The rational case for monarchy
Happy are those ruled by a king or queen
Imagine being told that you could only live in one country for the rest of your life, prevented from emigration or even travel. You can’t choose the place itself, but in this admittedly implausible Alan Partridge-like thought experiment, all you can decide is whether it’s a monarchy or republic. What do you go for?
Obviously, there is no real choice here. There are worse places to spend the rest of your life than the United States or France, or half a dozen other European countries with similar constitutions. The upside risk on republicanism is pretty small, since among developed liberal democracies both forms of government can be found.
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The downside risk, however, is gigantic. If you were to opt for a monarchy, you’d be unlucky to land in Saudi Arabia, for its repression, or Swaziland, for its poverty and ill heath. But there are far worse places to live than Saudi, for the depths of human depravity afforded by the absence of a monarch is essentially endless; just in that neighbourhood you could instead get Syria or Iran or Iraq, Libya or Yemen, and across the world everything from surveillance capitalism to anarcho-clannism to the eccentric last holdouts of Marx’s followers.
If you were to go back over the past couple of centuries, the vast majority of the most appalling regimes would be republics. Mussolini’s Italy might merit a place, and perhaps Tsarist Russia, which killed a fair few political opponents and jailed many more — but compared to their Soviet successors those were rookie numbers.
Such are the obvious advantages of monarchy that there was a point in 2015 when every single Arab republic had Foreign Office advice warning about travel, while every Arab monarchy was considered safe in its entirety.
Comparing countries inevitably suffers from the apples and oranges problem, but it’s still worth contrasting the fate of neighbours: the Syrian Arab Republic has been ruled with unrelenting cruelty by various military upstarts since independence from France, and this competitive brutality has reduced a sophisticated, ancient society to ruins.
Neighbouring Jordan suffered huge disadvantages from the start, having no natural resources, little access to the sea, few cities with established trading networks and a population that was majority refugee, West Bank Palestinians who had fled Israeli victory in 1948. Yet today it is a successful, well-functioning nation-state, having enjoyed decades of rule under the Hashemites, GDP increasing five-fold in 30 years. Is there any scenario where a republic would have been preferable for Jordan, or a monarchy worse for Syria?
Similarly, Morocco has had the benign rule of monarchs while neighbouring Algeria has endured decades of intermittent misery. The two countries have different histories, in particular regarding France, but next-door Libya did previously have a monarchy and has gone through hell since its downfall. Little wonder that many Libyans would have it restored.
There is much that can be said for monarchies but without doubt they insulate against extremism, in particular extremism of the Right. They provide an ersatz version of the militaristic splendour and rigid hierarchy that some crave, and ersatz tradition often works very well. One friend has a theory that royalty presents a healthy outlet for people who might otherwise be patriotic to the point of being dangerously unhinged, channelling their obsessions into mere crankdom.
Meanwhile, compared to the men who rise to power, monarchs tend to be more tolerant as individuals; the King of Morocco’s grandfather heroically saved the country’s Jews during the Second World War, and he was certainly not the only royal to have shown their moral worth during that conflict.
There are very few instances in history where the removal of a monarchy has led to better national outcomes. To take the most famous example, everyone knows the line by the Chinese official that it was ‘too soon to tell’ whether the French Revolution was a good thing (although it’s perhaps a myth, as he was talking about the ‘revolution’ of 1968). In reality the downfall of the Bourbons led to a million deaths in political violence and wars; thousands died in the terror and tens of thousands in the Vendée genocide. France was never really a leading power again, and it has left the country’s politics permanently divided, even to this day; this was in part because its conservative movement emerged out of the bloodshed far more uncompromising than its British equivalent. They got de Maistre; we got Burke.
The fall of the Habsburgs was an unrelenting tragedy and disaster, leading to dangerous instability and eventual mass murder; the Hohenzollerns were unlovely but German history shows that there is always worse around the corner. Romanov Russia was the prison of peoples — yet the Bolsheviks were far more violent and oppressive, and because of Russia’s size and structure there was little chance that a moderate, democratic form of government would survive when the monarchy fell. Today, in the Arab world, monarchy is far more effective because there are otherwise not enough neutral institutions in societies with very powerful clans, and therefore low levels of wider trust. In the absence of a strong civil society, religious extremists sweep all before them — unless a monarch can stop them.
It is true that at a certain level of political development monarchy becomes less important to the functioning of states; the majority of the most developed (and egalitarian) countries are constitutional monarchies, but no more so than neighbours: Britain is not better off than the Irish Republic, nor is the Netherlands compared to Germany, or Sweden with Finland. It is just that republics tend to have had more troubled histories, either conquered by neighbours or subject to revolution or totalitarianism.
Yet even among rich democracies there is benefit to having a king or queen. A few years ago financial journalist Mike Bird collated many of the academic papers looking at the empirical evidence for the effect of monarchy. Among the findings was that social capital is higher in monarchies, that the existence of monarchs boost economic growth where a country has weak executive restraints, and that governments ruled by kings or queens tend to otherwise behave with more restraint, and act with greater accountability towards voters.
Even in western countries like Belgium the monarchy plays a major role in national unity, and in a Britain which has become significantly more divided in recent years, between the composite nations, over ideology, race and religion, and lifestyle. This greater division may explain why British republicanism, once something of a force in the 1980s, ran out of steam at the turn of the millennium. It was not just that republicans could never answer the question of alternatives; there was also the recognition that the unifying power of the Queen might help broadly center-Left aims, especially in a society with far more religious and ethnic diversity than before. Constitutional monarchies, like established churches, tend to be theoretically conservative but progressive in practice.
It is easy for those on the Right to support the crown, since they defend traditional institutions out of principle: because their existence implies they serve some useful function, because the veneration felt by people makes them useful, or ‘because eliminating them may lead to harmful, unintended consequences’, in the words of Jerry Z Muller. When those on the centre or centre-left express their support for the monarchy, they have to work harder intellectually to justify a belief that is counterintuitive — and that often makes them the best advocates.
The British Labour Party’s comfort with the monarchy is a case in point. As Ian Leslie wrote last week, the superiority of evolved systems, ‘maddeningly irrational to those who presume to know better,’ can be compatible with social-democrat principles. Citing an essay by Clement Attlee, he points out that: ‘As a socialist, Attlee might have been expected to oppose or at least be sceptical of constitutional monarchy, but he was a strong believer in it.’ Attlee wrote that ‘You will find the greatest enthusiasm for the monarch in the meanest streets’, and, as Leslie notes: ‘After qualifying as a lawyer, Attlee ran a club in the East End of London for teenage boys raised in dire poverty. He remembers one of them saying, “Some people say as how the King and Queen are different from us. They aren’t. The only difference is that they can have a relish with their tea every day.”’
Working-class support for the royals has often been sneered at as false consciousness and forelock-tucking, but even from a rational perspective it makes sense. If, as the studies show, monarchy makes politicians more accountable or if it increases social capital, that obviously has tangible benefits to those who gain most from a socially-democratic, egalitarian system.
Besides which, class interests often clash at the boundaries, and the Queen’s difficult relationship with Margaret Thatcher, well-known to viewers of The Crown, illustrates how the monarchy might show more sympathy for the poor than for middle-class go-getters. If the royals are instinctively Tory, they are of the one-nation variety that encompasses a remit to care for all classes, and both Elizabeth and her father famously got on with their Labour prime ministers.
Would the Tory blind spot towards poverty and social justice be more or less restrained without the monarchy? Would the current Westminster system produce a better head of state? Looking at the British political system over the past few years, you’d have to be wildly optimistic to think so. Again, republicanism brings minimal upside and huge downside risks.
Then there is the issue of noblesse oblige. The most repulsive aspect of the new upper class – the Brahmins – is their total belief that they’ve earned their place at the top. ‘I deserve this’, to borrow the phrase. This is an elite who actually believe they should be an elite, despite mostly also enjoying the advantages of background and family connections.
A traditional aristocracy at least appreciate, to some degree, that they are only there because their ancestor was a good friend of William the Conqueror; monarchy has what Mark Steyn called ‘a built-in grievance factor’, which is healthy in a democracy and encourages better behaviour. Monarchy restrains politicians, too; compare the imperiousness of the American head of state, the vast expense and the deliberate attempt to make the presidency grand and intimidating, to the dingy conditions that British political leaders are forced to live in, stuck in a cramped upstairs flat above a terraced house.
I don’t wish to criticise American institutions just because a few members of its commentariat are hostile to the monarchy. That country’s founders built a republican system of genius, one that suited the temperament and nature of the people and allowed their talents to flourish. That system has worked incredibly well for more than two centuries, although in recent years has begun to appear inadequate as the country has grown more imperial.
Republican systems perhaps require higher levels of social capital, and as a country becomes more diverse, so the existence of powerful elected presidents and powerful unelected judges promotes a dangerous and fearful winner-takes-all mentality. It is not a coincidence that almost all the great multiracial states in history have been ruled by monarchs, and those exceptions – the Soviet Union and republican Brazil – have not been particularly happy or successful.
It’s not that some systems of government or institutions are superior; rather that they have evolved to fit the culture, just like different styles of vernacular architecture come to make best of the local climate. England’s system, because of its particular history, came to better suit the settlement set out by Walter Bagehot in the 19th century, of the dignified and efficient double set of constitutions.
The British constitution has evolved, built piecemeal over centuries, so that any radical change is likely to bring instability far outweighing the benefits; every time Tony Blair tinkered with the constitution, he made it worse, like an overconfident middle-aged man trying his hand at DIY.
Blair’s attempts at tinkering abroad were far worse, part of the great delusion of the early 21st century in which abstract principles of democracy could be imposed across the world. Indeed, Afghanistan might have stood a better chance with a restored monarchy, yet the country’s new conquerors refused to countenance such an idea because of deep-seated opposition to hereditary rule; instead the Coalition chose Hamid Karzai, who happened to be the direct descendent of Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, Britain’s 19th-century handpicked ruler.
The Ruritanian aspects of British monarchy, from the Stone of Destiny to the Lord Lyon King, may seem either wonderfully evocative, or ridiculous, but they do serve a purpose, an expression of the legitimacy and stability that arises from an ancient system of government. And in a world where forms of signalling are so important and widespread, in everything from our clothes to our political opinions, these are subtle — and accurate — signals that this is the sort of place you wouldn’t mind spending the rest of your life.
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Monarchies have been at a competitive disadvantage versus republics throughout the modern military period. London defeated King Charles because they were better organized for war. Meanwhile, across the Channel, the Dutch republic defeated the Spanish monarchy, being better organized for war. The French state developed as an absolute monarchy in reaction to republicanism and responsive to military revolution, but its inefficiencies proved to be its downfall. Levee en masse and conscription armies, the burgeoning nationalism of the Victorian "golden age," industrialization, etc -- when it all came to a head after 1914, the monarchies mostly could not compete with republics, which were more flexible and efficient at war, so the monarchies largely disappeared, and Fukuyama patted himself on the back that History had reached an end.
As you note, there is something about humans that makes us want a king or queen to rule us, and I would even add that it explains much about the nature of celebrity in our time. North Korea and Syria both claim to be republics, but resemble hereditary monarchies enough to bolster that argument. Contra Fukuyama, there is no intrinsic force within capital-H History that prevents monarchy from ever making a comeback. Think about how much science fiction depicts royalism in the far future. But first, a monarch will have to put together the various human and technological infrastructures needed to overturn the republican advantage in warmaking.
We could also mention the Austrian Habsburgs. Up to the fall of the empire in 1918 the Habsburgs presided over a cosmopolitan society that allowed for tremendous integration of Jews and other groups. The collapse of the empire and retreat to provincial nationalism left minority groups in suddenly precarious positions with disastrous outcomes 25 years later.