What is the point of Monarchy?

by Michael Carberry



I am not a monarchist. As First Secretary in the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur during a visit by Princess Margaret in 1990 I was nominated to accompany her on her official visits around the city. I surprised my boss by saying that I was taking leave and had no desire to play nursemaid to a minor Royal. So the Second Secretary got the job and a signed photograph of which he was very proud. But that does not mean I am necessarily anti-royal.


The question which interests me is what do we want from “Monarchy”? What is the point of a king or queen? Historically that was clear – it was the man (or very occasionally the woman) who ruled the country. The role was limited to two areas – defending the kingdom against attack from abroad and maintaining law and order and administering justice at home. Having secured their position often by force they then held it by right of succession. But not infrequently that right was waived in favour of a “strong king”


Such traditional monarchies still exist, and not just in places like Saudi Arabia. The People’s Republic of North Korea – now on the third generation of the Kim dynasty - is nothing less than an old-fashioned monarchy like that of Louis XIV and such as existed in most of Europe until the First World War. But outside a few authoritarian dictatorships such absolutist monarchies are increasingly unacceptable. Constitutional Monarchy evolved only slowly; usually where the monarch was weak as in England in the centuries after the Civil War. Executive power was steadily transferred to elected politicians while the sovereign retained the status and ceremonial role of the person who, in theory, “ruled” the country. That is neither logical nor particularly democratic but the question is what do you replace it with?


The problem with executive presidents is that, as elected politicians, they are always unpopular with a large part of the population and, as was the case with Donald Trump, can be extremely divisive at home and an embarrassment abroad. Non-executive presidents, as in Germany and Austria, are often superannuated politicians who are seen as ordinary people decked out in the trappings of a head of state but lacking either glamour or political power and frequently lampooned.


By contrast, monarchy retains a peculiar mystique for many ordinary people not least in republican countries like the United States and France. Look at the number of magazines and TV programmes devoted to the subject. The Socialist wing of the Labour Party has always been embarrassed by the attachment of the working classes to the monarchy in places like south Wales or the north of England. And although the monarchy is less popular in Scotland than in England the SNP have still had to promise to retain the Queen if Scotland were to become independent because she remains popular north of the border.


That loyalty and affection can sometimes be used to good effect especially at times of national crisis. The former Spanish king, Juan Carlos, may have fallen from favour but I suspect history will regard him highly as the man who almost single-handled restored democracy to Spain after the death of Franco without civil discord or bloodshed. When reactionary members of the Guardia Civil tried to launch a coup, taking over the Parliament in 1981, it was Juan Carlos who got on the telephone to the generals and challenged them to show their loyalty to him by defending the Constitution, which they duly did. In the same way only the then Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, could have persuaded the Japanese people to lay down their arms and surrender at the end of World War II rather than fight to the death for the Japanese homeland.


It is equally true that the right kind of non-executive president – such as was Mary Robinson (President of the Republic of Ireland 1991-1997) – can be transformative, raising the profile of both the office and the country far beyond that achieved by many monarchies. But Mary Robinson represented a country where the British Crown was seen as the traditional enemy. And therein lies the point. The European and Japanese monarchies are rooted in the history and culture of their respective peoples. They are part of what people regard as their national identity and my own feeling is “if it’s not broke don’t fix it!”


But for monarchy to remain effective, it needs to retain its mystique. The fundamental mistake of the British Royalty in recent years has been to try and be too popular, embracing celebrity culture in a way that puts them on a level with television soap opera stars or football player’s wives. The most egregious example was the catastrophic Royal “It’s a Knockout” organised by Prince Edward some years ago. It also means behaving with dignity and decorum and while Queen Elizabeth II can hardly be faulted in that respect the same cannot be said of other members of the Royal family. Sexual high-jinks plastered all over the tabloids or soul-baring interviews on television chat shows have done nothing for the institution. As far as I am aware, European Royals, are (generally) more low key and more discreet. They also benefit from more protection of their privacy. If one wants to keep a monarchy in the twenty-first century then I believe that is the way to do it.


As a twelve year old school-boy I spoke in a debate on Monarchy in which I ended with the following stirring peroration (cribbed word-for-word from an encyclopaedia article):


“The role of the monarch today, especially in North Western Europe, is no longer the possession of governing power, but rather the power of attracting loyalty and acting as a living and personal representative of the call of the free state upon its members. The constitutional king or queen is no longer the master but the servant of the people.”


I believe that is still broadly true but, if they all disappeared tomorrow, I for one would shed no tears

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