The Symbol and Substance of Government

I agree with Vincent Geloso that there is a strong case for a ceremonial monarch as head of state in a liberal political order and community and also that this case can be made on both empirical and theoretical grounds. I think, however, that his argument understates and weakens the case by limiting it to a specific category of polities. This is partly because he rests his case on a historical account that is partial and misleading, and excessively Eurocentric. He also makes an argument from economic consequences that while correct needs to be folded into a wider theory of government and politics.

What does he argue? His central point is captured in his title: “The Case for Not Getting Rid of a Constitutional Monarch.” This is a negative argument against abolishing the remaining existing constitutional monarchies. It is not an argument for monarchy in general or for increasing the number of states that have a constitutional monarch as their head of state. Specifically, he makes an argument for retaining monarchy in countries that have undergone a particular historical process. In his account monarchies in Europe (as well as some elsewhere, such as Thailand) have gradually conceded powers to democratic political institutions through a bargaining process. Consequently, they have survived where others that did not do this, such as the Habsburg, Romanoff, and Hohenzollern monarchies, have not. Moreover, they have survived the threat of peaceful supplanting by republican democrats by drawing upon and mobilizing soft or symbolic sources of power. In Walter Bagehot’s famous terminology they have moved from the efficient to the symbolic part of government.

However, he argues, this still leaves them with an important role and an extensive influence. Their role removes certain matters from politics and creates important (sometimes informal but still effective) constraints on both legislative and executive action. This in turn means that constitutional stability and rules-based and rules-bound governance are more firmly founded; these in turn correlate very strongly with economic stability and growth. You can get these without a constitutional monarchy, but you are much more likely to get them if you have one. Moreover, as the historical record shows, constitutional monarchies are more resistant to arbitrary and despotic forms of politics, such as fascism or integralism.

All of this is true. However, the case made is actually too limited and too dependent on history. It is also too focused on a specific case, that of hereditary monarchy in Europe. It ignores the evidence of other kinds of monarchy in Europe and elsewhere, and it misses the more general case for a monarchical head of state that does not rest on it being a specific historical residual. There is an argument that is more general and applies to the restoration of monarchy in some places, its introduction in others, and a formal recognition of a monarch’s role elsewhere.

Even in Europe there is not a simple trajectory from absolute to ceremonial monarchy. Some monarchies (e.g. Poland) were always constitutional. Elsewhere there was an oscillation over the centuries between more powerful and more ceremonial roles—Sweden is a case of this. A ceremonial monarchy is the limiting case of a constitutional one, where the effective powers have been completely removed (a constitutional monarchy can have such powers but constrained or limited in some way). The Japanese monarchy has been purely ceremonial for most of its very long history. There are also many cases in Europe and elsewhere of monarchies that are not strictly hereditary. To name two examples, there is the papacy and previously the dogeship in Venice. In Africa there are many monarchies where the successor is chosen not by a strict rule of succession but by a process from one large extended family or clan. This was also the practice in Chinese imperial dynasties and among many Islamic dynasties both today and historically (e.g. the Ottomans).

In Africa, contrary to myth, monarchies have almost always been constitutional and limited in their functions. Autocrats such as Shaka Zulu were the exception. In the post-colonial era traditional monarchies were formally abolished, but in reality they are still around and have considerable social, cultural, and political importance as holders of symbolic power. Increasingly this is formally and explicitly recognized (as in Uganda for example). Malaysia is another example of this process, though there the monarchs are explicitly recognized in the constitution. All this suggests that we need not rely on a historical evolutionary model and focus on the relicts or survivors. There is a general theoretical case that a ceremonial monarchy is valuable.

The place to start is with a simple question. Why have a head of state at all? Also, why make this office separate from that of head of the executive? Many states combine the two, but there are also some where the office of head of state hardly exists, such as Switzerland. My own position is that in my perfect world there would be no heads of state. However, this is because I wish for a world in which the sphere of politics has been reduced to a minimum. In the real world as it is and is likely to be for a considerable time, you do need a head of state. So the question is why. The key is that political power and governance have always had two aspects, which we may call the totemic or sacral and the active or practical. (These correspond to Bagehot’s dignified and functional). In many but not all historical monarchies these two are combined.

The effective is easily described—it is the actual business of government. What then is the sacral? Firstly, it is the embodiment of the historical identity of the political community as an entity composed of and associated with a specific people and territory that extends through time even as the actual human beings that compose it change and are replaced. It is like a sports team in that respect. Secondly, it is the performance and enactment of certain rituals of symbolic importance or significance that are seen to express that identity and to sustain it through the participation, active or passive, of the population. The monarch is the person who in their physical being instantiates and represents that existence or identity and plays a central role in the performance and enaction of the rituals. (In theory it need not be a person; it can be an object, such as the Crown of St. Stephen, which fills this function in Hungary, and very often an object or place is associated with the person).

The sacral power is enormously important. It, through the person who embodies it, gives legitimacy to the acts of the effective power. This means that those actions will be accepted, even if grudgingly, by those who disagree with them. This minimizes the risks of physical conflicts over interests, power, or ideology. There is also always a residual power, namely to deny legitimacy and to counter particularly egregious acts, or those that threaten the continued existence of the political community. These are clearly a kind of last resort to be used only in desperate circumstances, but their existence and its public recognition both matter. They act as a final check, and they make the kinds of crisis that would require their use less likely. An example is the acknowledged residual power that Queen Elizabeth has to veto an Act to extend the life of a Parliament without an election by refusing the Royal Assent.

If there is going to be a head of state, what form should it take? The first thing is that a head of state should not also be a head of government and so combine the sacral and effective functions in the way medieval monarchs often did, even if this is done on a democratic basis. This is a basic design flaw of the constitution of the United States and most Latin American countries. If you do this you compromise the sacral power by mixing it up with everyday current politics, and you can give an unwarranted gloss of legitimacy to egregious policies. Secondly, how to choose the person who has the role? Why have a monarch as opposed to an elected person serving a fixed term? A democratic selection process makes popular support, direct or indirect, the source of legitimacy. But the whole point of the sacral power is that it does not come from a particular one-time snapshot of opinion. Moreover, the term limit reduces the symbolic power and meaning of the role and its connection to the foundational and persistent. An office held for life and then handed on to a successor at death is clearly not part of the regular electoral cycle but is something that goes beyond that.

This shows why an element of heredity is preferable and brings benefits. The great problem of politics is short time horizons. In both democratic and oligarchic politics, to consider anything beyond the near future is difficult. However, as Burke put it, a political community is an association of the dead, the living, and the yet-to-be-born. This is not just a matter of theory. Questions of intergenerational justice are now very pressing, with climate change and government debt two examples. Increasingly such issues and other global catastrophic risks require multi-generational thinking if we are to address them. The language and symbolism of contemporary politics works against this.

Embodying the sacral power in a hereditary monarch helps here. The monarch themselves will tend to take a longer view and can express that. Even more important is the symbolic aspect. The human being that is the monarch embodies in their own descent and successors the continuity of generations and the way that a political community is an association with an existence and identity and interests that extend through time. A monarchy makes this apparent and helps to give a political culture a more long-term orientation. It is not alone; institutions such as families, churches, guilds, universities, and sports teams also do this. Powerful influences stand against it, such as contemporary media, the way contemporary business works, and influential movements in modern art and culture, but a monarchy provides a check against these in a way that regular politics cannot.

Yet none of this means that we should have monarchs with effective powers. Apart from the argument already made that this is a bad idea, there is an abundance of evidence that heredity is a really bad way to choose who exercises actual power. It does mean though that we should not only look to keep those ceremonial monarchies we still have. We should also look to revive those carelessly cast aside, as Spain has done, and to apply the principle to parts of the world where monarchy has not existed historically for a long time. Latin America would be a good case, and I would venture to suggest that even the United States could learn from Canada, separate the offices of head of state and head of government, and have a hereditary, sacral, and symbolic monarch.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Why keep a monarchy that’s largely or purely ceremonial? One possible answer is that a ceremonial monarch is much better than a real tyrant. More to the point, where monarchy has survived, it has commonly been by adapting itself successfully to the rise of liberal democracy. Thus, while we should neither create new monarchies nor expand the powers of existing ones, Prof. Geloso argues that constitutional monarchs have paradoxically produced effective constraints on governance over time.

Response Essays

  • Of the 43 monarchies in the world, 23 are among the 50 richest countries. Contrary to their reputation, they show high levels of economic equality and income per capita. Mauro F. Guillén argues that this is because “the constitutional monarchy represents a compromise between tradition and modernity” and “a beautiful solution to a wide array of governance problems.” He finds it particularly important that monarchs act as a check on the otherwise boundless ambition of elected executives.

  • Stephen Davies argues that monarchy fulfills one of the key functions of government, which moderns are apt to overlook. Monarchies are symbolically unifying, and—as long as we must have a head of state—a monarch fills that role while serving as a symbolic and relatively apolitical link to the past and the future of the nation.

  • Rok Spruk argues that proponents of constitutional monarchy have reversed the causality: Countries that began the modern era relatively wealthy were more likely to keep their monarchies over time than those that did not. Because wealthier countries could keep their institutions, their monarchies came along for the ride. Those that suffered wars or revolutions were also more often forced to reconsider their systems of government, monarchies included.