God Save the King
Contemporary urban intellectuals tend to scoff at monarchy as wasteful and anachronistic, at best a tourist attraction and at worst a national embarrassment for countries like Britain that retain it. As with many such views, it makes sense if you don’t think about it.
The first thing that we should consider, when evaluating the British or any other monarchy, is that the system works. Almost every one of the best-governed nations in Europe has a king or queen as head of state. All the most successful Islamic countries are actually governed by kings. Even if one discounts the petro-monarchies, Jordan and Morocco are far more stable and prosperous than their Arab neighbours. The least successful kingdom in the world, Thailand, is still far better off than other Southeast Asian nations.
When I speak of monarchy, I do not mean any system where one man holds absolute power. On the contrary, I take monarchy in the strictest sense, a state with a king or queen (or titular equivalent) at its head, regardless of how much political authority that person wields. Since de facto governments range from absolutism to egalitarian democracy, what common principle makes all them all so successful?
A monarch is a force for unity and stability, regardless of how much power he or she has. In the darkest days of World War II, the peoples of Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Romania, and so many other nations turned to their monarchs, who supersede politics and thus act as pillars of national unity. Today Britons and Americans are bitterly divided, but nobody marches through the streets of London chanting, “Not my Queen!” Monarchy gives people something to believe in beyond petty politics, and something that unites them regardless of circumstances.
Especially in states encompassing diverse regions and peoples, a common monarch can be the only thing keeping things together. Belgium is an artificial country split evenly along cultural and linguistic lines- the king is the only thing Flanders and Wallonia have in common. This is certainly even more true of the British Commonwealth.
Another point is hard to quantify, but reporting to a monarch must have a humbling influence on the psychology of political leaders. Mussolini and Hitler were both fascist dictators, but one of them was, at least formally, a servant of his king. One can imagine that, had things gone differently in the 1770s, weekly audiences with the queen would do wonders for the personality of Donald Trump.
One could read all of this and easily argue that the success of modern monarchies is merely a coincidence, that those countries would be just as successful if they did away with the trappings of royalty. This notion is based on the success of the United States, which few people realise is just about the only country to transition smoothly from monarchy to republican democracy. For everyone else, history tells a different story. When nations fire their kings, at best they fall into instability and disunity. At worst, they turn to new rulers, who usurp the reverence once reserved for the king and use absolute power to realise their own terrible ambitions.
France inaugurated the age of republics by executing King Louis XVI in 1793. The country then descended into chaos, turned to a new monarchy under Napoleon, then back to the old system under Louis’ brother, then to a different king, then to a new emperor (Napoleon’s nephew). Finally, after the emperor was captured by the Prussians, the streets of Paris were summarily flooded with blood, and they could not find a fit king, they settled for an unpopular republic, one hundred bloody years after their first revolution.
Brazil and Russia were both great nations, rising stars in the late 19th Century. After throwing out their emperors, one endured an ongoing period of instability and poverty, while the other descended into far more horrific tyranny under the Soviet Union.
Probably the most successful new republics are Ireland and Italy. Both today are stable democracies. But it took several decades to get to this point, and still nationalist terrorists are a major force in Dublin, while Italians joke that their country was never truly unified. Latin American and Eastern European countries have experienced varying success, but suffer congenital, chronic political instability or nationalist violence.
Looking to the other end of the spectrum, Germany and Russia both threw out their emperors following World War I. Their humiliated and frightened people invested royal dignity (and more), along with absolute political omnipotence, in horrifying new regimes that wrought orders of magnitude more suffering upon the human race than any king ever has.
Revolutionaries (and their apologists) claim that the existing society was so horribly corrupt that dramatic action was required. Based on their logic one would expect modern Britain to be a backward, feudal country, in the shadow of a modern and democratic France. Yet somehow the democracies of Northern Europe are the envy of the entire world. Their means of getting there may not satisfy hysterical academics or nitwit university students, but the British achieved the same thing as the French did without a century of tearing each other to pieces.
I have mainly discussed Europe, but monarchy is arguably even more important for other regions of the world. Arab kings navigate complex tribal and religious politics with far more authority than a secular president can. The king of Morocco claims the title “Commander of the Faithful,” and fundamentalists respect him as a monarch chosen by God when he orders them not to support terrorism. To the people that cause most of the problems related to Islam, an elected ruler cannot have that level of legitimacy. Thus Islamic monarchies tend to be prosperous, stable, and moderate, while their republican neighbours are ruled by tyranny or chaos.
In the Far East, the story is a bit more nuanced, but largely similar to Europe. China, like Russia, replaced the Son of Heaven with a horrible dictator who killed more of his own people than Hitler and Stalin combined. In Cambodia, Pol Pot massacred an impressive third of his subjects. Japan holds the ignoble distinction of the only modern monarchy to fully commit itself to nationalist genocide, but for 2600 years emperors of the same line have united an often-troubled country.
So why are republics ascendant today? Again, this is thanks in large part to America. The United States pulled off its exceptional success by preserving the British constitution almost in its entirety, with an unambitious federal government that delegated most authority to the states. America won World War II because it had a large population and was sheltered by two oceans. American leaders then tricked themselves into thinking that their government was so exceptional and grand that they should force it upon the entire world. The UN drew up a template constitution, with the name of each new country simply to be filled in at the top.
From Africa to the Middle East to East Asia, the republican experiment has been an almost unmitigated disaster. Governments have either collapsed, or wrought oppression and misery upon the people they supposedly liberated. We will probably not stop any time soon to pretend humans and their societies are merely interchangeable parts in our postmodern fantasy world. But maybe one day the people who advocate reason will come around to supporting a system that works.