Britain’s Queen has turned 95 and her husband has died. Do we need kings and queens? Or will the world always revere splendour and inheritance?
With the death of his father, Prince Philip, and with his mother the queen reaching 95, Britain’s so-called second Elizabethan era is moving inexorably towards its close.
That prospect has revived the question of whether monarchy, in the dwindling number of countries that retain it, can survive in the long run.
It is something of a historical quirk that an institution based on heredity and deference has made it as far as the supposedly meritocratic 21st Century.
Yet, almost 400 years after England’s Charles I lost his head and more than 300 since French revolutionaries escorted Louis XVI to the guillotine, monarchy has survived in more than 40 states across the world, from Belgium to Brunei, from Jordan to Japan.
From the 17th Century dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, monarchs succumbed to new ways of thinking in which reason ostensibly replaced superstitution and a magical belief in the divine rights of kings.
It was an intellectual environment in which American colonists would later cast off the shackles, and the taxes, of a distant king and declared that all men are created equal (well, up to a point).
Now most kings and queens are symbolic.
Royalty survived by adapting itself to political change, gradually morphing from the era of absolute monarchs to one in which most reigning kings and queens now play a largely symbolical role.
The late Prince Philip was among the more recent modernisers, encouraging Queen Elizabeth to make the ruling Windsor dynasty more accessible to its subjects without abandoning its protective mystique.
They never went as far as their Scandinavian and continental cousins, the so-called “bicycling monarchs,” who adopted relatively bland bourgeois lifestyles that reflected those of their subjects.
Modernising monarchy was always going to be a perilous option. Too bright a media spotlight risks turning the royals into a warts and all soap opera in which their all too human frailties are exposed.
Spain’s Juan Carlos I, once lauded for uniting his country in the face of a right-wing coup attempt, abdicated in 2014 and finally left the country last year after extensive public disclosure of a growing corruption scandal.
Thailand’s largely absentee King Vajiralongkorn, criticised for his free-spending playboy lifestyle, has faced mass demonstrations by students who defied the country’s rigid lèse-majesté laws to demand reform.
As the highest-profile royals, the Windsors have had to cope with their own share of public scandal, not least as a result of claims by Elizabeth’s grandson Prince Harry and his American-born wife, Meghan, in their now notorious Oprah Winfrey interview.
Their allegations of racist attitudes within the royal family were particularly damaging to a monarch who is sovereign of 15 independent states from the Caribbean to Canada.
Even before the Oprah bombshell, Barbados had announced its intention to become a republic by severing its final symbolic tie with the former colonial power.
That is an option that was rejected by the eminently egalitarian Australians in a 1999 referendum, a victory for pragmatic monarchists who had argued that constitutional monarchy provides the basis for stable democratic government in which the queen’s representative acts as an impartial referee in the political process.
The world seems to need myths.
But could such a head of state role not be performed, as it is elsewhere, by some superannuated politician tasked with cutting ribbons, pinning medals and occasionally acting as a non-partisan arbiter?
The threat to the remaining monarchs is not that they will ousted by republican revolutionaries and dragged to the guillotine, but that they will become increasingly irrelevant to their ordinary subjects/citizens.
A poll in Canada this year showed a slender majority believed the royal family had no impact on their daily lives, while one-in-two Canadians believed the Queen should no longer be regarded as the country’s head of state.
Even when the last monarch hangs up his or her crown, the world will continue to be ruled partly on the basis of myths derived from the half-remembered or inflated histories of nation states.
As Prince Philip once observed: “People still respond more easily to symbolism than to reason.”
When the last king is gone, autocrats and presidents-for-life will no doubt continue to cement their rule by building luxurious regal palaces, even as they groom their offspring for the succession.
The hereditary principle will also likely survive in the way in which private fortunes that would put a sultan to shame, and the power that goes with them, are passed down through the generations.
The eventual demise of anachronistic monarchy might be one small step on the path of rational human progress. But it might also serve as a reminder that we’re not there yet.
Three questions to consider:
- Are there any arguments in favour of maintaining monarchy in democratic societies?
- What devices and myths have countries developed to replace what some hold to be the unifying benefit of a monarch?
- Kings have existed since the dawn of history. Would you place a bet on monarchy lasting out the century and, if not, why?
Harvey Morris was a foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Independent and Financial Times. He covered revolutions, wars, politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North and South America in more than 40 years as a journalist. He did on-the-ground reporting of the Iranian, Portuguese, Nicaraguan and Romanian revolutions, three Iraq wars, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and two Palestinian intifadas. He has written three books on the Middle East and is co-author, with John Bulloch, of the 1992 "No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds". Morris writes an entertaining blog, "Idle Thoughts on London Walks".