The role of monarchy in modern democracy

In the 21st century, monarchies remain pivotal parts of several democratic countries across Europe, including the UK. In a new book, edited by Unit founder Robert Hazell and Bob Morris, contributors from across Europe consider the constitutional and political role of monarchy, its powers and functions, how it is defined and regulated, the laws of succession and royal finances, relations with the media, its popularity, and why it endures.

Monarchy has a long history in Europe, being the predominant form of government from the Middle Ages until the First World War. At the turn of the twentieth century every country in Europe was a monarchy with just three exceptions: France, Switzerland and San Marino. But by the start of the twenty-first century, most European countries had ceased to be monarchies, and three quarters of the member states of the European Union are now republics. That has led to a teleological assumption that in time most advanced democracies will become republics, as the highest form of democratic government. 

But there is a stubborn group of countries in Western Europe which defy that assumption, and they include some of the most advanced democracies in the world. In the most recent Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, six out of the top ten democracies – and nine of the top 15 – in the world were monarchies. They include six European monarchies: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the UK.

This paradox of an ancient hereditary institution surviving as a central part of modern democracies prompted the comparative study which led to our latest book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared. Our study, written by 20 academic experts, includes the six countries listed above, plus Belgium and Spain. 

These monarchies have survived partly for geopolitical reasons, most of the other European monarchies having disappeared at the end of the First or Second World Wars. Their continuance has been accompanied by a steady diminution in their political power, which has shrunk almost to zero, and developing roles that support liberal democracy. What modern monarchies offer is non-partisan state headship set apart from the daily political struggle of executive government; the continuity of a family whose different generations attract the interest of all age groups; and disinterested support for civil society that is beyond the reach of partisan politics. 

These roles have evolved because monarchy depends ultimately on the support of the public, and is more accountable than people might think: a point we return to at the end. So what is the secret of the success of these remaining European monarchies?

One: remain politically neutral. Monarchs who are too interventionist will encounter resistance and lose their reputation for neutrality. One example is the Easter crisis of 1920 in Denmark, when King Christian X dismissed his Prime Minister and the rest of the government over a difference of policy. The dismissal caused demonstrations threatening the future of the monarchy, and the King was forced to back down. Another was evident in Belgium after the Second World War, when King Leopold III’s performance as Commander in Chief and refusal to follow his government caused him to spend five years in exile. A third was the refusal by Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg in 2008 to sign a euthanasia bill into law: the consequence was that he was stripped of his legislative role. Constitutional monarchs must accept that they have little or no discretion when it comes to matters of state; little choice but to approve every action or decision of the government in the hundreds of documents they are required to sign every week. 

Two: avoid scandals, or any hint of corruption. The most serious recent scandals have been in Spain, where in 2011 King Juan Carlos helped the Spanish government to win a €7 billion high speed rail contract in Saudi Arabia. The accusation that he received US$100m from the Saudis has been very damaging to the monarchy, and was part of the reason for his decision to abdicate in 2014. It is now the subject of investigations in Switzerland and in Spain. Similar difficulties have arisen with other monarchies. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was forced to resign from his role as Inspector General of the Dutch armed forces over the Lockheed arms scandal. Prince Laurent, known in Belgium as the ‘Clown Prince’, got involved with Colonel Gaddafi of Libya in a reforestation project which failed. And in the UK, Prince Andrew got into trouble over his role as trade envoy, in particular over his close links with the rulers of Kazakhstan, and with the financier David Rowland. It was his friendship with the financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein which led him to withdraw from public life in 2019.

Three: keep the team small. The greater the size of the royal family, the greater the risk that one of its members may get into trouble and cause reputational damage; and the greater the risk of criticism about excessive cost, and too many hangers-on. So in Norway the royal family consists of just four people: the King and Queen, Crown Prince and Princess. And in Sweden last year the King, under political and parliamentary pressure, removed five of his grandchildren from the royal family. But the size of the royal family will vary depending on the size of the country concerned. The UK, with a population more than ten times that of Norway, needs a larger royal family to fulfil all the demands for royal patronage and visits. Prince Charles has been reported as wishing to slim down the royal family; but too small a team could reduce the monarchy’s reach and public profile. In Spain, one reason for the monarchy’s low popularity is its limited visibility: the royal family consists just of the King and Queen – a royal family smaller than that in Norway is serving a population ten times the size. 

Four: Understand better the plight of the minor royals, allow them a means of escape and equip them to enter careers commensurate with their abilities. They lead lives of great privilege, but lack fundamental freedoms: the right to privacy and family life which ordinary citizens take for granted, free choice of careers, freedom to marry whom they like. The strict rules on marriage have caused grief to younger Princes in Sweden, to Princess Margaret in the UK, and led to Dutch Princes and Princesses being removed from the line of succession. Their privacy is frequently invaded by paparazzi, gossip magazines and the tabloid press. Their choice of careers is limited: if they seek to earn a living in business or the professions they risk being accused of exploiting their title for commercial gain. The most high profile recent case of people opting out in order to gain more of a private life is that of Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex. In January they announced that they would withdraw from royal duties, drop their royal titles, receive no more public funding, and seek to become financially self-sufficient. How feasible this will prove in practice we don’t yet know. It is not easy to ‘leave’ the family one is born into; their celebrity status derives from Harry being one of the royals; the media and the public might still consider Harry and Meghan to be a royal couple, despite their protestations to the contrary.

Five: although hereditary, the monarchy is accountable, just like any other public institution. The most high profile example is King Juan Carlos of Spain, now in exile and the subject of prosecutorial investigations. But he is not alone: other monarchs who stepped out of line have also lost their thrones. The Grand Duchess MarieAdélaïde of Luxembourg and, as mentioned, King Leopold III of Belgium had to abdicate because of their conduct during the First and Second World Wars. In the UK, King Edward VIII was forced by his government to abdicate because of his wish to marry a twice divorced woman, Wallis Simpson. When King Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014, he was not required by the Spanish government to do so; but opinion polls showed that two thirds of Spaniards felt he should leave the throne. 

Modern monarchies are continuously held to account, in a range of different ways. They are all regulated by law: as we have seen in the UK, in the Sovereign Grant Act 2011, and the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 (the latter making the rules of succession gender neutral, a change already made in all the other European monarchies except Spain). They are subject to public funding, which can go down as well as up: the Spanish monarchy is the least well funded, in part because it is the least popular of all the European monarchies; and Prince Laurent of Belgium has had his allowance cut by the Belgian government. They are subject to scrutiny in the media: alongside all the fawning coverage and glossy pictures, there is more serious investigative journalism which keeps all the monarchies on their toes, scrutinising their expenditure, their hunting trips, their choice of friends. The media also commission regular opinion polls in all the European monarchies, asking if people are satisfied with the monarch’s performance, is the royal family paid too much, should the monarch abdicate, should the country become a republic. Support for the monarchy remains high in all countries, with polls regularly showing that between 60 and 80% of the people wish to retain the monarchy – ratings which politicians would die for. 

This final lesson, about the accountability of the monarchy, is the most important. Individual monarchs can be forced to abdicate; and support for the institution as a whole can be tested in a referendum. During the twentieth century there were 18 referendums held on the monarchy in nine European countries. It was through referendums that the monarchy came to an end in Italy and Greece, and was restored in Spain; and through referendums that the future of the monarchy was endorsed in Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg and Norway. The monarchy may seem the very antithesis of a democratic or accountable institution; but ultimately continuation of the monarchy depends on the continuing support of the people for the roles it is seen to undertake. 

The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared (edited by Robert Hazell and Bob Morris) was published by Hart Publishing in September. Constitution Unit Blog readers can buy the book with the benefit of an exclusive discount. Order now at www.hartpublishing.co.uk and use the code UG6 at the checkout to get 20% off the hardback edition. The e-book is also currently 20% off.

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About the authors

Dr Bob Morris is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, and has for some time led its work on Monarchy, and Church and State. He is the co-editor of The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy.

Professor Robert Hazell was the founder and first Director of the Constitution Unit. He is the co-editor of The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy.

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