About a year ago, I chanced upon an encounter with Prince Charles at Cambridge, the heir apparent’s alma mater. As our palms met and he tactfully balanced his rather large tea mug with regal grace, I found myself wondering: Of all the people in Britain, this is the man who’s going to become king?
Indeed, he is. Charles will someday become not just King of the United Kingdom, head of the Anglican Church, and head of the British armed forces, but will also become king of the various Commonwealth domains, including my home country, Canada. His face will then adorn paper currency from Toronto to London to Sydney and new citizens of most Commonwealth states will, after his ascension, begin taking oaths of citizenship to “bear true allegiance” to Charles.
If there is anything anachronistic about the world today, it is surely the continued existence of monarchies. In the 21st century, even as every other institution – from prime minister’s offices to the boardrooms of the largest corporations – have democratized, monarchies stubbornly remain in some form or another in more than thirty countries around the world. They range in degrees of control, from the constitutionally limited to the absolutely powerful.
A brief look at the various monarchies around the world makes clear the fact that they are predicated on the same insidious assumption: legitimacy through inheritance. The state the House of Saud rules over with American military backing is the private property of King Abdullah and his family, a triply layered society in which one set of rules exist for the Saudi family, another similar set for those living in Western compounds, and a third, very different set for ordinary Saudis. (It is worth mentioning here that Queen Elizabeth happens to be the legal owner of all the land in the 52 Commonwealth states, making those countries not just legal monarchies but also feudalist realms.) Jordan and Morocco’s respective kings claim a direct lineage to the prophet of Islam to justify their reign. In Vatican City, the Pope, while not a king, is also a monarch, his claim to authority being that he is God’s vicar on earth. In North Korea, the head of state is considered infallible and also happens to be dead, thus making Kim Il-sung – the Eternal President of North Korea – both Caesar and God and rendering his nominally atheistic regime the most religious and absolutist on earth.
One would think that with the gradual but bloody victory of individual rights over state dictates and the universal appeal of democracy, that the world could rid itself of hereditary rulers. But this is not the case, and there is a steady supply of monarchists and conservatives who support the idea of power by inheritance.
There are several arguments they make to defend monarchy. Akhilesh Pillalamarri makes several of them in his recent piece. The first is that elected heads of state represent only the faction that elected them while kings do not. This is misleading. An elected head of state such as the U.S. president speaks for all Americans in his official capacity as U.S. president. When the head of state and head of government positions are combined – the latter being necessarily political – there is an implicit division of roles between the two. The president of the United States speaking at the UN General Assembly operates under a different mandate than the president of the United States debating a political opponent before an election.
Next come the arguments of practicality, tradition and usefulness. Though slightly different in each case, these arguments point to the utility of monarchical government and can be met with a simple follow-up question: Why not replace kings and queens with ceremonial presidents? The distinction may seem to lack a difference, but the fundamental covenant between citizens and the state is not the same for both systems. In a republican system, regardless of how the president is chosen, the governors rule with the consent of the governed. The social contract thus places the Indian president on the same footing as the chaiwallah. Both are equal under the law and in the eyes of the state, and the chaiwallah can one day become president, at least in theory. In monarchies like Britain and Japan and elsewhere, this cannot be countenanced even in the abstract.
Critics of a republic may scoff at this emphasis on symbolic gestures, but half of politics – flags, anthems, ceremonies, slogans – is symbolic. The latent assumptions the powerful hold and the powerless understand are crucial to any understanding of what it means to be a citizen. When autocrats are falling and revolutions are starting (and continuing), the appeal to monarchical legitimacy is especially unpersuasive.
None of this, however, touches on the most basic reason why monarchy is so abhorrent in this day and age. What monarchism represents is humanity’s slave mentality for celebrity and inherited power, a prostration before thrones and royal insignia. It is a testament to groupthink, a kind of babyish yearning to be ruled by wise families who have “done it for centuries.” Monarchism is the very antithesis of self-determination, which is why everywhere there has ever been a king, there have been writers, activists and lawyers working to devolve power from the monarch to the people; from an inherited chair to the seats of democracy in parliament.
A fair point can be made that presidential systems have become too enmeshed in celebrity. The annual Washington Correspondents Dinner is a prime example, bringing Hollywood, America’s journalists, and Washington’s political class together for a weekend of self-congratulatory backslapping and photo-ops. But a democratic republic need not transmogrify into an imperial presidency. Where parliamentary democracy and republican government are combined, there is a reduced chance of the president becoming a messiah.
The conservative intellectual William F. Buckley took the democracy argument a little too far in saying that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names of the Boston phone directory than by the Harvard faculty. Monarchy in whatever form takes the opposite preference for gilded, fallible men and women converted into demigods. That they should be entitled to rule over citizens makes as much sense as a doctor claiming expertise because his father was a brilliant surgeon. Thomas Paine understood this well when he asked in Common Sense, “How a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest.” The irony of the question should not be missed. They were not born superior to others, and one look at the monarchs sitting in lavish palaces across the world and using historical and religious justifications for their power makes it astonishing that, in an age of self-determination, the Arab Spring, and virulent calls for democracy in China, that this vestige of pre-modernity still lives.
Omer Aziz is a writer and journalist from Toronto. He is a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and other outlets. In 2012-2013, he was a Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar of International Relations at Cambridge University. He tweets @omeraziz12.