Is a monarchy compatible with democracy?

Mel Young: The whole of Britain went into mourning last month following the sad news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. It isn’t surprising because she was a much-loved and respected person. Countless tributes poured in from across the UK and around the world. Even anti-royalists sent messages of praise.

In our New Ism would we have such an entity as a monarchy? In an ideal world we wouldn’t would we? We would have some sort of democratic and genuinely representative system. We have written before about the challenge of getting the correct political system for a New Ism and moaned about the current poor political leadership in the world. 

The same people who are currently genuinely upset about the death of the Queen are the people who complain about a lack of representation and how institutions need to change. But is a monarchy or some sort of presidential system which genuinely provides stability and guidance for people relevant for modern times?

Alex Matthews: It’s a really interesting question – for most people, democracy is something to aspire to and to protect – I definitely think that. But the affection that so many people felt for the Queen because of her dedication, commitment and sense of duty contrasts sharply with our feelings for and opinions about our elected leaders – people who we choose to lead us, whether directly or indirectly. No one chose the Queen – she was Queen because of the family she was born into – but she was almost universally loved. It would be interesting to know whether other countries with monarchies feel the same about their monarchs. 

I think the idea is a good one – to have someone who is always at the heart of the constitution, stable and unchanging. However, it’s only really a good thing if the person in that role is benign. What happens if you get a megalomaniac or someone who uses their power for nefarious purposes – and you can’t elect them out of their position? I think that is the strongest argument against having an unelected leader of that type.

MY: Yes, it is all a question of balance, I think. In a formal and constitutional sense, the monarch in the UK has a lot of power because they are signing everything off: without that signature, nothing happens. However, in a political sense, they have no power. In a way, the establishment of that relationship has been quite smart. So, that should stop the interference of a megalomaniac as you put it!

What I think is interesting though is the collective psychology of the population. Do we crave some sort of autocratic leadership in the same way we will always look to our parents for guidance and security? Subconsciously, is that what is going on here? We want our parents in that position – like them or not – and so we are instinctively comfortable with a monarchy. 

AM: I hadn’t thought of it like that before – that we like a monarchy because it’s like our parents – unelected and stable (in theory at least). Very good point Mel! The instability of democracy is perhaps in part what makes us predisposed to distrust elected leaders.

I think countries like Ireland might have found a reasonably good balance – they have an elected President (or similar) who is a ‘figurehead’ but holds some of the same constitutional powers as the King or Queen of the United Kingdom, but the Prime Minister (or Taoiseach as they call the position in Ireland) holds the political power. While I probably wouldn’t call myself anti-monarchist, if we were to ‘start again’ and create a New Ism, I would definitely lean towards democracy and therefore a system more like the Irish one than the British one. But I do like the fact that the Irish head of state – unlike the US or French one, for example – is more apolitical. 

MY: Interesting again. You seem to be saying that we should have what is termed a more traditional elected democratic system of government but with some sort of popular figurehead who represented the country but had no real power. It might work and does in some countries but I think the devil will be in the detail and getting the power relationships sorted precisely is critical. 

I still think people subconsciously seek order, hence my comparison with the child and parent. “We just want someone to make our trains run on time,” is a phrase I hear all the time. People want order and stability, but who is providing that? An autocratic figurehead could make the trains run on time, for example, but none of us wants an autocratic system which is all-powerful. This is why it is so important for democratic systems to be properly connected with their populations – democracies are fragile and need to be protected – perhaps having a monarch or a president connected with a functioning democratic system is the way to go and in the UK the Queen provided that for the past seven decades! 

AM: Yes I think perhaps we have been lucky in that respect, despite all the other issues we have faced and continue to face! It will be interesting to see whether we still feel the same about living in a monarchy when our new monarch has been on the throne for a while. But I think we (or rather, you!) have hit on an interesting point – that democracy is fragile and, paradoxically, almost needs the stability that an autocratic figurehead can provide. It’s not a conclusion I thought we would draw for a new ism, but then that is what The New Ism is about – having blank pieces of paper and really exploring interesting issues like this.

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

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