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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Abolish the monarchy or reinvent it?

Let's hope for Catherine Middleton
that she 
escapes the fate of the three
Catherines Heny VIII married (out
of a total of six wives) :
he divorced one (Catherine of Aragon),
beheaded another (Catherine Howard)
with the last one, Catherine Parr,
surviving  a similar 
fate only by the
King's timely death.

Unless you've been living on planet Mars for the past couple of weeks, you are unlikely to have missed yesterday's wedding of the heir to the heir to the British throne. The occasion has sparked some lively debate on the monarchy's future and I was surprised at the disappointing quality of The Economist's column on the topic.

I remember an excellent article they wrote a good 15 years ago called "An idea whose time has passed" which made cogently the case against the monarchy. Last week's column, on the other hand, is one of the worst I’ve read in The Economist in a long time. Although I don’t disagree with its main tenet, abolishing the monarchy, the arguments used are so convoluted that Bagehot does a disservice to the republican cause. With people attacking the monarchy this way, the House of Hanover (a.k.a Windsors)  is safe for another three centuries.  In theory I would always prefer a republic to a monarchy for the simple reason that why should the highest post in the land, that of head of state, be reserved to a single family? In a truly democratic and egalitarian society anybody should be allowed to reach that exalted position.

All the talk about modernizing the monarchy is simply absurd: how can you "modernize" an institution created in and for the Middle Ages? Its idea has just passed its time. The only way to "modernize" the monarchy is surely to abolish it.

Now, to the real world. Monarchies fall only in periods of crisis: war, revolutions and other political/social upheavals. There is no case of a peacetime “pensioning off” of the royals since, at least in European monarchies which are democratic societies, people realize that the royal family does little harm and therefore why fix what ain't broke? Instead of bothering about who should be on the throne (with limited political power) or even whether there should be a throne in the first place, people realize that there are a lot of other more serious issues  to deal with: unemployment, global warming, reforming bankers –now here’s a group of people who should head straight to the guillotine and yet our so-called democracies dare not touch them; maybe they are the true royals, our undisputed masters. And when a democracy does go to the polls to decide whether to keep the monarchy, in the only recent case (Australia), they voted to keep it (regardless of the fact that the monarch lives thousands of miles away and is now too old to visit them.) And for good reason. Look at the French model which isn’t one: the French president is for all intents and purposes an elected monarch who wields enormous power (proportionately even more than the US president) and yet we can’t say that the French are better off with him (we have yet to have a “her.”)

And why should the alternative to the current monarchical system be a republic only? One can be creative and use an intermediate system which would be more in consonance with the country’s political and institutional history. For instance, why not make the queen or king an elected position? The much-beloved (by the British and tourists) pageantry, coronation and titles will still be maintained but any British citizen could aspire to the position which they will hold for life (just like judges and some other officials in many republican democracies.) This life term wouldn’t be a democratic issue since the monarch would not hold executive power, the Prime Minister would continue with his functions. 

Actually, if it sounds like a novel idea, historically it isn’t. As recently as the 18th century, Poland chose its kings this way. Polish kings came to the throne not through inheritance but because they had been selected by the Diet (Polish parliament.) Actually, the Poles didn’t even show too nationalistic a streak as they would cast the net wider  and along with representatives from prominent Polish families include European candidates. Thus in the 16th century Henry of Valois, brother to the King of France, was elected king of what for most people then was faraway Poland.  Now that would be a great way for Britain to enhance its European credentials. And who knows? A couple of centuries from now latter-day Britons may well wonder how retarded it was to reserve the crown to a single family.


  1. My wife's Polish and has "boasted" that their King was elected.
    Actual research shows they were elected by the "Sejm", which in those days was just a bunch of nobles, so not exactly democratic.
    Leave the Queen as she is, but when she dies it is surely time to be less European and far moe democratic - no monarch, a house of "Lords" elected on STV with members elected for say 9 years, but every area electing a third every 3 years, and having equal power with the "commons" and possibly a President elected directly. It is called Democracy with checks and balances.

    1. That's exactly what I said in my blog : "Polish kings came to the throne not through inheritance but because they had been selected by the Diet (Polish parliament.)" ("Sejm" is the Polish name of the Diet as it is known in English.)

      Both you and your wife are right: Polish Kings were elected rather than just the monopoly of one family, and because the Polish Parliament which chose them was made up only only of noblemen (how is that different from the British Parliament at the same time?) sure it was not very democratic, but definitely more than just restricting the position to one family as is presently the case in Britain.

      As for your suggestion to replace the Queen (or rather her successor) with a president, nothing wrong about it but as I said in my article at the end it is hardly unlikely to take place since most people's attitude to the monarchy is "since it doesn't do any harm, why bother?" in addition to some liking the pageantry, the historical significance and being emotionally attached to it. Never underestimate the power of emotions in politics.