The soft twilight of monarchies

By Razib Khan | April 30, 2011 2:54 am

Years ago I took a course on Tudor and Stuart England. Its primary focus was more on social and cultural aspects of British society at the time, rather than diplomatic history. Later I took an interest in the England of the Civil War era. One thing that struck me was the unquestioned acceptance of monarchy in the minds of the people, from high nobility to low commoner. Like the Romans before the Visigothic sack in the early 5th century these were a people who could not imagine a world any different than the one they had known. That is one of the things which made the execution of Charles I so shocking to many contemporaries. Myself, I was tacitly indoctrinated in American republicanism as a child. Films like the The Patriot grow in the rich soil of the same cultural environment which gave rise to the phenomenon of the antagonists in Roman era films speaking with British accents while the protagonists had robust American drawls. As I spent my formative years on the fringes of of New England there was particular pride taken in that region’s early role in the rebellion whenever we addressed the American Revolutionary War. Clearly I have little reverence and respect for the institution of monarchy as a matter of upbringing and expectation. Not to make too explosive an analogy, but in the past I viewed monarchy as somewhat like slavery, an cultural artifact once universal which would inevitably melt away under the harsh glare of the objective forces of justice for all.

Today I take a more moderate view. I accept that my own reflexive republicanism comes out of a particular cultural milieu and a view of history which we in the United States take for granted. Additionally, I am no longer so enamored of a crass Benthamite rationalism about institutions which do, and don’t, have utility for the greater good. Just as the men and women of the Tudor age took it for granted that the monarch was the natural institution to bring order to a chaotic world, we in our own time assume that democracy is the natural “end of history” when it comes to a more perfect political order. But is it truly so?

It seems likely that monarchy itself was an institutional innovation. We see it in the shift from Mesopotamian nominal theocracies (which were likely de facto oligarchies) to elective monarchies, and finally to dynastic despotisms. And the arrow of history did not always point in one direction. The Romans overthrew their kings, and the wanax did not once again become ubiquitous after the Greeks passed through their Dark Age and rebuilt their civilization. Though the Roman Republic collapsed as a real institutional force in the 1st century B.C., it actually persisted in name for centuries. Only in the early 3rd century did the emperors transform the Senate into a nakedly servile body which no longer even maintained the exterior semblance of independence. The idea of a republic was so powerful in the cultural mythology of the Roman nation that it persisted as a ghostly shadow over centuries of operational despotism. In our own age the legitimacy of democracy is such that even the most objectionable of autocracies often maintain a facade of popular consent, such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The past week the US media has been a tizzy over the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Some Americans were quite excited, while others were not. I would probably class myself in the latter category, not out of antipathy, but out of apathy. We have enough political and social concerns of great weight that I’d rather not focus on foreign dynasties. But I certainly do not judge the British in their celebration. I am sure that from their perspective on the other side of the pond they could point out plenty of baroque and nonsensical institutions and traditions in America which we take for granted as necessary as apple pie. It is an important lesson of adulthood to keep in mind that what is good, right, and pleasing for you, need not be so for others. Whatever the details of the packaging, we all know that the final product of a nominal monarchy is far preferable to a sham democracy.

Addendum: The monarchies of the world:

Image Credit: Kremlin, Nick Warner, Eddo

MORE ABOUT: Culture, Monarchy, Politics

Comments (35)

  1. What happened to the Nepalese royal family?

    Also, is it worth listing dynastic dictatorships that don’t call themselves monarchies? Syria, and North Korea are de facto monarchies, even if they don’t call it that.

  2. Christopher

    The Nepalese monarchy was abolished in 2008 (IIRC) by the Maoists.

    I don’t know, they probably have their own dynamics from actual monarchies.

  3. Syria and North Korea are tyrranies in the classical sense, rather than monarchies.

    A tyrrany can be hereditary, for example Peisistratus was succeeded by his son, Hippias.

    Conversely, a monarchy may not be hereditary, e.g., the Papacy, or the acclamation in the Eastern Roman Empire (which was effectively hereditary for long stretches of time, but not legally so).

  4. You seem to be implying that countries like Canada and the United Kingdom are not democracies. Was that your intent?

  5. John Emerson

    A constitutional monarchy can be democratic. Except perhaps in SE Asia, the green monarchs on the map are powerless.

    The Saudi monarchy’s succession seems to be elective within a kin group. Whether the king is able to designate an heir I don’t know; he can try, but I don’t believe that he necessarily succeeds. Succession is more often more brother to brother / half-brother than father to son. With polygamy half-brothers can be 40 or 50 years apart in age.

    The Holy Roman Empire had elective succession within a rather large kin group up until the time of Napoleon.

    While the Saudi King’s power over commoners is absolute, he seems to have more limited powers visavis members of his own noble clan and the high clergy, and possibly visavis other ennobled clans such as the Bin Ladens. In any case, whatever freedom and politicking there is is within that restricted group. When a dissident group tried for a coup quite awhile back, all the commoners were summarily executed but the nobleman in the group was put under house arrest.

    The Saudi pattern reminds me a bit of the clan organization of the steppe Mongols and Turks, though there’s so little information that that might just be my imagination.

  6. Sandgroper

    “Except perhaps in SE Asia, the green monarchs on the map are powerless. ”

    No, they are not, they provide constitutional safeguards.

    The Queen’s representative in Australia dismissed the Prime Minister in 1975, which in effect caused the overthrow of the then Whitlam Labor Government. That’s about as powerful as it gets.

    I am a staunch anti-monarchist, but the one value I do see in the monarchy is that it provides those safeguards – in other words, the Queen can step in when she is asked to do so (e.g. when there is a constitutional crisis as there was in 1975), and she has powers, which are aimed chiefly at prevention of abuse of power.

    It’s intended as a value-add to democracy – the Queen is nothing but a figurehead, unless she is really needed by the people, whence she more or less becomes the protector of the people, which seems to me to be entirely appropriate – if Australia becomes a republic, that role will need to be enshrined in some other way.

    From what I have seen, the Thai King has operated in pretty much the same way – he stays right out of Government unless there is a real crisis of governance. He is also seen very much as the protector of the Thai people.

  7. John Emerson

    “When she is asked to do so”. I would suspect that the queen did not take the initiative herself. Even so I suppose that you could say that the monarchy had power. But here it seems to have been used to impose British authority on an errant colony.

    It’s also true that in crises throughout history, normally powerless holders of symbolic offices have succeeded in reviving the power of their position by recruiting constituencies.

  8. Robert

    None of the Windsors are up to reviving their power no matter how severe the crisis. Quite the opposite in fact as any truly severe trouble in England would see them blown away in an instant. (Not the least because that Edwardian hat looks completely absurd on Kate’s modern locks. LOL)

    The English love of their kings is simply an expression of ordinary garden variety nationalism.

  9. Social and political systems that diverge from human instincts tend to revert back to earlier forms as time passes.

    Look at how much exposure and attention are given to the office of the POTUS. In many practical political matters, the members of the legislature and the courts are far more important (in theory) but the limelight is always on the one man who is often given both credit and blame for the government’s actions as a whole.

  10. You seem to be implying that countries like Canada and the United Kingdom are not democracies. Was that your intent?

    no. i appreciate the seem.

  11. Commentator

    “…I took a course…” “…I took an interest…” “…One thing that struck me…” “Myself, I was…” “As I spent my formative years…” “…I have little reverence…” “…I viewed monarchy…” “…I take a more moderate view.” Blah, blah, blah.

    You certainly do like to talk about yourself.

    [stop being a troll Vincent Phelps. don’t you have an election to bone up on up there in canada? -Razib]

  12. Stephen

    Don’t believe all the hype. Even in England there’s much apathy to the royal wedding. There’s a poll that shows that 79% “don’t care” about it. Like in the US, I’m sure the ones who do care are very vocal and excited though. In San Francisco where I work there were a lot of people talking about it.


  13. So was the Spanish monarchy re-established to mark a symbolic end to the Franco dictatorship?

  14. chris

    “So was the Spanish monarchy re-established to mark a symbolic end to the Franco dictatorship?”

    AFAIK, Franco intended the revived monarchy to be a continuation of his dictatorship, but Juan Carlos, seeing the writing on the wall perhaps, transitioned to democracy almost immediately.

  15. Sandgroper

    “But here it seems to have been used to impose British authority on an errant colony.”

    How on earth do you read it that way? That’s about the most retarded interpretation possible.

  16. MatthewM

    I think the map is somewhat incomplete. There are various African tribal kings which, although not national in scope, still have great power and sway over their local areas. The same holds true in India, I believe.

  17. John Emerson

    The monarchy was the only hold Britain had on Australia. England was able to use leverage on Australia through the monarchy; Australia retained that small bit of colonial status. As I said, I doubt the Queen did it on her own initiative, and I also doubt that she would have intervened in the same way in British politics.

    I will believe that you are a moron until you explain how that is retarded.

  18. Robert

    “England was able to use leverage on Australia through the monarchy”

    Rubbish. And the Queen didn’t “intervene.” She duly appointed John Kerr as Governor-General at Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s request. During the subsequent budget crisis (one very similar to what would occur here if the senate did not pass a budget and/or debt ceiling limit) the more conservative Kerr sided with the opposition forces led by Malcolm Fraser and with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of Australia’s High Court dismissed Whitlam as PM and called for new general elections in which Fraser’s Coalition won by a landslide.

    Kerr beat Whitlam to the punch by dismissing Whitlam before he could petition the Queen to appoint a different Governor-General (which she most assuredly would have done) more to Whitlam’s liking.

    Whitlam had no one to blame but himself for 1) appointing a politically unreliable ally as Governor-General and 2) not replacing him before he himself was replaced. No one in England was trying to leverage anything. It was an entirely internal Australian affair and there is no reason whatsoever to indulge in silly speculations about monarchical conspiracies.

  19. John Emerson

    Then it has not been shown that the British monarch has any power, which was what was in question. See 6 and 7 above. I plead innocent to having any knowledge of Australian political history.

  20. John Emerson

    Incidentally, moron, this was not silly speculation about monarchical conspiracies. It was a speculation that the Queen, acting quite properly in her function as Queen, intervened in Australian politics, because that was what I though Sandgroper had said.

    How is it a conspiracy theory to say that a monarch exercised a certain power? Do you have any idea what it is that monarchs do?

  21. Robert

    Learn to read. My point was that the Queen did NOT intervene in Australian politics. She dutifully appointed the Governor-General the PM of Australia asked her to appoint. And I’ll thank you to not to direct bitchy ad hominem slurs my way while you are at it.

  22. John Emerson

    Why don’t you learn to read? I was responding to what Sandgroper said, and what I said was reasonable in terms of his statement. But I’m ever so grateful to you for improving my understanding of these important facts about Australian government.

    You leave off the “rubbish” and the “silly”, and I won’t call you a moron.

    And please explain the “conspiracy theory” accusation.

  23. Unless the Queen in her person made some relevant decision – and it would seem that she did not – I would regard the matter as closed. If you twits would move on, please.

  24. Sandgroper

    #18 – “I opine that the Queen of Australia is powerless, despite the fact that I have never read the Constitution of Australia and therefore have no idea what I am talking about. When someone who has read it disagrees, I will opine that the historical example he gives was blah blah blah…”

    What is it I need to explain to you?

  25. Matt B.

    I like to look at the British Commonwealth like this: Each member country has a governor-general appointed by the monarch, and that monarch is ex officio the “governor-general” of the UK. (And then within that, there’s the whole Prince of Wales thing.)

    I think it would be interesting if they decided to have the crown prince be the g-g of the UK, and his son got to be the P/W, so the monarch would be another step removed from ruling and the UK would be one step closer to equality with the other Commonwealth countries.

  26. Sandgroper

    #24 – No, that really isn’t the point. Whether Kerr consulted Elizabeth before he exercised the powers delegated to him as her appointed representative in Australia or not (and I think there is at least a possibility that he did, but we will never know), the point is that those powers exist under the Australian Constitution, and they are not trivial or purely ceremonial, as demonstrated by the events of 1975.

    Robert and I might argue the toss about whether he was right to do what he did, that’s really beside the point, but I think we will agree on the point that the powers existed, and continue to exist.

    Even whether the powers are ever exercised or not is actually irrelevant – they exist. I am of the view that they need to exist as constitutional safeguards, and that if the monarchy is abolished in Australia, they will need to be vested in someone else. (I am not alone in that view – I got it having read the interpretations of Australian constitutional law experts.) How that person is chosen is up for debate.

    Therefore, currently, the Queen is not powerless. She has consitutional powers vested in her as Queen of Australia, those powers are not trivial, and they need to exist in the Australian democratic model.

  27. Stolen Dormouse

    Some monarchies phase themselves out: The Dalai Lama, who serve(s/d) as the political leader as well as the religious leader of Tibet, and now of the Tibet diaspora, is giving up his political post to transition the Tibetans to representative democracy. Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old legal scholar at Harvard won last month’s election.

  28. John Emerson

    The monarchy is significant, the queen isn’t. I was right in the first place. I agree with Caledonian.

    I am very sorry to have allowed myself to get sucked into an argument with a couple of experts on Australian constitutional law, a pissy little group for whom I previously had nothing but respect.

  29. “No, they are not, they provide constitutional safeguards. ”

    Another valuable thing that monarchies provide, in the transitional period when monarchs start to go from having absolute power to limited people to having a strictly symbolic role is that they foster a political culture in which irrational appeals to populism and attacks on the legitimacy of the state and its governmental system itself are discouraged.

    Decades or centuries of having to convince a monarch with power through reason alone that a particular policy is the right course, with dissent allowed only within an envelope of loyalty, if one is to be relevant, leads to a very different set of norms about civility in politics and about permissible political tactics than a system in which pure majoritarianism is the rule from day one. In a political system with that kind of history, by the time the training wheels come off and the prime minister receives the keys to the kingdom, the entire political leadership and public political elite has developed an ideological commitment to rational government based on a genuine policy reasons and carried out by competent people, and the importance of fairness towards and from the opposition.

    One of the classic problems of new democracies that cast off colonial or authoritarian regimes is that it lacks a critical mass of people who have the competencies and norms necessary to make goverment in the context of a parlimentary democracy with a European style legal system work and yet are committed to that kind of governmental system. But, without a large enough pool of people who know how to function in that kind of system (human political capital, if you will), it will collapse into incompetent decision making, indecision and corruption leaving the door open for a military coup or rule by a tyrant.

    For example, this is basically what happened in Sudan when it became independent. Only a few hundred civilians in the country had the kind of civic, political, legal and bureacratic competencies necessary to run senior positions in the kind of government it initially set out to have upon independence, and this wasn’t enough to make the system work. You can’t run a workable legal system for all legal matters big and small, civil and criminal, based on an English common law legal system, for an entire country not that different in scale in terms of population and land area from England, with only a couple hundred people with formal training as lawyers in that kind of system (some of whom were needed for legislative and senior governmental tasks), no matter how competent those people may be. It would have been possible to design a legal system that could have better leveraged the scarce supply of formally trained lawyers, but nobody predicted that problem (in one of the earlier newly independent nation constitutions) and so instead, an unworkable system was attempted until it collapsed and new regimes found different ways to address the nation’s political and legal needs.

    One of the important post-colonial counterexamples, India, is an exception that proves the rule — one of the reasons it managed to successfully transition to parliamentary democracy where so many other newly independent nations had failed, its that it had several centuries of locally born civil servants, lawyers and political functionaries who had grown accustomed to making the kind of political and legal system that it adopted before running it without outside interference. The proportionate contribution of foreigner’s to the essentially ranks of the local governmental and legal system was thin enough that local talent could fill the gaps left when foreign legal and governmental expertise was withdrawn without undue trauma on that score.

  30. @26 Arrangements along these lines led respectively to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and of the Islamic Empire, into fractured successor states from which the larger empires held together through personal union in the person of the monarch (as Queen Elizabeth’s monarchy is) no longer shared that personal union.

  31. Sandgroper

    Andrew – yes.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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