Monarchs, it seems, are holding their ground in the modern world. If the amor regem displayed in New Zealand and Australia toward Prince William and family in April is anything to go by, one might conclude that monarchies are not only surviving, but thriving in the 21st century. As a politically active friend in her 20s put it:
I am a republican, of course, but I really love the royals – I’m torn!
Royalty remains an important part of the social and political landscape in many parts of the world. Why has monarchy endured? Here are five suggested reasons.
This equates to 22% of the 193 UN member states across most regions of the world – North Africa (Morocco), sub-Saharan Africa (Swaziland), Europe (Belgium, Spain), North America (Canada), the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan), North Asia (Japan), south Asia (Bhutan), southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia) and the Pacific (Tonga).
None of the kings, queens, emperors or sultans linked to these countries seem to be in danger of being thrown out, although the power of the Gulf monarchies may be largely dependent on the patronage they can bestow from oil revenues and the news that the Spanish king will abdicate to his son after 40 years seems more an act of survival than of largesse toward his realm.
Yet even if a monarch was to fall (the most recent to go were the self-destructing royals of Nepal in 2008), there would be no domino effect across such a disparate group. Survival, it seems, comes through diversity.
The number of monarchs expands internationally when we consider local and religious royalty. For example, the Zulu nation is South Africa’s largest ethnic group, comprising approximately 23% of the population. The Zulu king’s support was crucial for the success of the first post-apartheid elections in 1994 and remained an important stabilising element before this year’s poll.
In contrast to this localised authority, religious monarchs often reign across borders, sometimes with a global constituency. The Pope is in every sense a monarch, his Cardinals rightly described as “Princes of the Church”, the Holy See in every way a royal institution. The same can also be said for the Patriarchates of the Orthodox Churches.
The Aga Khan Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini, spiritual leader of the worldwide community of Ismaili Shia Muslims, exercises significant diplomatic influence. This year he was invited to address the Canadian parliament and the Aga Khan Development Network is one of the pre-eminent Islamic development organisations in the world today.
The regal authority exercised by local and religious monarchs is important for millions of people, adding to the esteem in which all monarchs can be held (deserving or not).
It is said that monarchs embody aristocratic excess and unrepresentative power, neither of which has a place in modern democratic society. On the matter of excessive wealth, royal riches across the world are indeed staggering. According to Business Spectator, the King of Thailand and the Sultan of Brunei have a combined fortune of US$50 billion.
That is substantial wealth. However, when one considers Forbes’ latest estimation of 1645 private billionaires in the world today, royal riches are not necessarily exceptional.
On the issue of unrepresentative power, nothing has changed. Anyone who believes, for instance, that the much-loved William and Kate will bypass the much-less-loved Charles and Camilla via popular vote simply doesn’t know the rules of the game. As the Monty Python refrain reminds: “You don’t vote for kings!”
However, the question is whether being “born to rule” is unique to monarchy. The answer is “no”. Business, exemplified by the Murdoch and Packer media empires, is often characterised by family succession, as legacies are carried forward by feted sons and daughters.
Dynastic politics is also common. For example, if Hillary Clinton is elected president in 2016 the Bush and Clinton dynasties will have held or been near the centre of US power for a quarter of a century.
The hereditary monarch has thus become obscured in a crowd of hereditary merchants and rulers.
Most contemporary monarchs are not so much “born to rule” as “born to belong”, their once autonomous powers curtailed by national constitutions, their decrees now guided by prime ministers and parliaments. Yet as the hard power of constitutional monarchs has diminished (though not as much as we assume), their soft power – the power to persuade, to unite, to inspire, without the threat of punishment – has increased.
In this sense, the notion of “figurehead” rulers is misguided. We are better to think of a shift from coercive to persuasive powers.
Consider two nations under significant strain at present. Thailand suffers internal political pressures that threaten the stability of the state. Jordan has external military and militant pressures at its borders from surrounding conflicts.
The kings of each country are held to be “above the fray” and thus have become symbols of national unity, especially with the masses, in a time of distress. (As the purported alignment between military and royal interests in Thailand shows, there is a fine and complex line between coercion and persuasion.)
The coming crisis for the people of Britain will not be economic or military, but social and psychological, at the passing of Queen Elizabeth II who has reigned in times of war and peace, in prosperity and paucity, providing hope and dignity as the sun set on the Empire.
They may be quite lost without her, and for some time. In this see the power to unite a people over time and across generations that is beyond the reach of any political party today.
Fredric Jameson once argued that postmodern societies would be characterised by the dominance of the image and the demise of the written word. The selfie-driven, brand-focused politics of our day has, in many respects, vindicated this view.
The “spectacle” has always been an important political tool, but in no other time have images had such rapid and global impact, unleashing an insatiable popular hunger not only for celebrity and scandal but also for Grand Beauty. Welcome the return of the royal wedding, the diamond jubilee flotilla and palace grandeur, each simultaneously revealing a gaping distance and an intimate connection between fashion-forward royals and their Instagramming subjects.
The British monarchy has become invaluable to the national economy in areas such as tourism, trade, fashion and economic diplomacy (such as helping to secure the London Olympics). Royalty is the brand of national interest, the pageant both political and lucrative.
None of the above constitutes a defence of monarchy. It is equally pertinent to note that millions of people happily live without kings and queens; that monarchies are not always neutral or benign; and that the reign of the next English king will certainly be a boon for republicans.
However, before we defend or deny monarchy we might first try to explain its continued existence in the global political landscape. What we cannot do, it seems, is simply explain it away.
This is an adapted and updated extract from the keynote address, Game of Thrones: the enduring powers of monarchy in a post-imperial age, delivered at the World History Association Conference, University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle, in October 2013.
By John Rees
John Rees does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.