By Charles A. Coulombe
The United States of America constitutes the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Yet, in seeming paradox, this mighty imperium is a federative republic made up of 50 small ones and a few possessions held in common between them. It is very difficult, indeed, in the face of this reality, to argue the case for monarchy. Or is it?
In the sheer realm of pragmatism the overwhelming physical success of the American commonwealth is a powerful argument in favor of her institutions. Moreover, reverence for these institutions themselves is not pragmatic, but in essence, religious. Every “product” of the American educational system is taught to revere the Pilgrims and Puritans as the prophets of the old law; the Founding Fathers as the apostles; George Washing ton, Abraham Lincoln and, (depending upon one’s politics) Teddy or Franklin Roose velt as the holy trinity; the Constitution as holy writ; places like Old North Church, Independence Hall and the Lincoln Memorial as shrines; and such items as the flag and the Liberty Bell as holy relics. An American monarchist is considered to be not merely blind to his nation’s success as a republic, but worse yet, “un-American”: He is an infidel in the temple.
But setting aside both our country’s (doubtless temporary, if history may be believed) power, and our national mythology, there must be something to be said for mankind’s oldest institution of government. The United States is a mere 225 years old as an independent nation, and has been the world’s financial power for 86 years, her mightiest single power for 55 and her only superpower for just a decade.
Regardless of our might, moreover, and the power of our president over the affairs of all other nations, and despite our loud and long protestations against kings and crowns, a funny thing happens when sovereigns actually appear over here. Be it the king of Spain or the queen of Great Britain, politicos and media folk alike tend to bow and scrape. Actors and actresses, who in America generally receive the adulation reserved for royalty in other nations, are no less forward. When the king and queen of Sweden in 1988 arrived for a reception at Holly wood’s Motion Picture Academy, this writer observed the struggles to reach the royal couple on the part of people who normally profess nothing but scorn for such things. Could it be that, at the bottom of all our posturings, lies a psychological need for kingship?
Before we look any further into the topic, we need to define our terms. Mention monarchy to most Americans, and they will cite Nero, Ivan the Terrible and a historically ridiculous view of George III as “proofs” that kings are tyrants and monarchy mere oppression. But this is as foolish an argument as pointing out Hit ler, Stalin and Idi Amin as typical presidents. As all republics and all republicans are not the same, neither are all monarchies, nor all monarchs.
Medieval Christian monarchies, to be sure, were barely governments in our sense of the term; lacking both income tax and secret police, the worst kings of the Middle Ages could do little more than make life miserable for their entourage. When such rulers were bad, the price their nations paid was not oppression, but anarchy. Good kings, conversely, wielding the authority consecrated them by the church, could and did mobilize the powers of church, nobility, guilds and so on, for the common good. It is fair to say that no nation in the formerly Christian West is as well governed today as they were by the best of their medieval sovereigns.
The absolute monarchies, such as those of Louis XIV, were in reality simply stages in the growth of the modern state; when kings, bound by tradition as they were, attempted to limit the state’s power, they were overthrown. Thus William Jefferson Clinton has far more practical power than ever did Louis XIV.
But even the worst despotisms, where “divine” rulers such as the emperor of China, or “leaders of the faithful,” like the Ottoman sultan, were at least more humane than the Ataturks and Maos who replaced them. In terms of taxation alone, the American people have never—at least in the 20th century—been bled by the tax man so lightly under their elected representatives as they were under George III.
Today, however, with exception of the Muslim monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and the Gulf States) and little Buddhist Bhutan, the world’s monarchs preside over modern states. Practically speaking, the kings of Spain, Sweden, Belgium and Nepal, the queens of Denmark, the Netherlands and Great Britain (who wears also the crowns of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other realms), and the emperor of Ja pan, are figureheads—as the saying goes, they “reign, but do not rule.” Under their authority, politicians manipulate and bamboozle their subjects as well as under any of the planet’s republics. Surely these crowns are undemocratic window-dressing best put out of the way?
By no means. Non-totalitarian republics come in two varieties: presidential and parliamentary. The first sort, prevalent in the Americas (and, since 1958, in France), offer an elected head of state who is Head of Government as well. He fights with the legislature over budgets, bills and appointments, but generally has near-complete control of the day-today workings of government, as well as of the armed forces. In short, practically speaking, unless he falls victim to Watergate-style scandal, he may enjoy near total power without answering to anyone.
The second variety is more popular in Europe. In Germany, Ireland, Italy, Austria and most of the rest of republican Europe, the president is, in terms of actual power, a figurehead elected by parliament to perform the tasks given constitutional monarchs: opening and closing parliament, receiving ambassadors’ credentials, appointing the head of the largest party as prime minister and a host of other ceremonial functions.
To be sure, even a “figurehead” monarch is of more use to his people than either type of president. Trained from birth for his position, he does not have to spend half his term learning his job and the other half getting re-elected, as must the chief of a presidential republic. Nor is he beholden to the interest groups who secured his election. The king is rarely a creature of a political party, but rather must work with all of them—today’s opposition may be tomorrow’s government.
The monarch is a human flag. Unlike the world’s presidents, whose significance to their countries spans only a single career, the sovereign generally sums up in his own being all his nation’s history. He is, as it were, the father of the national family.
In a republic, members of the party out of power are effectively frozen out of national life. But in a monarchy, the king remains a focus of loyalty beyond party. Such institutions as the courts, the armed forces and the universities, which in a republic always run the risk of becoming politicized (and so less effective), in a monarchy remain attached directly to the crown.
One of the major roles of the monarch is as ultimate guardian of the law. Ordinarily, this is a ceremonial position; appointing the head of the largest party in Parliament as prime minister, dissolving Parliament and calling for new elections at the prime minister’s request—these tasks, formal as they are, represent a greater reality: it is the sovereign’s authority which the ministers of the day exercise, and that authority may be withdrawn.
It has rarely happened in this century, but on several occasions, where prime ministers have tried illegally to hold on to power, or to void their respective constitutions, such as in 1930s Italy, the sovereign or his representative has acted decisively to maintain the rule of law. In other cases, where the political classes have been unanimous in their support of or opposition to a measure against the interests of the people, such as in 1990s Thailand, the sovereign has raised his voice, when no one else could speak.
A president would be incapable of such tasks. In a parliamentary presidency, there could be no question of the president acting against the prime minister who created him; in a presidential republic, it would be the president himself who was thus voiding the law. In neither case could the chief executive claim the support of the courts and the armed forces on behalf of the people.
There is a deeper tie to the populace for monarchs than merely that of defending their liberties. In every case, the monarchy is religious in nature, and loyalty to the crown is a religious duty. Depending upon the religion of the country involved, the monarch is either chief layman or a quasi-priest. Although, due to the desire to imitate the United States, the Ameri can myth of “separation of church and state” grows everywhere in popularity among the world’s political classes, a secular monarchy is a contradiction in terms. However dimly, the monarchy is seen as a reflection of the divine kingship, which nearly all faiths claim underlies the world. Needless to say, the very concept is alien in a republic, which must officially see men purely as productive and consuming units and treat them as such.
But even as the sovereign’s national fatherhood concerns him with the physical well-being of his subjects, so too does his religious relationship with them involve him in their spiritual and educational welfare. Hence the royal patronage which is such a large feature of churches and schools both abroad and even in the United States. Again, this is an aspect of life which is quite out of the purview of a president.
But none of this is to say that the institution as currently constituted is not without its drawbacks. If anything, in the countries mentioned, their monarchies have lost much of their ability to serve their people through acceptance of the myth that the politicians really do speak for the people—or for that matter, that whatever the majority of the people want at any given time ought to be given preference over objective right and wrong.
It is thus very difficult for a monarch to stand up to the politicos over issues of any less moment than the overthrow of the Constitution. In Australia, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere, we have seen politicians, even prime ministers, who have taken oaths to their sovereign and yet perjure themselves by joining republican campaigns. Yet the conventions of constitutional monarchy forbid the king to say a word in his own defense or that of the crown he represents, lest he himself be “political.”
The same conventions require the monarch to assent to legislation he himself finds objectionable, thus ensuring that he is to be the only inhabitant of the realm who is not permitted freedom of conscience. This flaw was thrown into relief when King Baudouin I of Belgium “abdicated for a day” rather than sign into law a bill permitting abortion.
If anything, if the institution is ever to regain its effectiveness, kings must begin to act in regard to politicians not as if they were the chosen servants of the people of legend and tale, but what they are: the governing caste, whose interests frequently run counter to those of the folk from whose votes they claim to derive legitimacy.
The very fact that kings are not elected saves them from the most common illusion of politicians—that they owe their position to their own excellence. A successful politician must pursue power the way an artist pursues his art; like an artist, the politician is thereby divorced from the common run of men and becomes a breed apart, seeing all things through the prism of his own efforts. But the “blood royal” is not a skill; it is a gift of God, or chance if one is not a believer. He in whose veins it runs is painfully aware that it did not come to him through his own works, and so is less likely to be tainted with the sort of hubris which ends in bunkers and last stands.
In a word, it would seem to this writer that the best role model for a modern monarch is not the current constitutional mode—even though this continues to provide benefits superior to most if not all republics—but that of the president of the United States. In origin, this office’s du ties and powers were based upon a misunderstanding of those of King George III, the notion involved being that of an elected king. But while George III himself did not enjoy such powers, his Stuart predecessors did.
Policies could be long term and national interest-based, rather founded upon the shifts of public opinion—or at least, whatever the media interpret that opinion to be. Yet the existence of a legislature through whom all measures must be financed would ensure that a king’s policies could not be too extravagant.
Moreover, placing the permanent bureaucracy under actual control by a permanent monarch would help increase its effectiveness. In republics of both sorts, one finds either a spoils system which produces ineptitude, or else a series of fiefdoms uncontrolled by the ever-changing politicians nominally at their head. Traditionally, monitoring of bureaucrats was a major function of royal administration.
But what if one does get an incompetent sovereign? History is filled with regencies and replacements of incapable heirs by dynastic councils. It is not a perfect system, to be sure, but nothing is, as the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton might remind us. To that point it could be replied that, at least, Clinton would leave at the end of his term. To be sure; but the same forces which shaped him will shape his successor.
What has been said so far may well apply to today’s constitutional monarchies. But what about further afield? Certainly, in all republican European and some Latin American, Asian and African countries, there are larger or smaller monarchist organizations which seek restoration. There are very many of these on the Internet, whose pages will repay study (you can get a list—see the end of this article). For each of these nations, republican revolution was a break in the organic development of the nation, and the scars from which have both held unfortunate consequences and never healed. For such countries as these, the return of the king would have a healing effect, to say the least.
But the greatest single opponent to such occurrences is our own nation. Given our government’s intervention in Bulgaria and Romania during the 1990s (reminding restoration-minded governments of the effects of cutting off U.S. aid should they be so rash as to bring back their immensely popular kings) and its refusal to deal with Serbia’s Crown Prince Alexander (the only figure in that nation’s politics capable of uniting the anti-Milosevic opposition), it is apparent that we will continue to thwart these aspirations, however laudable they may be. It is not a role an American who loves his country can relish.
And what of the United States itself? Well, despite our deepest roots, our tradition is republican and doubtless thus to persist. There is no monarchical heritage shared by all the nation, simply a collection of colonial and immigrant relics and memories. As we are, we are likely to remain, so long as we exist as a country. But we might at least, in the light of our experiences with the Clinton administration, admit not merely the utility of monarchy for others, but the truth of C.S. Lewis’s dictum:
Monarchy can easily be debunked, but watch the faces, mark well the accents of the debunkers. These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut: whom no rumor of the polyphony, the dance, can reach—men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality, they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honor a king they honor millionaires, athletes or film stars instead—even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served: Deny it food and it will gobble poison.