The abolition of the monarchy in several European countries during the twentieth century has led to a teleological assumption that, in time, most democracies will become republics, as the highest form of democratic government.
But according to the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, in their 2018 survey four out of the top five democracies in the world were monarchies, as were nine out of the top fifteen.
In our book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy, we explore how constitutional monarchy and democracy can be complementary rather than conflicting notions.2
Regulation of the monarchy
Any stranger reading the texts of the Danish or Norwegian constitutions would think that in each case the monarch runs the country. But in Denmark and Norway, as in the UK, conventions constrain the monarch. In the Netherlands the Queen was removed from deciding who should become prime minister; in Luxembourg the Grand Duke lost the power to assent to the laws made by parliament; in the UK the Queen has lost the prerogative power to dissolve parliament. All the monarchies are tightly regulated by law: monarchy is subject to democracy, not the other way round.
The monarch and close members of the royal family are also severely constrained in terms of life choices: their freedom of speech is restricted, they are not free to marry whom they want, they lack freedom of religion (in Scandinavia and the UK), free choice of career, and the right to privacy.
Marrying or being born into a royal family thus involves big sacrifices: they lead very privileged lives, but within a gilded cage. In 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan decided the constraints and loss of privacy were too great, and opted out: an outcome forecast by an article in Political Quarterly in 2003 as a likely consequence of conflating royalty with celebrity.3
Modern monarchs have no political power
While constitutional monarchs remain the ultimate guardian of the constitution, they have little or no discretion when it comes to matters of executive government. They are limited to Bagehot’s trio of rights: the rights to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn.
A different kind of influence might be psychological rather than political: the potential for the monarch to provide support to the prime minister through their weekly meetings. It may be fanciful to depict the monarch as mentor, but political memoirs show that some UK prime ministers have valued the opportunity to talk things through with someone above the political fray.
The one sphere where monarchs still have considerable discretion is when it comes to organising the programme of visits within their own country, in terms of the regions and causes they are seen to support. They also have limited scope for expressing their own views in their annual Christmas or New Year message.
Reasons for governments to support the monarchy
Governments typically support a hereditary monarchy because it has widespread popular support for what it does. But there is a condition: monarchs have to remain above politics; and governments will ensure they are kept in their place.
A respected monarchy can also lend legitimacy to the other state institutions, and bolster the loyalty of citizens. Busy prime ministers are able to despatch the monarch or lesser royals to ceremonial events, state visits and trade missions. And, when negotiating trade deals with other monarchies, it helps to send a royal to seal the deal.
Reasons for the people to support the monarchy
For most members of the public, support for the monarchy lies in the ceremonial roles performed by the monarch. Prominent features of this dimension include the monarchy as a neutral focus of national loyalty in times of crisis and times of celebration. Examples of the monarch speaking for the nation in times of crisis include broadcasts by all eight European monarchs during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
Bagehot suggested that monarchy had survived and thrived by appealing to the heart rather than the head. In more recent times, the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton attracted almost 40 million television viewers in the UK. As the journalist Emma Duncan noted: ‘There’s a lot to be said for an institution that both embodies national values and brings joy’.6
This is not to argue that these features cannot be seen in republics. But republican heads of state cannot bring the symbolism of the family to national life, nor can they bring the glamour and stardust of royalty. And, after all, except for their hereditary character, there is an important sense in which the European monarchies are already republics.
Risks and threats
The greatest contemporary threat to the monarchy is the loss of privacy. Harassment of the royal family in pursuit of stories about their private lives is worst in the UK, with the phone hacking scandal as an example. Harassment is also rife on social media.
A second threat to the monarchy is human frailty. Loyalty now is less to the institution, and more to each holder of the office; and it is conditional on good behaviour. Here, one strength of monarchy—undisputed succession and the promise of personal continuity—is potentially a weakness.
The future for monarchy
European monarchy must be doing something right for it to remain popular. Its survival, on the other hand, cannot be taken for granted.
Its room for manoeuvre is increasingly circumscribed by the demands put upon it, and many of these demands are contradictory. Monarchy has to be a living fairy tale and an endless source of glamorous images; but its members must also be accessible and ordinary as individuals. Royal families should demonstrate impeccable family values, yet they are just as fallible as the rest of us and live in the harsh spotlight of relentless publicity.
To conclude, monarchy has adapted in response to enormous social and political change, and continues to possess features of great social value. For the eight European monarchies that remain, there seems no reason why they should not continue for many years to come, so long as they retain the support of their governments, and the people.