Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Problems of Monarchy

When Australia voted on whether to become a Republic in 1999, I voted against becoming a Republic. Not because I didn't like the type of Republic being offered, not because I thought Politicians would get too much power (which I did think), nor because I despised those who think they are our betters telling us lesser beings how to vote. No, I voted against the Republic because I'm a Monarchist.

I support having a Royal family and I support the Crown, the idea that behind everything there is a real person with legitimate political authority. Not a mere Politician, here today and gone tomorrow. But someone born to the position, the Monarch is a real person who has no choice about being born to that position. To be the King or Queen is a Duty, an obligation and a burden. That is why they deserve our respect. They serve us for their entire life and they have little choice about it, even if they abdicate they cannot escape the public eye and live a normal life. Politicians like to think that they share this burden, but in truth we are glad to see the back of nearly all of them.

So if I am a Monarchists why am I pointing out problems? Shouldn't I sweep them under the carpet and pretend that Monarchy is the bees knees? Conservatives understand, or at least should understand, that there is no perfect political system or society. That there is no utopia. No happy ending, there are only choices to be made, choices to be managed. That we cannot end war, or murder, or people who are not disabled parking in disabled parking spaces, or bad manners. All we can do is try to manage things so that good outcomes are more likely than bad. For Conservatives and Conservatism there are no 5 years plans with utopia at the end. For Conservatives there is hard work, hard thinking and hard choices.

Monarchy is an Ancient institution, all of the early Civilizations were Monarchies and until the aftermath of WWI the majority of countries were Monarchy's. Only in the last century has Monarchy fallen out of political fashion. Throughout history most Monarchies can be placed in one of three categories.


Lets look at each in turn.

Absolute Monarchy

All of the earliest Monarchies were absolute, the King could do nearly anything that he wanted, enact any law, fight any war, kill anyone for any reason. At least in theory, in practice there were often limits on his power. Religious limits were very strong for example. An Absolute Monarch was also regarded as being responsible for everything.


Most Monarchies through history have been Kingships. The King was limited in his power, even though he was in most cases regarded as the most powerful within the Kingdom. The Church or Nobles exercised much power and while in theory the King controlled everything, in reality his areas of responsibility were smaller. Foreign relations, raising armies, controlling the minting of money or at least those kind of things.


Today nearly all Monarchies are Constitutional Monarch's. They have limited power, some have no power beyond ceremonial and personal influence. However in most Constitutional Monarchies they are regarded as the only legitimate political power and Democratic Governments may be elected by the people, but they govern because the Crown gives them legitimate authority.

The problems

The greatest problem is that not all legitimate Monarch's are good, sane or competent. What do you do when the legitimate Monarch isn't very good? It is a problem that has various solutions, all of which make the institution of Monarchy look bad. You can let them reign and reap the contempt of everyone. You can limit their power, but who gets that power and who has the authority to make sure they don't abuse  it. You can make a Regency and have someone else do the real work, but if there is a crisis who should people give their loyalty to? The man who is the legitimate King or the man who is saving the Kingdom, how do you serve both? Do you imprison or even kill the King? All of these have been tried, the only one that works is when the Monarch agrees that they really are bad, mad or incompetent, and then only sometimes.

A bad Monarch is bad, particularly if they live for a long time, a string of bad Monarchs is a disaster. In the past that meant replacing one Dynasty with another, today it means replacing the Monarchy with a Republic.

Each type of Monarchy also has it's own problems.

Problems of Absolute Monarchy
When anything goes wrong it's the Monarchs fault, his personal fault. If the local Postmaster is friendly and competent the Monarch gets the credit. When he's replaced by a mean spirited and corrupt fool, the Monarch gets the blames. He is responsible for everything. The best example I can give is the Czar in WWI, when he took personal control of the Army he took personal responsibility for every defeat. The Generals weren't to blame, the Czar was. It shook confidence in the Czar and many stopped believing that he could solve Russia's problems, or indeed any problem.

Also the personal opinion of the Monarch carries so much weight that when he is wrong, and everyone is wrong at times, it can be next to impossible to correct the problem. He loses respect if he admits mistakes and lets be honest who likes to admit mistakes.

Problems of Kingship
The King has real political power, but he shares it and everyone knows he shares power. The real question here is how much power? When most Conservatives think of Monarchy it is the Kingship model that they think of. The great benefit of Kingship is that different Monarchs can have different power, but trying to shape that creates constant political problems because rarely does anyone want to give up political power. Over time either the Monarch wins and it drifts into an Absolute Monarchy or the Monarch loses and it drifts into a Constitutional Monarchy.

Problems of Constitutional Monarchy
The great benefit of Constitutional Monarchy is that rarely is the Monarch blamed for any serious problem or issue. Everyone knows that the Monarch isn't responsible for Foreign policy or the economy for example. That means the Monarchy can remain above politics and above policy.

Sadly it also means they cannot do anything to fix real world problems. In theory they can sack Governments, in reality even when this is legal, Tradition, one of the great weapons in Monarchies arsenal, prevents it. Personal opinion certainly counts, but only so far.

One of the saddest aspects of Constitutional Monarchy's is that they have become celebrities. But they are not ordinary celebrities, they are born famous and will remain famous until they die and many will remain famous even in death, they have political power even if that is limited, they have an historical role and they are a built in part of the State. Nearly all other celebrities miss out on all these. I'm not saying the Monarch shouldn't be seen in public, or meet people, or do charity events. But sometimes the line of dignity came very close to being crossed and when it comes to the press that line has been trampled. Constitutional Monarchy allows the Monarchy to be treated as a public relations exercise. It interferes with the dignity of the an institutional that has a life span of centuries and reduces it to what do the public think about the Royal families popularity this month? We see this clearly with Politicians, public opinion polls do not allow for dignity.

Another issue is are Monarchies legitimate?

Republicans argue that Monarchies are not legitimate, that Kings and Queens are simply there either because of an historical accident or because of historical injustice. But actually the exact same argument can be used against Republic's. The United States for example is a Republic because the man they wanted to be King said no. The truth is that Monarchs are Monarchs because at some point in history their family had the support of the most powerful people of their time and place. Actually very much like how modern Governments of all persuasions are formed. The difference is that family is only really important within Monarchies and the longevity of Dynasties mean that they often have long traditions and histories, always bound up with the nations life. Something Politicians cannot do, even when they belong to a family with a longstanding political history, they tend to move in and out of national life, unlike Monarchies which remain as part of the national life at all times.

As a Monarchist I want the remaining Monarchies to remain, I even want more recreated. But as a Conservative I know that Monarchy, like all human institutions, has flaws. It is important to see these flaws and to be prepared to counter those who wish to see an end to one of Mankind's greatest symbols of Nationhood.

Also read:

Why I am a Constitutional Monarchist

Upon Hope Blog - A Traditional Conservative Future
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  1. It's important to note that Absolute monarchies are a creature of the early modern period. Even hereditary succession only became the norm in Europe around the 1st millennium.

    Decentralization, from the principle of subsidiarity, is a key point that liberalism ignores. The Scottish Parliament, for instance, has the power to spend, but is not responsible for taxation. Its purpose is only to divide and ferment left-wing angst to England, rather than to be an authentic representation of Scotland.

    A feature that would be preferable in the Anglo constitutional monarchies would be for the monarch to be allowed to choose the prime minister, as long as they were from the ruling party. Given that the role of prime minister has acquired the trappings of head of state, even though it is not, it is questionable as to why it should be selected on an internal party process.

    In a somewhat related question, what do you think of written constitutions?

    1. Mr. Observer

      I don't agree at all that Absolute Monarchies are "creatures of the early modern period", Ancient Monarchies were very absolutist. And hereditary. There were exceptions but thats what were, exceptions.

      Very good point about Devolution in the U.K.!

      In theory the Monarch does choose the PM, of course in reality they are bound by convention and they choose from a choice of one. However in a constitutional crisis or a hung Parliament the power of the Monarch comes into its own as now it is legitimately their choice to decide.

      Written or unwritten Constitutions are important as they are the agreed upon arrangements for organising the State. The unwritten British Constitution survived for three centuries, but now it is quite clearly dieing. The written United States Constitution survived for two centuries, but now it is quite clearly dieing. Constitutions only survive when a people are united, whether they are written or unwritten.

      Mark Moncrieff

    2. In the beginning of the Roman Empire, one could not speak of an "Imperial House". The successor Emperor was often formally "adopted" by the current Emperor, and nominally confirmed by the Senate. The hereditary system became formalized under Marcus Aurelius, which is ironic, as many think he wanted to restore the rule of the Senate.

      The coronation ceremony, used for the British Monarch, (unless Charles changes the next one into a Cultural Marxist fest), is based upon the medieval ceremony of "homage". The nobles pay homage to the king, while the king promises to protect the nobility. This ceremony was the major cause of the Hundred Years War, as English kings did not want to pay homage to the French King, and drew up charts claiming to be the King of France after a succession gap.

      What is considered "absolutism" today, is the growth in centralized power by monarchs starting in the 16th century. Henry VIII in England is the earliest example, he disregarded the nobility and clergy, and built a powerful military. Louis XIV, (in?)famous for the Palace of Versailles, built the palace as a way to distract the nobles from warring against him. He further reduced the power of the clergy, after Cardinal Mazarin had ruled the country during his youth. The Liberal revolutions further continued this centralization, Spain is an exception. (Franco was a centralist, as is the monarch).

  2. The real question is - are democracies legitimate? Does getting 51 percent of the popular vote give a government the moral right to impose its will on the 49 percent who didn't vote for it?

    Or in the case of the recent UK election does the Conservative government, with 36.9% of the vote, have any right to impose its will on the 63.1% of the voters who didn't vote for it? And given that voter turnout was only 66.1%, the new government was actually "elected" by a very small minority of the eligible voters.

    Democracy has far greater problems of legitimacy than monarchy.