Listening and reading the media as they cover the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I noticed a profound misunderstanding of what a constitutional monarchy represents, how diverse it is, and how it compares to a republic. Being a citizen of the Kingdom of Belgium I have had many opportunities to see our Kings at work and, as a lawyer, took a keen interest in this subject.
1. Heredity, Election and Legitimacy
The first characteristic of a constitutional monarchy is that it is hereditary. While it provides an environment where the future Monarch is prepared for this role during many years, and in the case of Britain, half a century, his or her values are transmitted both by the reigning Monarch and by the elected officials. When they accede to the throne, they are aware of their duties and the limitations of their powers under the constitution.
The electoral system is, by definition, a popular decision and, therefore is deemed to be more democratic. It brings Heads of State of very different nature. The US and France are Presidential systems directly electing their Head of States since the decisions are taken by the Head of State and the Government executes. In other countries like Germany, Italy or India and many others, it is the Government who is in charge and the Head of State, while representing the country, is elected by the Parliament.
Does that mean Monarchies do not have any legitimacy? That would go too far: in a Monarchy, the role, duties, and powers are described in the constitution. So, he or she directly derives the throne from a constitution that is democratically approved. The constitution can be amended to create a Republic (as Trinidad and Tobago did this year). It is therefore incorrect to say that the legitimacy of monarchy is not democratic. As long as it is considered by the people as an acceptable regime, it is legitimate.
2. Longevity and independence
The main characteristic of a monarchy is that it lasts until the death or the resignation of the Monarch. The death of the monarch immediately opens the throne to his or her successor, known through the constitutional devolution. We saw it with the immediate accession to the throne of King Charles III upon his mother’s death.
It involves a clear situation well before the successor to the throne become King or Queen. The decision of King Charles III to appoint his son William as Prince of Wales was an immediate confirmation that he is going to be the next King after his father’s death or resignation.
· The tenure of a monarch, contrary to a President, is not fixed. As said earlier, it depends on the death or the resignation. It creates a longevity that, in the case of The Queen, spanned on seventy years. More importantly, since it is not fixed, it is absent from all the preelection turmoil of an election date. It allows a monarch to take a long-term view.
· The fact that a Monarch is not dependent on popular vote allows him or her to act independently from the vicissitudes of political currents and undercurrents. This independence is a source of wisdom and judgment that, often enough, escapes authorities and politicians who inevitably are putting first and foremost their future in line. Few statesmen have been able, like Winston Churchill and a few others, to take the necessary distance and independence to focus on the good of the country. From my experience, most monarchs do have the good of the country very much as their commitment to the Nation.
3. Patriotism and royalty: the importance of symbols and pageantry.
Whatever polls and other opinion leaders think, it is essential to recognize the popular support to the monarchy. The attachment and affection that many Royals enjoy, by nature, is symbolic. There is no personal relationship with the Monarch. However, it would be wrong not to understand how the population does (or does not) project their patriotism in the monarchs.
In most countries, Royal events are well attended (nowhere more than in the United States), they have a decorum and are associated with the national flag and, often enough, military display, even though Kings and Queens are generally not the Commanders in Chief.
While pageantry is often associated with Royalty, Republics, at various degrees, have inherited and copied the practices of Kingdoms. National Days celebrations are not different from the Royal birthdays. If you look at India or China, they have nothing to envy to the United Kingdom. The size of pageantry varies among countries, but it is not the monarchic divide that makes a difference. The 14th of July celebration in France is not fundamentally different from the British Royal birthday.
It is crucial however to distinguish between patriotism that is a positive attachment to one’s nation, for which generations died to defend their country and nationalism. The latter is a political ideology that aggressively rejects immigration and inclusiveness. It is fundamentally xenophobic. It rejects the difference.
4. Wealth and costs
The debate about money is legitimate but clouded by a fundamental confusion.
Several Royal families have accumulated over the years a substantial wealth. One of the advantages of this wealth is that it protects those families from the temptation of corruption. As we have seen time and time again, Presidents and their entourage have often used their positions to build wealth. How much did Donald Trump add to his personal wealth by spending four years at the White House? Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan have amassed several billion dollars.
The costs of a royal endowment is often looked at as exorbitant. I have not found for this research for the total costing of a President: the 2020 US Presidential election did cost, according to the BBC, $ 14 billion. It is well-known that the Elysée Palace spends a multiple of the German Chancery.
In the absence of a thorough costing of republics and monarchies, it becomes extremely difficult to have a comparable cost-benefit analysis. If the budget of the Royal Household in Britain and the French President are equivalent, it is hard to build the case of an excessive cost of the monarchy. The White House is more than a Presidential cost, as it hosts substantial activities which are externalized in other countries.
5. The Royal Family
One of the differences between a Republic and a Monarchy is that, at least officially, a monarchy includes not only the King or the Queen but also members of the Royal family. Royal titles are allocated to members of the family, which identifies them as part of the Monarchy. This is intrinsic to its structure.
This is where we enter into a very unaccounted for item: the emotional attachment of the citizens to their Royal family. It is a benefit, but also a challenge.
Which family can survive under the spotlight of ruthless tabloids who are using various methods to intrude into their private life. In the sad story of Princess Diana, did the Queen and Prince Charles act in the interest of the country? Did they act as Senior Royals or as mother and husband? Did the media play a role in her divorce and her death? I am not here to take positions, but it is sometimes traumatic to have to live family conflicts under the public eye, as we saw in the case of Prince Harry and his wife.
This is probably one of the most delicate balancing acts that any royal family has to perform. There are no clearly defined borders between duty and family. Some families have done it better than others.
The Royal family also performs duties in a monarchy. It must, however, be restrained to those who are part of the inner circle of the family. By performing that duty, they unify the country and support effectively the activities of their governments in many fields. State visits and other encounters are part of the diplomacy of a country.
Here again, there is no difference with a Republic. Presidents are often acting as go-betweens and sales representatives for the companies of their countries. They are remunerated for it, and it is fine. A Head of State visit does have a huge impact since it reaches the Head of State of the visited country. In a Republic, however, the family does not have the status of a Royal family and is not used the same way as in a monarchy.
6. Between Kingdoms and Republics, history is often the divide.
It took the Japanese defeat of Word War II to announce that Japan’s Emperor was not a divinity. The Kingdom of Thailand is dominated by a quasi-religious and overwhelming monarchy that explains some of the demonstrations of the last few years. A thousand years on the throne carries a historical legacy.
I am deeply convinced that the debate for or against monarchy is the wrong one. The choice is engrained in history: Charles de Gaulle created the Fifth Republic that still governs France. The British Royal Family has a millennium of genealogy. The US Presidency is engrained in the Constitution. Germany had to redefine itself after the second world war. The Indian Republic is using the structure of the common law. What matters is that a democracy be endorsed by the people.
Writing that the death of Queen Elizabeth might mark the end of the British monarchy does not take into consideration the popular emotional attachment, the importance of the Royal duties and representation and the service and stability it provides to the country. Whether King Charles III will reign over Canada or Australia is a different story as it is a legacy of colonization. Each democratic country has its own idiosyncratic mix that defines the Nation. There is no good or bad system in the absolute. Let’s respect the way nations are governed and ruled. It is the people choice.