true democracy can be only one in which anyone born in the country can, at least in theory, hold its highest offices.

“Queen Elizabeth II is the Monarch of 16 independent countries and the Head of the Commonwealth of 54 nations across the globe- an absolutely astonishing fact in this age of separatism and a massive worldwide symbol of unity and association which can only be achieved by a monarch – can you imagine all these nations agreeing on an appointed let alone elected symbol?”

Is this an astonishing feature of the monarchy, or rather an astonishing lack of self-identification of those 16 independent countries? Who am I to judge whether Canadians or Australians should have the queen on their dollar bills or not but at least their lack of local monarchical institutions as well as a system of nobility puts them on a slightly higher level of democracy than the UK. In these countries the monarchy really is a figurehead, since the taxpayers don’t actually prop it up.

“Many nations who have lost their monarchies wish they could restore them, such as Afghanistan, because they can see the value of a non-political unifying symbol above faction and politics and racial and ethnic division.”

Yeah, and given the Middle East and Central Asia’s track record with monarchies, we can pretty much be sure that any king in these countries is unlikely to be simply a figurehead (just look at the House of Saud arguably the most despicable monarchy in the world). Will a minority ethnicity support a ruling dynasty from their majoritarian rivals? This may work in a developed multi-ethnic and multi-language country like Belgium but this is because its institutions are already quite robust. However, the only way in which a monarch could presumably unify a disaster of a country like Afghanistan is if he does it with an iron fist, which is hardly the best case for supporting their conversion into monarchies. At least a president can be booted out every couple of years on the ballot box. It’s hardly unthinkable either that a head of state can be from a minority, Barack Obama being the best example. Britain may now be one of the most diverse countries in the world, but its head of state will always be white and will always be Anglican. Is that the image of the nation that the monarchy should project?

Ok, enough with the hapless chaps at monarchy.net. Here’s another good one from sovereignty.org.

“When you see the Queen you not only see history since 1952, when she took the throne, but you see a person who provides a living sense of historical continuity with the past. Someone who embodies in her very being a history which extends back through time, back through the Victorian era, back into the Stuart era and beyond. You see the national history of all parts of our islands, together, going right back in time.”

Ok, so according to this, because the monarchy is a timeless British institution, it deserves to remain in place. Under that logic, we should aim to preserve all such institutions and practices, even those which are noxious to the country’s well-being. Let’s bring back slavery, aye? It’s even more timeless than the monarchy as it was only abolished in 1833 and existed in these islands long before the Christian era. Let’s roll back women’s rights too, as women have been second class citizens since the dawn of time. The welfare state? Been here only 60 years; for the other thousand-plus, there was no such thing as free medical care or unemployment insurance or housing benefits. Clearly Britain, as both a nation and an idea, has outlived all the social changes – even radical ones – thrown at it throughout its history, and usually emerged as a better country because of it. To say that abolishing the monarchy would somehow rid the country of an essential part of its soul is therefore preposterous. A few decades after it goes, people will only wonder why it lasted so long in the first place…

So in a nutshell, although it’s the concept of hereditary priviledge which most riles my republican sentiments in a practical sense, it’s the broader idea that one man, woman or family sufficiently embodies the spirit of a nation that bothers me the most. Isn’t the opulence of the royals insulting when compared to the deprivation seen among large tracts of British society? Do the tabloid antics of its future kings and prices stand up to the glorious history of this island? Interestingly, perhaps the best example of this complete alienation between the monarchy and the nation that it supposedly represents was seen during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. There, in front of a global audience and an extatic British public, the symbol of the nation couldn’t even be bothered to crack the faintest of smiles.

Hopefully, in an enlightened future, the Windsors won’t be bothered with such a terrible burden. Until then, the best we republicans can do is laugh at the spectacle.

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