Voices: In favour of abolishing the monarchy? History says it’s a bad idea

·5-min read
Our monarchical system is far from perfect – but, in politics, very little is (Getty Images)
Our monarchical system is far from perfect – but, in politics, very little is (Getty Images)

In the run-up to the coronation, opinion polls have revealed that support for the monarchy is in decline (between 42 per cent and 45 per cent against or relatively indifferent). What’s more, a substantial majority of young people (68 per cent) are against the continuation of the institution, or are otherwise undecided as to what its future should be.

Indeed, unless they change their minds as they age, the monarchy may well lose majority support at some stage in the coming few decades.

On the face of it, that could be perceived as a victory for equality and democracy and a blow against privilege. But the lessons of history suggest that instead, the opposite might be true.

In most examples of the abolition of monarchies in major countries, their demise was followed by a strengthening of the right and the erosion of democracy, justice, equality and liberty.

When Charles lll’s namesake and ancestor, Charles l, was deposed (and executed) in 1649 (after six years of civil war), his Cromwellian republican replacement was, in some ways, even more oppressive than Charles had been.

And when the French abolished their monarchy in 1789, it’s republican replacement was certainly more repressive than the deposed king had been (the republicans executed over 17000 political opponents – and locked up more than 200,000)

In more recent times, the pattern has often been similar or even worse.

In 1910, the Portuguese abolished their monarchy in the hope of a more progressive future. But, instead, within 16 years, they got a right-wing dictatorship which lasted till the mid-1970s.

Then in 1917, the Russians ended their monarchic system – and, instead, got a series of even more tyrannical governments, culminating in the rule of Joseph Stalin and the murder of countless millions.

Likewise, the Germans terminated their monarchy in 1918, hoping for a better future. Instead, after just 15 years, they got an extreme right-wing racist dictatorship under a new supreme leader, Adolf Hitler. It was a transformation which led directly to World War Two and the Holocaust.

The abolition of monarchies outside Europe have also often ushered in periods of instability and extreme oppression.

One of the clearest examples was the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. The Iranian people initially welcomed their monarch’s departure – but his republican replacement Ayatollah Khomeini proved to be even more oppressive.

Of course, all those deposed monarchs, though usually markedly less tyrannical than their republican successors, had nevertheless been relatively oppressive. By contrast, Britain’s current monarchy couldn’t really be described as oppressive in any way at all. Indeed, it wields virtually no political power – and would be incapable of doing so. That’s because it genuinely lacks any democratic credibility. It simply doesn’t have a mandate to wield any real power.

But it’s precisely that lack of democratic credibility that makes it such an effective yet powerless neutral heart for our political system. Britain has stability, in part, because the heart of its political system simply doesn’t have the credibility or democratic right to get involved in politics. Even if a monarch wanted to, they couldn’t.

However, any form of elected head of state (ie, a president or equivalent) would by definition have some degree of democratic credibility – and would almost certainly (at some stage) become actively involved in political struggles for power. As too many past anti-monarchists have discovered, deposing kings (or queens) can be like opening Pandora’s Box. It is impossible to guarantee that there will be no unpleasant unintended consequences.

As described above, history clearly demonstrates that the right, rather than the left, normally benefits from the abolition of monarchies. But why?

As the saying goes, politics abhors a vacuum. As such, removing a major (albeit currently powerless) part of the country’s political infrastructure would enable other parts of the political firmament to flow into that vacuum.

And unfortunately, history clearly demonstrates that the elements which flow into that vacuum and occupy the space previously inhabited by the monarchy is usually the hard right – not liberals or the left.

That’s because monarchs disproportionately attract the loyalty of the right (rather than the left) and when monarchs are deposed (or monarchies are discontinued) those monarchical loyalists are, to an extent, rendered loyalty-wise politically homeless – though usually not for long!

In an age of right-wing populism, elected presidents all too often tend to be from the right. Some of the better known recent or current major examples include President Trump, President Erdoğan of Turkey, President Putin, and President Bolsonaro of Brazil.

Indeed, in Britain, an elected-head-of-state system would probably favour the right even more than a purely parliamentary system does. That’s because it’s easier to get one populist “strongman/woman” elected than to guarantee that a majority of MPs will be uniformly committed to populist right-wing policies.

Even if, initially, a new elected head of state had relatively little political power, the mere fact that he or she had been directly or indeed indirectly elected would give that politician huge democratic credibility that would potentially, in the end, undermine or even challenge the sovereignty of parliament. Modern history is strewn with examples of presidential/parliamentary collisions and stalemates that could make effective government increasingly difficult.

Our monarchical system is far from perfect – but, in politics, very little is. If it ain’t broke, future generations should think twice before trying to fix it – otherwise, one day, we could potentially end up with some very undesirable consequences.

David Keys is archaeology correspondent for The Independent, covering history as well as archaeology