Comparing European monarchies: a conference first

sketch.1541418351959com-google-chrome-j5urj9IMG_1120.jpgIn early March the Constitution Unit convened a conference of 25 leading experts on the monarchies in Europe. It had been two years in preparation, and was the first of its kind: monarchy is not a fashionable subject in academia. The conference was organised by Robert Hazell and Dr Bob Morris, the Unit’s longstanding expert on Church and State, together with their research volunteer Olivia Hepsworth. Here they explain the background, and some of the main findings from the conference.

Monarchy as an institution does not get much academic attention. This is surprising when one considers that one third of the population of the EU live in states which are monarchies. These include some of the most advanced democracies in the world, countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. And far from being regarded as an anachronism, monarchy in these countries enjoys popularity ratings which politicians would die for. So there is a conundrum worth exploring: is the survival of monarchy in northern Europe the product of historical accident or constitutional inertia, or does it add something to the institutions of representative democracy? And if so, what is its added value?

To answer this conundrum we invited scholars from law, history and politics, together with people from some of the royal households, to the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Limehouse: a suitable venue for our topic, having been founded by Queen Matilda in 1147, with the current Patron being Queen Elizabeth II. We had representatives from all eight of the European monarchies which are member states of the EU: Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

We started the conference by looking at the different functions of the monarchy: its constitutional functions, day to day political functions, ceremonial functions, service and welfare, and international functions. We then looked at the regulation of the monarchy: regulating the size of the royal family, the line of succession, the royal finances, and the constraints on the monarchy, in terms of the limits on their freedom of speech, travel, marriage, religion and choice of career. We concluded with a lively session on the monarchy and public opinion, and a final session in which we came back to our core question: what is the justification for retaining a hereditary monarchy in a modern democracy?

The conference participants presented 28 papers, which will now be edited into a comparative book to be published by Hart in 2020. It is not possible to do justice in a short blogpost to all the different themes, so here are just a few selected highlights. They start with some initial answers to the fundamental question, what does monarchy add to the normal functions of any head of state?

Our final session suggested that monarchy provides stability and continuity in a rapidly changing, globalised world. Presidents and prime ministers come and go, but a monarch can reign for decades. This is not just true of the UK: Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden have all had long-reigning monarchs. Monarchy also provides the added value of a family, not just an individual; and a family which can appeal to different generations, with the younger royals appealing to people of their own age group. At the same time, for older, more conservative and religious people, monarchy provides a link to the church, tradition and history of the nation. It may also be easier for a monarch to symbolise political neutrality than for a president with a party political past.

But there are risks to the future of the monarchy. Despite its high popularity ratings, it remains a fragile institution: its survival depends on continuing popular support. Popular consent has been signified through referendums: in Norway in 1905, Luxembourg in 1919, Belgium in 1950, Denmark in 1953, Spain in 1976 and 1978. Popular support depends increasingly on the royals’ role in celebrity culture, and popularity of the individual monarch: support has to be renewed in each generation. The royals are expected to be models of perfect behaviour, which is humanly impossible. And it is difficult for them to remain politically neutral, while also having to appear useful to society and the state: seemingly neutral activities such as sports and trade promotion have incurred criticism when they have involved royal visits to countries like China and Saudi Arabia.

These are just a few of the insights we gained during a fascinating two days. We are enormously grateful to the conference participants for their papers, which provoked a really interesting and lively discussion. We hope that the conference may start a network that continues to explore Western European monarchies, and their role within advanced democracies. We should also thank a long series of research volunteers, whose background research and comparative bibliography led us to identify an impressive range of experts: in addition to Olivia Hepsworth, the volunteers included Georgina Hill, Sarah Kennedy-Good, Nazenin Kucukcan, Alex Lanucci, Ailsa McNeil, James Moore and Laetitia Nakache.

About the authors

Robert Hazell is a former Director of the Constitution Unit. His most recent work has been on the topic of monarchies, and he led the Unit’s project on Accession and Coronation Oaths. The associated reports (Swearing in the New King and Inaugurating a New Reign) were published on 23 May 2018.

Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant and a member of honorary staff at the Constitution Unit. He is a co-author of the Unit’s reports on the Accession and Coronation oaths.

Olivia Hepsworth was a research volunteer at the Constitution Unit, assisting Professor Hazell with his work on monarchies.