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At first sight, perhaps this is a ludicrous question. The fact that there are still monarchies around the world indicates that there are many millions who feel the institution is still relevant.
To begin with, I’d like to state my own stance on this matter. I am a pro-monarchist as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, although I would definitely not describe myself as an ‘enthusiast’. I am more of a pragmatist. I look at other countries without monarchies and try to imagine what it would be like to live there, with a president or some other head of state. Then I look at my own country (England/UK) and those other constitutional monarchies, largely in northern Europe. Generally speaking, I feel that these latter countries, including my own, have a strong sense of stability and a certain amount of tradition, a continuity which has brought many great benefits despite problems and inequalities. There are also strong links between most of these countries. Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and England have a strong tie to one another culturally going back over a thousand years. This may disguise a monarchy’s actual ability to bring political and cultural stability to any country. In other words, there are family ties between the monarchies of the above mentioned european countries. This sense of history and tradition and the governmental and judicial institutions created over centuries to balance the power of the monarchy, may be the real reason for any perceived stability and not as a result the monarchy itself. So we might say, from the time of Magna Carta in 1016, England has forged a kind of constitutional power balance, by and large, a fire fighting exercise with basically positive results which has served as a model for other countries.
Yet, despite this, if we are talking about monarchy as a world institution, as opposed to say merely a north european ‘club’ of countries, then it is difficult to give the idea of monarchy the thumbs up. How would the United States feel about having a monarchy? I would suggest that there are some who would say they would like one, perhaps some would even entertain the idea of the United Kingdom’s queen! But seriously – the very founding of countries like the USA required a proper cleavage from the colonial past, a move into something new and free. That the people of the USA would ‘sign up’ to the idea of an unelected head of state does not seem credible, despite the experience of their neighbours in Canada, whose constitution allows for Queen Elizabeth to be head of state.
The experience of France, too, is worth looking at. We often look at the French Revolution and forget to study the ensuing eighty years or so from 1789, when the country went through many painful changes; to being an empire, a republic, a monarchy again, an empire, before finally settling on being a republic after the wars with Prussia (proto Germany) after 1870. Even then, France has re-invented itself within its republican guise several times since, the last being with President de Gaul. In contrast, what is now the United Kingdom, has seen slow constitutional evolution as opposed to lasting drastic revolution. One could argue that the history of France since its first revolution shows that stripping the monarchy only brought more change, more instability. However, the French, it must be said, may well be comfortable with this situation, being able to ‘renew’ themselves when required.
Of course, the English too toyed with the idea of doing without a king from 1649 to 1660. That England was the first major north european country to attempt to permanently abolish the monarchy is in retrospect no real surprise. We have to remember that from the 11th to the 14th century England was in effect in almost continual occupation by a foreign force. The kings and the nobility spoke French, usually thinking more about fighting foreign wars and lining their own pockets with gold and glory than caring for the almost silent, long-suffering and anonymous English people of the period. The One Hundred Years War with France brought no lasting benefit to the people, quite the reverse in fact, despite the famous victories like Sluys, Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt. And the subsequent English occupation of France in the first half of the 15th century had totally collapsed by 1453, and England was plunged into another civil war, The Wars of the Roses.
When Charles I later fully extended what he saw as his divine right to rule as he wished, the English fell out among themselves about what to do. Some supported the King totally, while others pressed for political change. Many families were divided about the issue, with tragic consequences. However, despite the fact that the Parliamentarians were ultimately victorious, even the likes of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth, had to fight off suggestions that he should be crowned king himself! This shows how ingrained the idea of kingship was within the English nation at the time, despite the huge disaffection felt during the civil wars against the then king. I would suggest that even now England, and to some degree the whole United Kingdom, would not wish to make any significant constitutional changes in regard to the monarchy. Even an independent Scotland, a very real possibility within the next few years, would probably wish to retain the Queen as head of state.
However, there are significant differences in the ‘european club’ of monarchies. It is true that the Scandinavian monarchies (and Spain) are more ‘stripped down’ than the United Kingdom’s and the royal families of those lands are less removed from the populace, more accessible, they lead what would be considered more normal lives. There have been discussions about stripping down the British monarchy in similar fashion, but it is difficult to see this happening in the short term.
So while accepting that on one level, the very idea of monarchy in this ever changing century is an anachronism, we also have to accept that continuity is also important. What works for one country does not work for another. We may be witnessing the painful birth of planetary culture, but that does not mean that everywhere has to be the same. Perhaps, for our own well-being, our sanity even, we should listen to the lessons of history, which are telling us it is best to preserve our diversity. That diversity will almost certainly include countries with monarchies well into this century and beyond.
© copyright dfbarker 2012
This is a vast issue so forgive me for digressing here and there. I could have gone on for a long time.