29.05.2020 Author: Seth Ferris

Nostalgia for Sovereigns: The King is Dead, but Maybe New Ones on “the Horizon”


Even before this latest crisis began, there had been a distinct trend of people in democracies losing faith in their political systems. When this wave of disillusionment happened back in the 1920s and 30s, as the problems of the era overwhelmed liberal democratic structures, fascism or communism were seen as being the answer. Many countries ended up with governments which had one or the other slant, or preferred one of those sides over the other when pressured to do so.

Now the trend is towards populist movements, such as En Marche or Five Star. Each of these bases their appeal on the same message as the fascists and communists – those politicians are only out for themselves, and are incapable of addressing the real issues affecting people’s lives. They do not want to change the system from within, but to do away with it altogether and give power to the people directly, whatever that actually means.

During a time of crisis people rally round a government because it is their only security. The government is responsible for dealing with the crisis, so even if you disagree with it and want other people in power, throwing it out will only hinder practical efforts to resolve the crisis.

But if the government doesn’t do a good job resolving the crisis, or is seen as having contributed to it, it can come crashing down very quickly as soon as people think it is safe to remove it. Germany overthrew its monarchy after losing World War One, and the map of Europe was radically redrawn afterwards, not through conquest but because people no longer believed in the political structures they had lived under during the war period they wished to forget.

We can therefore expect something similar to happen after this virus has gone away. But where are people going to go? They have tried mainstream politics and populism, and both have failed. The likes of Trump and Johnson, populists who have hijacked mainstream parties through centralist tactics, won’t be able to blame the politicians when they have been responsible for what they used to blame politicians for.

There is another option, not currently being considered but credible. People don’t really want to run everything themselves, as they don’t have the time or the inclination. They want someone with authority to sort everything out for them by redefining their country and its glories. Though the window of opportunity may be small, it is possible that rediscovering that most out of date of systems, monarchy, might give the post-Covid world what it is looking for.

Representing What’s Wrong

Most countries are now republics. Monarchies are considered relics of the past, even in progressive countries such a Sweden, which still has a king but has placed him firmly within a narrow constitutional role. It is interesting that some countries completely abolished their monarchies while others just gradually limited the power of the monarchy

An elected president or PMs are seen as more representative of the popular will, and therefore of the people. This is fine in theory, but when was the last time it happened? Presidents who are purely heads of state rather than heads of government are subject to considerable personal scrutiny.

If they are not taking sides or playing partisan roles, the public wants to know how they behave and what they think on a given topic. And if people approve, they think the president is theirs, but on the basis of their personal qualities. If they don’t, they think the president does not represent their country, even though they do, and there is no one above them to take on that role.

When the president is also head of government, they fail to live up to their billing from the first day. Some people agree with their policies, some don’t. They end up representing the divisions within people rather than the people themselves, and even if they are generally approved, and gain international respect, they are again seen more as transient people, often out of touch with daily realities, rather than embodiments of what their countries aspire to be.

Furthermore, most presidents have very little effective power, which is why some gain a reputation as autocrats for trying to gain more control. In practice they can easily be bought and sold by more important players, whether they are bigger countries or business, or even criminal, interests. If not, they can be removed by those same interests in favour of someone more pliable, as we saw in Ukraine, and see all over Africa and South America on a distressingly regular basis.

Restoring monarchs won’t solve those problems overnight. But the present crisis is highlighting what monarchy is about. Kings and queens don’t have constituents and paymasters to satisfy. No matter what is going on around them, it is their duty to serve the country, not a sectional interest, and treat all their subjects as equal, without fear or favour.

Emperors With Clothes

This concept still exists at a subliminal level. For example, when Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was made the first Commissioner of Baseball after the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal”, he insisted on a lifetime contract so that he would not be dependent on favourites who could keep him in the job, and disdain those who would not vote for him anyway.

Consequently Landis was considered impartial, and successful in cleaning up baseball. Neither impression is more than partly correct, but by taking on the form of a monarch he was thought to represent something higher than the conflicts of the men below him.

Similarly, the term “tsar” is returning to common usage in a way unthinkable to those who got rid of Nicholas II. When a problem gets really bad, there is talk (leaked by governments usually) of appointing a “tsar” to clean it up – a “drugs tsar”, or a “regulatory tsar”. These individuals often had predecessors who were not called tsars, but were given the title when they assumed or demanded wider powers than politicians could theoretically give them, in order to do the right thing without being hindered by political realities.

In countries which remain monarchies, the general public often has little idea what the monarch actually does. Successive British Prime Ministers have thought on being appointed that their weekly audience with the Queen would be like an afternoon off, discussing this and that over tea, until they discover that the Queen wants to know every detail of policy, and why it has been adopted rather than an alternative.

Royal families are also patrons of huge numbers of charities. This is not because they are sharing their wealth, but because the concept that they represent their country, however nebulous the notion of their country is, gives others the impression that the charity has positive values.

This was thrown into sharp relief by the decision of hundreds of charities to drop Prince Andrew as their patron after his association with Jeffrey Epstein, and various unproven allegations, were made public. A royal just shouldn’t do those sort of things, so he no longer fulfilled his function, even though he held the same title and had the same connections as before. It wasn’t about him personally, as it would have been if he had been a politician, but what he stood for, as something higher and more valuable than a mere politician.

Furthermore, deposed royals often still act as if their monarchies still exist, because it is who they are and what they do. The pretender to the non-existent Portuguese throne, Duarte Pio, is not recognised as the rightful heir by many Portuguese monarchists, who have different conceptions of how the king should be appointed based on different historical precedents.

But he is still invited to represent Portugal, though unofficially, at international events in preference to the country’s political leaders. Most notably, he was invited to Syria by Assad in 2011 on what Assad termed a “state visit”, although Duarte Pio is merely a private citizen. He is also active in many cultural organisations, seen as more representative of his country than a politician, as culture is shared amongst all people and political views are not.

Reality is Progress

So where might monarchies make a comeback as an alternative to failed politics? The big problem is that in most of the world a presidential system is considered more “modern”. But it only takes one hereditary ruler to change that perception, and some are trying.

King Simeon of Bulgaria was exiled in 1946 when the communists abolished his throne. He returned in 1996 and was elected Prime Minister in 2001. He couldn’t work miracles, and ruined his political party by going into alliance with the former communists in 2005. But the former king is still a widely respected figure for who he is, rather than his political errors.

If Bulgarians feel their system has failed them, which is why they objected to his “Grand Coalition” with the old guard, restoring the monarchy is the progressive and realistic alternative. Rather than going back to a past few remember, King Simeon and his heirs offer a stable future instead of a continuing present they know only too well.

In 2009 Georgia celebrated a royal wedding, as the two branches of the Bagrationi dynasty were united two hundred years after it had ceased to rule the country. Prince David and Princess Ana have subsequently divorced, but do have an infant son, who is the unchallenged heir to the rival claims of both Bagrationi branches.

This marriage had been promoted by the Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II, as a means of potentially restoring the monarchy to resolve the country’s never-ending political crisis. He had a valid point: whether people agreed with monarchy or not, everyone recognised its historic legitimacy, whereas significant numbers of Georgians have routinely declared each government illegitimate and unrepresentative, regardless of its deeds, since independence.

Statehood is still an issue in Georgia, as the politicians and population cannot agree on what sort of country it should be, regardless of its deep and enduring cultural traditions recognised by all communities. Restoration of the monarchy would enable them to have those arguments whilst retaining national and international integrity, as it is those traditions, which are more respected than the modern state or its politics, which a monarch would be representing.

The Middle East still has a number of monarchies. Even in Iran, one of the few examples of a monarchy being removed by a genuinely popular revolution, there is nostalgia for what the shah represents, though less for the deeds of Shah Reza Pahlavi or his dubious dynasty.

Burma, or Myanmar or whatever you want to call it, has had constant inter-ethnic conflict since it regained independence in 1947. Much of this is not attributable to historic conflicts but the behaviour of the British who conquered it in 1885: the traditional British “divide and rule” tactics, and subsequent broken promises to those groups they had deprived to begin with, created the seeds of the conflict which continues today.

Burma used to have a monarchy, whose expansionist policies had created this multiethnic state. The last king, Thibaw, was deposed by the British in 1885, on the grounds that he was drunk and incapable, although he didn’t actually drink at all. Since then his descendants have been airbrushed out of history, though most are still living in modern Myanmar as private citizens.

Military government of a particularly nasty character lasted a long time in Myanmar because it was the lowest common denominator which the population, and the rest of the world, could accept. With the democratic government elected with so much hope having gravely disappointed due to the ethnic conflicts, restoration of the Burmese monarchy would again be a progressive option in a country which has seen all other ways out turn into dead ends.

Unlimited Sovereignty

Monarchies went out of fashion for many reasons. But a common complaint in democracies is that no matter who you vote for, nothing changes.

What the people want isn’t delivered by those they think are expressions of their will. Monarchs represent something people are, not something they have, and in a time when people are losing their jobs and homes, but are still the same people, this idea is beginning to resonate.

Of course you can’t kick a king out if you don’t like him. But that is where constitutional monarchy comes in. Politicians have set terms, even in countries with a recall option. If you don’t like your elected leaders, who you personally may not have elected, you are stuck with them too unless you can persuade enough people to reverse the damage when the next election is due, with no guarantee you will.

People everywhere remain fundamentally monarchist–and that democracy has not delivered as hoped. When recovering from a crisis, they instinctively want to be rid of their politicians and get someone in who will transcend their petty arguments. Restoring monarchies, rather than creating presidents for life, could be the most acceptable international option for giving people what they want, whilst retaining the accountability constitutional systems provide.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: