Why do we still have kings and queens today?

Kings and queens look like a medieval thing. How is it possible that people still inherit their rule over entire countries? Why do monarchies still exist?

Why do we still have kings and queens today?

Introduction. What is a monarchy?

We hear of kings and queens in fairy tales and medieval history. But what can they give us in today’s world, we think? And why citizens of the UK, Japan, or Spain, for example, don’t put this ruling system to question? How is it still possible for monarchs to rule in the 21st century?

Monarchy is a form of government where a particular individual gets authority over citizens by the right of birth. That is, one gets to rule if they are born in a family with a crown.

Historically, monarchy is an older political system than democracy and republic. First kings appeared in the Middle East, China, India, and in civilizations of Aztecs and Maya thousands of years BC. Back then, the Crown was the ultimate foundation of security, continuity, and social peace.

A peasant or a lord, citizens knew that breaking the law means being called to the Crown’s justice. Thus, following a common way of life and submitting to an established law code seemed better for everyone.

The monarch was the ultimate institution for everyone to seek justice. Peasants and citizens could file a lawsuit against an abusive lord, and the Crown as an overarching ruler could punish anyone.

But what does it have to do with today’s world where the concept of human rights, courts of justice, universities, and many more democratic institutions exist? People don’t have to rely on one person in particular to seek justice and peace. Yet, monarchs have managed to root their presence in every aspect of social life. Why?

We’re going to find out the answers to these questions. There are not only political but also historical, religious, and cultural reasons why monarchies persist. We’ll also glimpse at some particular countries with monarchies to get a grip on this power relationship monarchy provides.

Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861

How do monarchs justify their rule?

First of all, the grounds of the monarchy lies in religion. Kings and queens claim to be heads of churches or supreme servants of God; they claim to enforce the will of God within their realms. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, kings are sovereigns by the right of descendence from Mohammed, the supreme prophet and leader of Islam. So, they make others believe their political program is the one that God wishes. 

In Thailand, people believe that kings rule in the right of dhamma, a Buddhist concept of divine order in the Universe. The idea is that if people live in toil and pain on Earth, kings can help them find solace by protecting them from earthly injustice. 

In Japan, they believe the Emperor is a descendant of a powerful deity, Amaterasu. In the Japanese language, his title is Tennō—the Emperor of God.

Prime Minister of Japan formalizes the enthronement of Naruhito in October 2019

The same with European monarchies, all of them based on Christianity. 

In Middle Ages in Europe, theologians formulated a concept of the divine right of kings. Kings were messengers of God’s will and power on Earth. The divine mission of the kings was to convert more people to Christianity, salvage their souls from hell, and protect the Christian church from enemies. 

Times changed, and Christian kings and queens were losing their grip. No more could they avoid an outrage from atheists who were also the citizens of their states. Still, in England and Denmark, the queens are heads of national Churches. In Spain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway, they have to be members of the Christian church and promote these values in public. Religion is a powerful tool, and the monarchy learned to use it.

Next, there are culture and traditions. These are the foundations of monarchies where the monarchs embody the state. Thus, their personalities, words, and actions take on symbolic power to influence the course of their country. During pandemics, for example, queens and kings have taken to promote the values of mutual support, empathy, and sacrifice.

Most modern monarchs stayed with their citizens in dark times and embodied the human values they promoted. For example, during WWII, the king of Norway, Haakon VII, resisted appointing a prime minister loyal to Nazis, inspiring Norwegians to oppose Nazi occupation.  

In Britain, King George VI stayed in Buckingham Palace when London was under air attack to show that he risks his life as much as everyone else does.

Monarchs in such countries represent the state abroad. Of course, there are prime ministers, foreign secretaries, and lower-rank diplomats to oversee day-to-day foreign contacts. But the monarch represents the whole nation.

Finally, monarchs can grant orders of excellence, awards, and medals for actual deeds of honor, bravery, or talents. There is a public consensus that they award only true merits and worthy actions.

So, to sum up, monarchy pervades social institutions in so many ways that getting rid of it overnight can be quite a risky idea. Monarchy takes on:

  • religious rationale
  • symbol-of-the-state rationale (national unity, foreign representation)
  • addresses the values crucial to social cohesion (awards orders of merits, addresses nation, etc.)

Monarchy seems like a timeless model. Do they differ from one another?

We saw that monarchy has some symbolic functions. It is primarily a political institution. We should keep it in mind because a king or a queen, with their supreme power, can compete with our democratic choices and wishes.

Today, a monarch’s power is usually limited and distributed among other branches of power to some extent. Based on that, political scientists categorize monarchies into:

  • absolute 
  • constitutional
  • semi-constitutional.

An absolute monarchy implies that the Crown has full and undivided power over any part of politics. There are only a few absolute monarchies still existing. 

A constitutional monarchy is a system where a monarch is vested with some of the most vital functions whereas their actual power over policy-making is notably limited or even completely revoked. 

A semi-constitutional monarchy is something in the middle of the previous two.

Most contemporary monarchies are constitutional. So, in terms of democratic policy-making, they cannot affect, block or nudge the popular wishes, sympathies and criticism. The political duties and responsibilities of royalty in a constitutional monarchy are limited and managed by other government authorities.

But what are the powers they still do have?

Swedish Queen Silvia and King Carl XVI Gustaf

As a rule, kings and queens in a constitutional monarchy have rights to:

  • declare war and peace
  • veto laws and bills (but usually a parliament has a procedure to overcome the royal veto)
  • dissolve parliament and call new elections

Normally, kings and queens in constitutional monarchies don’t exercise all these powers at will. There are numerous secretaries, intermediaries, and intricate procedures to control such royal decisions in the making.

To grasp the intricacy of a modern monarchy, we’ll look at the historical roles and political positions of such ruling systems in several countries where a crown still matters politically and culturally.

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