In the wake of the interview of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with Oprah Winfrey, numerous pundits questioned the relevance of having monarchs serve in a ceremonial function of head of state. And to be sure, that does not apply merely to Great Britain, as there are still many European democracies – such as Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands — whose head of state is a monarch with little to no power. The common thread between those pundits is that the monarchy adds little and only ends up costing taxpayers. That could very well be true, but this common thread falls short in terms of making a convincing case for getting rid of these ceremonial monarchs.
In fact, if that is the argument against ceremonial monarchs, it can be countered quite effectively (albeit lazily). Indeed, all one needs to do is to point out that the monarchs in many of these democracies are tourist attractions that probably offset a great deal (if not all) of the public expenses associated with their functions.
The true contribution of ceremonial monarchs is probably that they generate mild constraints on the exercise of political power. And, paradoxically for a person who is unelected and inherits the job, it may even help preserve liberal democracy.
To see this, consider how many of the absolute monarchies of the 18th and 19th centuries transitioned to democracies while getting rid of their kings: France, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria. Consider also that many monarchies ended with overthrow without a transition to democracy until many decades later (e.g., Yugoslavia, Russia). To survive amidst this decimation of monarchies requires a certain political acumen on the part of the monarchs that eventually become powerless and largely ceremonial.
The common denominator in the survival of ceremonial monarchs is the depoliticization of the function of the head of state. Consider simply the incentives facing monarchies during democratic transition. As they are not elected, any attempt to aggrandize the function of a monarch is risky. Simultaneously, elected officials would like to increase their own powers by stripping the monarchy of its powers or abolishing it entirely (which can happen democratically as in the case of Italy or more violently as in the case of France).
How can a monarch resist with such limited tools? By investing heavily in making himself too popular to attack! By avoiding divisive issues and focusing on unifying symbols, gestures and statements, a monarch becomes popular as his functions grow more ceremonial. Unsurprisingly, monarchies that survived the transition to democracy are all incredibly popular – even among the young.
Essentially, the surviving monarchs depoliticized the function of head of state. This depoliticization allows them to withhold some ceremonial powers from elected officials. This may seem trivial at first sight, but consider the contrast with republican regimes such as France and the United States when it comes to the conferment of “honours” for outstanding accomplishments and civic engagement. In those countries, that highly ceremonial function has been repurposed to serve the political interests of the presidents’ parties.
In the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded by, well, the president. Under Donald Trump, it was awarded to various important figures in the conservative movement such as Orrin Hatch, Jim Jordan and Rush Limbaugh. Under Barack Obama, it was awarded to similarly important figures of the American left. The selection of medalists partially serves the purpose of rewarding the party faithful. Otherwise, it may be used to advance a particular political message. For example, after enacting important tax cuts, Donald Trump awarded the Medal to pro-tax cut economist Arthur Laffer and used the occasion to highlight his policy changes.
In France, the famous Légion d’Honneur is granted by the President but with recommendations from the ministers and the prime minister – the latter being generally recommended to his function by the President. The Légion d’Honneur was offered to Thomas Piketty by president François Hollande in order to highlight the topic of inequality and justify certain policy prescriptions favored by the president. Piketty rejected the honor in large part because he did not want to be used for this political purpose.
In contrast, by being largely the domain of the monarch, honours are more depoliticized in the United Kingdom. Many of the country’s most prized decorations, orders and medals (such as the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the Royal Victorian Order, and the Order of Merit) are made by the sovereign’s sole discretion. The control over this ability to confer honours is a tool for the preservation of the monarch’s popularity. As such, the figures who receive honours tend to be selected with fewer considerations to the help it provides for the furthering of a prime minister’s fortunes. They also tend to be less controversial picks. True, prime ministers can make recommendations. For example, the Most Honorable Order of the Bath is conferred by the sovereign but with the advice of the government. However, the monarch can refuse, which is why prime ministers also tend to make few politically controversial recommendations in the first place.
In other words, the control over a vastly ceremonial power actually does prohibit a tool that elected officials could use to further their interest. The process of depoliticizing the head of state’s ceremonial functions creates a mild constraint on the abilities of politicians. That, alone, is something of great value. Indeed, great democracies are stable and functioning when they are liberal (i.e. they impose constraints on the exercise of power). If that is true, then these ceremonial monarchs preserve liberal democracy.
Now, it could very well be that the claim that I have elaborated above amounts to very little empirically speaking. No one has attempted to assess this unappreciated contribution of the monarchy. The benefits of the monarchy could thus be smaller than I believe. They may even be too small to offset the costs. Consequently, I am uncertain of my own sympathies for these ceremonial monarchs. Nevertheless, I would err on the side of caution and simply invite the pundits to be careful what they wish for.