When it comes to kings and queens I agree that, as Monty Python had it regarding King Arthur, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. I’m a skeptic. But people seem better at dumping the forms of monarchy than at disposing of the practice. Solitary rulers still command in many countries, eschewing titles and crowns while wielding power to interfere in people’s lives.
In recent generations, the British royal family evolved in a different direction, embodying crowd-pleasing pageantry while abandoning most of the political role that made the monarchy so dangerous in the past. Harmlessly satisfying an appetite for pomp while threatening nobody’s liberty is a decent attribute for any institution—and one to which we should aspire for government in general.
That the British monarchy has not always been perceived as benign is apparent from some reactions in former imperial possessions to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“As condolences poured in from around the world after Queen Elizabeth’s death, there were mixed feelings among some Africans about the monarch and her country’s colonial legacy on a continent where Britain once ruled more than half the territory,” Reuters reported.
Memories linger of the days of often-brutal rule by Britain over territories it controlled until the years after World War II. But much of the resentment is of imperial conduct by an elected government; the royal family itself has been shedding authority since long before Elizabeth took the throne, starting as long ago as the Magna Carta in 1215. The English civil wars of the 17th century set the tone for a monarchy that came to sign off on policies chosen by elected politicians (and unelected bureaucrats).
That’s not to say the monarchy has no authority. After briefly losing the power to dissolve Parliament between elections in 2011, the crown regained it this year. A 2014 play focused on a constitutional crisis when a then-fictional King Charles III refused to give expected rubber-stamp assent to legislation. But Queen Elizabeth II continued surrendering authority in favor of a ceremonial role that could be inoffensive and even unifying to anybody who isn’t a firmly committed republican.
Meanwhile political systems that rejected robes, crowns, and titles proceeded to demonstrate that isn’t enough to protect against the real danger of monarchy: concentrated coercive power.
“Great Britain is a republic, with a hereditary president, while the United States is a monarchy with an elective king,” the Knoxville Journal quipped in 1896. That the president at the time was Grover Cleveland, one of the less autocratic chief executives in the United States, illustrates the inherent power of an office that was still decades away from being labeled “imperial.”
The 20th century then provided seemingly endless examples of absolute rulers, including Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Idi Amin, who adopted very modern titles of their own choosing while exercising authority that some kings and queens of the past would have envied. Today, Belarus is ruled by “President” Alexander Lukashenko who exercises unquestioned authority.
“Lukashenko now has near absolute rule over Belarus through the construction of a vertical structure of political and personal power,” Andrei Sannikov, who later publicly challenged the Belorussian dictator and was imprisoned for his troubles, wrote in 2005. “Lukashenko sits atop this arrangement, controlling the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government. He personally appoints and dismisses not only the ministers of the central government but also local administrators at all levels.”
Then there’s the bizarre socialist Kim dynasty of North Korea. Without using the term “king,” hereditary absolute rulers preside there amidst pageantry recognizable to devotees of traditional royalty.
“Keeping up with the Kims: North Korea’s communist monarchy,” The New Statesman headlined a 2018 analysis of the regime that delved into the country’s status as “an impoverished garrison state with nuclear weapons, led by a succession of madmen as devious as they were dangerous.”
What matters, obviously, is the character of a regime, not its terminology.
In the U.S. the presidency, for its part, continues to live up to the Knoxville Journal‘s 19th century snark about being “a monarchy with an elective king.” Amidst growing concern over the increasing unilateral authority of the office, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote The Imperial Presidency in 1973. Decades later, after increasing concentration of power, Gene Healy revisited the problem in 2008’s The Cult of the Presidency. “From popular culture to the academy to the voting booth, we curse the king, all the while pining for Camelot,” Healy wrote. In 2014, F.H. Buckley argued that the country’s political system had degenerated into “elective monarchy” in The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.
Evidence supports the warnings. Former President Trump tried to unilaterally order companies out of China and invoked the Defense Production Act to exercise extraordinary economic power. His successor, Biden, was criticized for ruling through executive orders within weeks of taking office and has yet to stop. Why should he when elective kings often enjoy popular support? Last September, almost half of respondents, Republicans and Democrats alike, told University of Virginia Center for Politics pollsters they at least somewhat agreed “it would be better for America if whoever is president could take needed actions without being constrained by Congress or the courts.”
By contrast, the late Queen Elizabeth II guided a largely decorative monarchy with little power while satisfying the appetite for a national figurehead. The institution isn’t without costs to taxpayers—rising costs that topped 87.5 million pounds ($101.7 million U.S.) in 2021. But it is arguably less bad than an empowered monarchy, or a popular leader with real authority, or even an elected presidency that accretes unilateral power despite warnings of the dangers. The test is whether the new wearer of the crown can follow his mother’s example.
“Part of the reason Brits have found it easy to accept a system in which democracy only functions with permission from the sovereign is that we’ve had a ruler who was impeccably neutral,” cautioned Robert Jackman for Reason. “If the monarchy were to break away from its own tradition of neutrality we might have a very different proposition.”
The example of a ceremonial monarchy may offer hope for something better still. If people can be satisfied by an essentially powerless figurehead, perhaps the same treatment could be applied to the rest of government. Imagine a world in which tourists watch legislators live-action-roleplay their way through passing laws that have no authority, and then go home to live lives of their own choosing. That would mean an end, or at least reduction, in the real danger: the use of coercive power. Maybe a purely ceremonial monarchy can show us the way to a purely ceremonial state.