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. 

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Coronavirus: how Europe’s monarchs stepped up as their nations faced the crisis

bob_morris_163x122.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgLast Sunday, the Queen spoke to the nation in a rare televised address. The speech was widely praised, and several other European monarchs have made similar attempts to connect with the public. Bob Morris and Robert Hazell argue that her intervention demonstrates the value of an apolitical head of state that remains compatible with modern democracy. 

The British Queen’s address to the nation on Sunday, April 5 evoked huge interest, respect and widespread appreciation. Nearly 24 million people in the UK watched her deliver the four-minute speech, which paid tribute to National Health Service and other key workers, thanked people for following government rules to stay at home and promised ‘we’ll meet again’.

Her words were greeted with almost universal praise from politicians, press and the public alike. But what made it so special? Who advises the Queen on such occasions? And what does it tell us about the monarchy – what can monarchs do that political leaders cannot?

It was special because of its rarity – this was only the fourth occasion on which Elizabeth II has addressed the nation other than in her annual Christmas message. All have marked particular national moments: war in Iraq, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, her thanks for the celebrations for her diamond jubilee. In different ways they bring the nation together – her heartfelt address before Diana’s funeral was especially effective in bringing her people to understand why she had prioritised consoling her bereaved young grandchildren.

The coronavirus speech – a little over 500 words – came invested with the authority of someone able to draw on long personal experience of the country’s trials. Instancing her own message as a 14 year-old to child evacuees wrenched from their families in 1940 was but one way of giving the speech a depth of field to which no politician could aspire. Continue reading

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: why half in, half out just isn’t an option for royals

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Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to step back from royal duties has been described as a crisis for the monarchy, but they are the ones who are most likely to suffer the damage, as Robert Hazell and Bob Morris explain.

Members of the royal family are in a conflicted position. They lead lives of great privilege, but they also lack fundamental freedoms. They aren’t free to choose a career, they cannot speak freely and they have limited freedom to privacy and family life, which the rest of us take for granted.

Harry and Meghan are not alone in finding that frustrating, Prince Laurent of Belgium is another who is visibly unhappy in the role.

The harsh reality is that younger sons are spares who are ultimately dispensable from a hereditary monarchy: it is only those in direct line of succession who count. As spares they are subject to the same personal restrictions as the immediate heirs, without either the prospect of succession or the freedom to develop truly independent careers of their own.

Other European monarchies (encouraged by parsimonious governments and legislatures) have learned to keep the core team as small as possible. It can be just four people – in Norway and Spain it is the king and queen, the heir and their spouse. In 2019, the King of Sweden removed five grandchildren from the royal family, under parliamentary pressure to reduce its size and its cost.

The UK has a larger population – over ten times the size of Norway – and it could therefore be contended that it makes sense for its royal family to be larger to carry out necessary duties. A bigger team is also required given the realms: the queen is head of state of 15 countries other than the UK, and Prince Charles and his sons make regular visits to countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In total, 15 members of the British royal family conducted almost 4,000 royal engagements in 2019 alone.

Cutting the spares

Prince Charles is said to want a smaller, streamlined monarchy, perhaps just the core team of the queen, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate: but with a smaller team they could accept fewer royal patronages and fulfil far fewer engagements. It is not clear how far Prince Charles has thought through such consequences any more than Harry and Meghan have thought through the consequences for others of what they want. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

What are coronations for?

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When the next monarch accedes to the throne, there will likely be a coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Yet the UK is unique in western Europe in having a coronation. What purpose does such an event serve? Bob Morris looks back at past coronations to provide an answer to that question. 

Last summer the Constitution Unit published two reports: one on updating the Accession and Coronation oaths, and a second on Planning the next Coronation. In the course of our work we learned that the UK is alone amongst European monarchies in retaining a coronation. Belgium and the Netherlands have never held them; nor from the end of the medieval period has Spain. There have not been coronations in Denmark, Sweden and Norway since 1849, 1873 and 1906 respectively.

That prompted the question, what is the coronation for? It is a question also put to us by journalists when we launched our reports. This blog post attempts to address the question. At the outset, however, one point needs to be emphasised. In law the coronation does not ‘make’ the sovereign. The monarch succeeds to the throne automatically immediately on the decease of their predecessor. The courts affirmed this position as long ago as 1608 concerning King James I’s succession to Elizabeth I:

‘..the title is by descent; by Queen Elizabeth’s death the Crown and kingdom of England descended to His Majesty, and he was fully and absolutely King, without any essential ceremony or act to be done ex post facto, and that coronation was but a Royal ornament, and outward solemnization of the descent.’

The nature of the rite

The Westminster Abbey coronation is an Anglican religious service centred on the communion. At the same time, it is a great national pageant of costly display and celebration controlled by the government of the day. It is a political as well as a religious event. Not surprisingly, it has been imbued with different meanings by different participants and observers. Continue reading