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One Cheer for Constitutional Monarchy! by Charles A. Coulombe

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Essay

One Cheer for Constitutional Monarchy!

"The Careenage, Bridgetown, Barbados" (ca. 1848), an oil painting by Percy William Justyne (1812-1883).

“For every monarchy overthrown the sky becomes less brilliant because it loses a star. A republic is ugliness set free.”—Anatole France

On November 30, Barbados is slated to jettison Queen Elizabeth II as Sovereign, end the country’s almost 395-year-old Monarchy, and join the ranks of the banana republics within the Commonwealth, alongside such partners as Fiji, Trinidad, and South Africa. The country’s current Governor-General, Dame Sandra Mason, shall become the country’s first president, joining the roll of shame of final viceroys who metamorphose into their nation’s first chief consumer at the public trough. As is usually the case in such affairs (South Africa and Australia being notable exceptions), there was not even a perfunctory referendum, signaling the ruling party’s lack of confidence in their subjects’ voting the “correct” way. Nevertheless, why we should we care about yet another small Caribbean country’s ruling clique taking even the shadow of authority unto their lovely selves? Why indeed?

As per usual when this ritual is gone through, the local politicos trumpet the idea that ending the only form of government the nation has ever known is somehow “breaking with the colonial past,” which in itself is supposed to be a reason to celebrate. Were that in fact the case, there is much more that Barbados must shed—its legal system, language, religion, culture, folklore, indeed, its very population, since the island was uninhabited when the English under Charles I settled the then-empty paradise. Above all, the Westminster system and the parasitical political class itself should be thrown on the colonial ash-heap. But of course, that is not what it is about—or ever is in Commonwealth Realms whose politicos wish to break their oaths to the Queen and perjure themselves in pursuit of the top of the brass ring. Nothing infuriates the darlings more than that there is one government job that even theoretically is not theirs for the asking.

The tragic truth is that while political pigs in their blankets may indeed aspire to wielding every scrap of power available practically speaking—and even be appointed Governor-General on the Prime Minister’s advice in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Jamaica —the top job is beyond them. The Queen is still the Queen, and as long as she or her heirs remain Monarchs over their lands, the top job remains unavailable, now matter how seemingly powerless it may appear.

In the Commonwealth Realms, as in the United Kingdom, on paper the Queen (and the Governors-General who nominally represent her) wield the predominance of power. The reality, of course, is that the supposed elected representatives of the people who hold a majority in the local parliament put their party leader in as prime minister or premier, and he heads the management team called the cabinet for so long as they can hold on to that majority. Normally the Monarch or Viceroy act on the prime minister’s advice, the Royal Prerogative being exercised at the politicos’ behest however they choose. The Royals and Viceroys leave to them the actual business of governing, while they get on with the business of promoting national unity, ceremonially and otherwise. Obviously this is a chore to which politicians are not well suited. That is why in Britain and the Crown Commonwealth all oaths—those taken by the members of the Armed Forces, for example—are made not to the politicians-in-charge but to Her Majesty the Queen. She and her viceroys represent the non- or apolitical ultimate nature of the State; she is in a sense a living flag.  

Leading politicians being what they are, however, in such a system they occasionally overstep the admittedly wide latitude they are given to play with. So it is that in very rare cases—as in Canada in 1926 and Australia in 1975—the Sovereign or his representative must step in and use what are called the “Reserve Powers.” Where normally the King, Queen, or Governor-General would only call for or refuse new elections on the advice of the Prime Minister, sometimes particularly dodgy tactics on the part of the senior politician require independent action in order to protect the constitution. For any viceregal figure who does so, this is of course the nuclear option, because it is always political suicide. As with a fire extinguisher, no one who has the ability to use the reserve powers wants to. Even so, they can act as the ultimate restraint on the hubris of the highest politicians in the given country.

But where such a system becomes a republic, the wielder of the reserve powers becomes part of the very clique he is supposed to oversee—it is like putting the head of General Motors in charge of regulating automobile production and practise. The results are plain to see in the political histories of every single Commonwealth nation that has made the change. From India to Fiji to Guyana to Malta, they generally lurch from one governmental crisis to another; bereft of an apolitical, nonpartisan centre of loyalty—no matter how nominal—which additionally bears the underlying threat of intervening if playtime becomes too madcap among the oligarchic set, they are all increasingly divided in many different ways. Barbados shall no doubt follow in their train.

What is true of the British and Commonwealth Realms is also true of most of the surviving European Monarchies: Spain, Scandinavia, and Benelux all boast Monarchies in which the nominal ruler is as dependent upon the particular political class as is Her Majesty and her Governors-General. As with them too, the current systems are the result of several centuries of political history in which power was taken—at greater or lesser speed—from the Monarch and invested in the politicians. The basic superstition behind this, of course, is that because they are voted for by the people, these well-placed nabobs speak on their behalf. Were this true, of course, then every power stripped from the Sovereign and thrown to the pols would be another exercise in expanding democracy.

Enchanting picture this vision may be, as with so many mirages it is not really true. In truth, elected politicians and their judicial appointees represent secondarily their own personal interests and desires and primarily those of the interests or factions who fund their campaigns. This is endemic to what we call democracy; nor is it by itself necessarily an evil, because—as with actors, artists, and sports figures—politicians have skills and personality traits which most of us lack. Governance is an intricate skill, to be sure, and most of us are not suited to it. The problems arise when the politicians are allowed all power in Heaven and Earth, and there is nothing or no one to check their endless greed and ambition.

In 1910, after leaving office, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt visited Vienna, and met with Emperor Franz Josef, who two years before had celebrated his Diamond Jubilee of accession. The president asked His Imperial Majesty what he conceived his role as a modern Monarch to be; the old Habsburg’s response was “protecting my people from their politicians.” This was quite true, and he was very successful at it for a long time. But World War I ended that.

It is also an unfortunate truth that modern Constitutional Monarchs have crossed swords with their governments over important issues, a strange pattern has emerged: ultimately—as with Sweden’s Gustav V in the 1914 Courtyard Speech affair; Denmark’s Christian X in the 1920 Easter Controversy; Victor Emmanuel III’s dismissal of Mussolini in 1943; and Constantine II of Greece’s attempt to dislodge the Colonels in 1966—the Sovereign usually turns out to have been right. But that never seems to do them any good in the immediate, and as with those examples, they usually seem to lose—all in the name of “democracy.”

That sort of track record has not escaped more recent Royals; in modern times they are extremely loath to get into a fight with the “people’s” spokescreatures. So it was that in 1990, after decades of fending off Infanticide from Belgium by dint of refusing to sign any measure legalizing it into law, King Baudouin finally abdicated for a day—allowing “Christian” Democratic Prime Minister Wilfried Martens to get the baby-killing going in Belgium. Time marches on, of course, and abortion having become part of the Christian Democratic Gospel, in 2008 the CD Party in Luxembourg wished to bring in legal euthanasia into the Grand Duchy. As with Baudouin, Grand Duke Henri was a believing Catholic, and could not assent to legalizing murder. So it was that the Christian Democrats under Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker simply altered the Constitution, thereby stripping the Grand Duke of that power.

Slimy politicians are not confined to Constitutional Monarchies, of course; they are the principal beneficiaries of any republic. But it is the myth that they speak for the people which has ultimately paralysed any popular support for the remaining Monarchs of the West; to even consider resisting would be suicidal. Nor can there be any doubt that republics of Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland (the Union would certainly break), Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Luxembourg would be far drearier and shoddier places than they already are. Their Royal Palaces would be occupied by the same breed of elderly retired politician to be seen in most European parliamentary republics.

Nevertheless, the sad truth remains—and has been underlined in the past two years—that Constitutional Monarchies are no longer in the main any safer from the politician’s vagaries than are the majority of semi-functioning republics. One wishes that the current crop of Royals would be far more assertive in their defence of their subjects’ rights against the political establishment. But, of course, many of them have been trained to believe that the pols—no matter how loathsome—somehow really do represent the will of the people. Others know full well that doing so might well mean a republic, and even worse to follow. 

Certainly, many are scandalized by the lifestyle choices of some Royals—both reigning and out-of-power. But apart from the 84% of Liechtensteiners who supported their Prince against their Parliament in the 2003 referendum, there have been in the 20th and 21st centuries no mass risings in support of those rulers who have risked everything to protect their people. Indeed, Manoel II of Portugal, Bl. Karl of Austria-Hungary, Alphonso XIII of Spain, Umberto II of Italy, and Michael of Romania voluntarily went into exile to spare their peoples the horrors of civil war and—in the case of the last-named—promised mass executions of his supporters. As far as the moral behaviour of Royals goes, a populace whose standards have fallen as low as ours have are not in a position to complain if the heir to thrones behave as poorly as the majority of their putative subjects—after all—is that not democratic? Perhaps we ourselves might think of becoming the kind of subjects who would merit the kind of Royals we admire.

Still, no human situation lasts forever. With their lockdowns, masking, and compulsory vaccinations, the current leadership are quite effectively revealing the true and arbitrary nature of modern rule—something which may be exacerbated in future. As Charles Fenyvesi put it, “Regardless of his personal imperfections, a monarch represents the majesty of history. He is an heir—a link in a chain that leads to the Middle Ages that in turn connects to antiquity and beyond, to the beginning of measured time when the first hero slew the dragon of disorder and established the rule of law.” Reigning or not, it is far from beyond the realm of possibility that one or more Royals may one day find the situation forcing or inviting them to mobilise precisely those traditions they embody in order to save their people from whatever dire fate otherwise awaits them.

Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.

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