As in most republics, a constitutional monarchy's executive authority is vested in the head of state. Today constitutional monarchy is almost always combined with representative democracy, and represents (as a theory of civics) a compromise between total trust in the political class, and in well-bred and well-trained monarchs raised for the role from birth. Though the king or queen may be regarded as the government's symbolic head, it is the Prime Minister who actually governs the country.
More frequently however, monarchical institutions have played crucial roles in thwarting coups d'etat efforts, and the overthrow of democratic institutions by fascist or communist movements. Examples include the attempted 23-F coup in Spain in 1981, the 1981 and 1985 coup attempts in Thailand, and the attempted communist takeover in Grenada in 1983. In the Spanish and Thai cases action taken by the king proved decisive; in the case of Grenada the call for outside assistance was made by the Governor-General (Sir Paul Scoon). Contemporary constitutional monarchies include Australia, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Bhutan, Cambodia, Canada, Denmark, Granada, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, Morocco, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Tuvalu, and the United Kingdom.
As in most republics, a constitutional monarchy's executive authority is vested in the head of state. Today constitutional monarchy is almost always combined with representative democracy, and represents (as a theory of civics) a compromise between total trust in the electorate, and in well-bred and well-trained monarchs raised for the role from birth. Though the king or queen may be regarded as the government's symbolic head, it is the Prime Minister who actually governs the country, thus in Britain the Queen reigns, whereas the Prime minister rules.
Constitutional Monarchy, A Tradition
Modern Constitutional Monarchy
However, this model of constitutional monarchy was discredited and abolished following Germany's defeat in the First World War. Later on, Fascist Italy could also be considered as a "constitutional monarchy" of a kind, in the sense that there was a king as the titular head of state while actual power was held by Benito Mussolini under a constitution. This eventually discredited the Italian monarchy and led to its abolition in 1946. After the Second World War, surviving European monarchies almost invariably adopted some variant of the constitutional monarchy model originally developed in Britain. In present terms, the difference between a parliamentary democracy that is a constitutional monarchy and one that is a republic, is considered more a difference of detail than of substance. In both cases, the titular head of state - monarch or president - serves the traditional role of embodying and representing the nation, while the actual governing is carried out by an elected Prime Minister. This is contradictory to the Republican cause and desire to abolish the role of the Monarch, to replace it with another individual to assume the same duties.
Today constitutional monarchies are mostly associated with Western European countries such as the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Monaco, Liechtenstein, and Sweden. However, the two most populous constitutional monarchies in the world are in Asia: Japan and Thailand. In such cases it is the prime minister who holds the day-to-day powers of governance, while the King or Queen (or other monarch, such as a Grand Duke, in the case of Luxembourg, or Prince in the case of Monaco and Liechtenstein) retains only residual (but not always minor) powers. Different nations grant different powers to their monarchs. In the Netherlands, Denmark and in Belgium, for example, the Monarch formally appoints a representative to preside over the creation of a coalition government following a parliamentary election, while in Norway the King chairs special meetings of the cabinet. In nearly all cases, the monarch is still the nominal chief executive, but is bound by constitutional convention to act on the advice of the Cabinet. Only a few monarchies (most notably Japan and Sweden) have amended their constitutions so that the monarch is no longer even the nominal chief executive.
The most significant family of constitutional monarchies in the world today are the sixteen Commonwealth realms under our Queen, Elizabeth II. Unlike some of their continental European counterparts, the Monarch and her Governors-General in the Commonwealth realms hold significant "reserve" or "prerogative" powers, to be wielded in times of extreme emergency or constitutional crises usually to uphold parliamentary government. An instance of a Governor General exercising his power was during the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, when the Australian Prime Minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, was dismissed by the Governor-General. The Australian senate had threatened to block the Government's budget by refusing to pass the associated appropriation bills. On 11 November 1975, Whitlam intended to call a half- Senate election in an attempt to break the deadlock. When he went to seek the Governor-General's approval of the election, the Governor- General instead dismissed him as Prime Minister, and shortly thereafter installed leader of the opposition Malcolm Fraser in his place.
Acting quickly before all parliamentarians became aware of the change of government, Fraser and his allies were able to secure passage of the appropriation bills, and the Governor-General dissolved Parliament for a double dissolution election. Fraser and his government were returned with a massive majority. This led to much speculation among Whitlam's supporters as to whether this use of the Governor-General's reserve powers was appropriate, and whether Australia should become a republic. Among supporters of constitutional monarchy however, the experience confirmed the value of the monarchy as a source of checks and balances against elected politicians who might seek powers in excess of those
conferred by their respective constitutions, and ultimately as a safeguard against dictatorship.
In Thailand's constitutional monarchy, the monarch is recognized as the Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces, Upholder of the Buddhist Religion, and Defender of the Faith. The current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the longest reigning current monarch in the world and in all of Thailand's history. Bhumibol has reigned through several political changes in the Thai government. He has played an influential role in each incident, oftentimes acting as mediator between disputing political opponents. (See Bhumibol's role in Thai Politics.) While the monarch retains some powers from the constitution, most particular is Lèse majesté which protects the image and ability of the monarch to play a role in politics and carries modest criminal penalties for violators. Generally, the Thai people are reverent of Bhumibol. Much of his social influence comes from that and the fact that the royal family is often involved in socio-economic improvement efforts.
In both the United Kingdom and elsewhere, a common debate centres around when it is appropriate for a monarch to use his or her political powers. When a monarch does act, political controversy can often ensue, partially because the neutrality of the crown is seen to be compromised in favour of a partisan goal. While political scientists may champion the idea of an "interventionist monarch" as a check against possible illegal action by politicians, the monarchs themselves are often driven by a more pragmatic sense of self-preservation, in which avoiding political controversy can be seen as an important way to retain public legitimacy and popularity. There also exist today several federal constitutional monarchies. In these countries, each subdivision has a distinct government and head of government, but all subdivisions share a monarch who is head of state of the federation as a united whole. The latest country that was completely transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democratic monarchy is Bhutan.
Benefits & Pitfalls
Our Practical Constitutional Monarchy
Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other states, nevertheless, the monarch still has important and useful functions. The nineteenth century British constitutional writer, Walter Bagehot, described the monarch having 'the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn '. Queen Elizabeth II meets her prime minister every Tuesday evening for a confidential audience, at which she and her prime minister discuss matters of state. The longer a reign, the greater the degree of experience a monarch has, particularly as she receives copies of all state documentation, all cabinet memoranda, reports from British ambassadors worldwide, security service intelligence, etc. A Parliamentary Committee was told in the early 1970s that Queen Elizabeth spends three hours daily 'doing the boxes' (ie, reading state papers sent to her from all departments of state). Sir John Peck, on being appointed British ambassador to Senegal, said that when Kissing Hands (the formal name of the appointment procedure) he received a more perceptive analysis of African and Senegalese politics from Queen Elizabeth than from any government official, based on her personal experiences on state visits, briefing documents and knowledge of African leaders, experiences that desk-bound officials, no matter how theoretically knowledgeable, had never had.
In the mid 1970s, for example, Queen Elizabeth's belief that contacts between a British official, Lord Grenville, and the Government of Rhodesia were worth pursuing, shaped the policy of then Labour cabinet. Grenville's report mentioned some signs of movement. The Labour cabinet saw the scale of the movement as too insignificant to warrant further exploration. However Queen Elizabeth, who had ten years continuous experience of the Rhodesian issue (unlike the ministers who had only a relatively small degree of experience, having only come to power in the early 1970s), observed how any sign of movement was a change from the lack of movement present previously. The Labour ministers paid heed to her privately expressed observation (that followed a conversation she had had with James Callaghan at a state banquet for the Italian president) and maintained the initial contacts. These contacts over a number of years finally led to the Lancaster House conference that established Zimbabwe. James Prior, a minister in the subsequent Conservative Party government, wrote of how the 'intoxicating mix' of the Queen and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington kept Margaret Thatcher from abandoning the earlier contacts between the previous Labour government of James Callaghan and the Rhodesian government.
In early 2003, as the Labour government of Tony Blair pondered whether to enter into a war with Saddam Hussein, Queen Elizabeth was the only senior governmental figure still in office who had had experience of the Suez Crisis in the late 1950s, and who as a result could mention to Blair observations on the nature of the Suez debacle and lessons to be learned from it, in deciding on whether to go to war with Saddam. It is not known what comments Queen Elizabeth made to the Prime Minister, but few doubted but that she would give the benefit of her observations (having been monarch at the time, she had had access to all the then government documentation and memoranda, as well as having been a confidante of the then Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his cabinet) and that the Prime Minister would take her observations very seriously. Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, meaning that she could give to Tony Blair observations and advice based on observations and advice given to her by every prime minister back to Sir Winston Churchill and including Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas- Home, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, as well as the comments of hundreds of ministers since 1952.
On September 9th, Queen Elizabeth II will become the longest-serving monarch in Britain's history. Below, three Economist writers argue for different futures for the British crown.
The case against the monarchy
The case for the monarchy
The case for modest reform
The case against the monarchy
CEASE campaigning, Hillary Clinton; get back to business, Donald Trump: America’s 2016 election has been cancelled. The White House has announced that in the interests of political stability the next president and all future ones will be chosen using the British model. Barack Obama will remain in office until he dies, at which point Americans will welcome their next head of state: his daughter, Queen Malia.
Americans would not stand for this. Why do Britons? The case against hereditary appointments in public life is straightforward: they are incompatible with democracy and meritocracy, which are the least-bad ways to run countries. Royalists say this does not matter because the monarch no longer “runs” Britain. Yet in theory, at least, she has considerable powers: to wage war, sign treaties, dissolve Parliament and more.
There is little danger of Queen Elizabeth II throwing her weight around (though her son Charles has a habit of bending ministers’ ears over trivial matters). But the trouble with hereditary succession is that you never know quite who you're going to get. The Windsors are no less likely than any other family to produce an heir who is mad or bad. What then?
The second pitfall is subtler: in the belief that the monarchy forms some kind of constitutional backstop against an overmighty Parliament, Britain is strangely relaxed about the lack of serious checks on its government. It has no written constitution; the current government has plans to repeal a law implementing the European Convention on Human Rights, which many Britons recklessly consider a nuisance rather than a safeguard. It is true that monarchs can, as a last resort, stand up for the nation: royalists cite the example of King Juan Carlos of Spain, whose televised address to the nation in 1981 helped prevent a coup. But the more one believes that the head of state’s role really matters, the more serious a problem it is that the monarch is chosen using a mechanism as dodgy as inheritance.
Opinion polls and healthy sales of commemorative junk suggest that Britons and foreigners alike love the Windsors. But the royals may not be entirely good for the country’s image abroad, or its view of itself. Britain still has a reputation as a snooty, class-obsessed place. Mrs Clinton’s advisers warned her of the “inbred arrogance” of Britain’s previous government; Britons themselves are gloomier than Americans about the prospects of talented poor people. The image is out of date: by some measures Britain is now more socially mobile than America. But it is hard to shake off the debilitating tag when the head of state and her hangers-on attain their positions not through popularity, talent or industry, but by the mere fact of their birth. Britain would be stronger if its head of state were elected. And if the winner were Elizabeth, then good for her.
The case for the monarchy
IPSOS-MORI has been tracking opinion on the monarchy for the past 20 years, and the responses have been remarkably consistent over that time. By a margin of well over three to one, respondents have favoured keeping the institution over turning Britain into a republic. It is hard, in fact, to find any political question on which the British people are more united, except perhaps their dislike of politicians. That sets the bar for a change to an institution that commands a great deal of affection (think of the millions who celebrated the royal wedding or the Queen’s golden jubilee) pretty high.
Those who would like to scrap a popular monarchy need to be able to show that there is a significant demand for a change (which there is not) or that the institution does significant harm, which is just as hard to do. It is accused of being expensive, but offset against the few tens of millions of cost the fact that Britain’s royal heritage is a big part of its tourist appeal, not to mention the unquantifiable but surely substantial brand-management efforts that the Queen in effect performs on overseas trips. An alternative, elected head of state would not be cost-free either.
The monarchy is accused of entrenching elitism and the class system, but it is a fantasy to imagine that those things would vanish in a republic; they certainly have not in America, while the monarchies of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are among the most meritocratic and egalitarian in the world. It is accused of damaging democracy because (on paper) the Queen retains vast constitutional powers. But this ignores the fact that there is not the remotest chance that she or her successors would actually use them; if ever she or they did, then Britain could and indeed should consider becoming a republic.
On the other hand, it is just as plausible to assert that there are benefits to a monarchy, on top of the (hard to quantify) economic ones. At a time when most government institutions everywhere are unpopular and even hated, any part of the state which people still actually like is a rare plus, something not to be discarded lightly. And what would replace the monarch? An elected and therefore political head of state is sure to upset at least one large section of the electorate a lot more than an uncontroversial one who is above politics.
Admittedly, the value of continuity and tradition, and of a focus for Britain’s quiet brand of patriotism are difficult to assess. The reality is that the monarchy does not do much harm and does not do much good; but it is accepted and liked by most Britons. Getting rid of it simply isn’t worth the fuss.
And the case for modest reform
CRITICS of Britain’s monarchy will often say that if you were starting a 21st-century democracy from scratch you wouldn’t dream of having an hereditary head of state. Though this is undoubtedly true, it is also true that the history of the past 50 years ago shows that starting democracies from scratch is very hard. Successful democracies grow out of an historical experience that is specific to the nations involved, and British democracy has grown up entangled with the monarchy. It may be appealing, in various ways, to see the House of Windsor as something like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—a ladder which, having been climbed to solid ground, can be kicked away—but it is not trivially or obviously true.
The fact that a monarchy is not intellectually justifiable does not mean that it does not have a stabilising role. This may be particularly true in Britain, a composite nation. The division of the currently United Kingdom is a goal that some value dearly, but for Britons who do not particularly identify with one of the kingdom’s constituent parts, the crown may seem a more binding element. And in the absence of a written constitution, it is probably a better focus for the loyalties of the armed forces than the prime minister would be.
Thus, despite its manifest absurdity and unpalatable associations with inherited wealth and status more broadly, the case for a British republic needs to be pretty strong to justify the uncertain but real risks of transition, and to offer not just a general liberation from oppressive symbolism but a clearly preferable alternative arrangement. And it is not obvious what that would be. An executive presidency on the American model is clearly ludicrous; all countries that have tried it other than America have experienced constitutional breakdowns on a timescale of about a century. A non-executive presidency in a parliamentary system works quite well in many places but few of them have chosen it peacefully over an established indigenous (as opposed to colonial) monarchy, so there is not a very good comparison base.
But to keep Britain’s monarchy does not entail keeping it in its current form. Its entangled history of democracy and monarchy has left Britain with a highly centralized constitution that locates the nation’s sovereignty in "the king in parliament"—a situation that gives the leader of the majority party in the legislature a disturbingly large part of the power that was once vested entirely in the monarchy. This situation could be remedied quite easily by keeping the crown but changing its constitutional basis to one along the lines of that most excellent of countries, Belgium. Belgium is a popular monarchy. Its constitution makes clear that sovereignty rests in the people; the King (or Queen, though it has yet to have one)—who is King of the Belgians, a people, not Belgium, a territory— becomes monarch not by right, but by taking an oath to uphold the people’s constitution.
A change to the British constitution which made the kingdom’s various peoples sovereign and the head of state the guardian of that sovereignty, not the source of it, would be a welcome plank in the more general programme of reform that the British state clearly needs. The British helped to give the Belgians their constitution in 1830. If the Belgians were to give some of it back 200 years on that would be a worthy return.
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