The practicalities of monarchy
Posted by Sen on November 28, 2008
In the fifteenth Glad-Tidings, Baha’u’llah writes:
Although a republican form of government profiteth all the peoples of the world, yet the majesty of kingship is one of the signs of God. We do not wish that the countries of the world should remain deprived thereof. If the sagacious combine the two forms into one, great will be their reward in the presence of God.
I don’t think we have to suppose that Baha’u’llah was thinking about some future form of constitutional monarchy, requiring us to figure out what he meant and how it could be put into practice. There were good models of constitutional monarchy already working in his day, and most of them are still working today. In contrast, most of the republics from the time of Baha’u’llah have gone through at least one revolution, or at least a major upset, in the past century, and the absolute monarchies have fared even worse. Constitutional monarchy is the ‘leading technology’ in the field of government.
So why do constitutional monarchies work so well?
The first advantage of having a constitutional crown is that one does not have an elected president. This means that the executive power is vested in a Cabinet, and the leader of the government and of the cabinet – the Prime Minister – has to continually ensure support in cabinet and the party caucus and in parliament. This leads to more consultative, rational decision-making in the executive, and it makes it possible to oust the leader between elections if he or she really loses it — either by means of a cabinet coup, by electing a new leader at the party caucus, or by Members of Parliament crossing the floor in parliament. The fact that the leader and his ministers can be removed relatively easily, means that they have to listen to the arguments of others, to seek support, and persuade the population that their policies are beneficial. Decisions made this way are less likely to be fatally flawed, and more likely to win broad support – and in politics, unlike science and religion, broad support is the gold standard. A ‘correct’ policy that is widely opposed will simply disrupt national politics, achieving little. Cabinet government is superior in transparency and rationality, because the key decisions of the executive are debated and made in cabinet, whereas in a presidential system they are made between the ears of the president, and the surrounding bone is often rather opaque. A president who talks to himself is generally frowned upon. The president in a system such as that in the US is an executive “king” for a limited period, constrained by law and requiring parliamentary approval to make laws, but still a monarch within the executive. In a strong executive presidency, the people’s voice in the executive happens once every few years, and it’s take it or leave it: no continuing input.
The second advantage is that the monarchy is a soft-power barrier to too much ambition. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch theoretically holds “supreme power” as the head to which the government, the armed forces, the civil services and the judiciary report, and in whose name they act. While the monarch does not exercise power, the king or queen’s presence prevents any other single person within the system claiming supreme power. To do so would be lesse majesteit, ‘really not done old chap.’ At the same time, the monarch cannot be tempted to actually exercise power, because he or she has not a shred of a mandate from the people, in whom the sovereignty of the nation ultimately resides. The monarch is on the throne by a trick of fate, like a jury member. The problem with elected presidents is that they start to feel they have some sort of mandate for political action, as well as having all that power. So presidential systems tend to slide towards giving some actual power to the President. France is an example — both parliament & government on the one hand, and the president on the other, have democratic mandates, and they are continually struggling about who gets what, and who is to blame. With two elected organs, there is in fact less accountability to the voters and less rationality in decision-making.
The third advantage of a constitutional monarchy is that one doesn’t have periodic presidential elections, during which the office of president becomes the subject of a party political tug-of-war. One still has a period of campaigning for parliamentary elections, and the process of forming a government coalition after the elections, but during this period the monarch is there as titular head, and the ministers of the outgoing government can continue to provide routine leadership to their ministries — without any mandate to make policy changes — because they are in theory the Queen’s ministers. In any parliamentary system, the parliament is dissolved for the elections, and once the election results are known, someone must be designated the winner and asked to form the next government. The parliamentary system being cyclical, it comes to a still point at the top of the cycle where it needs a bit of a push — a point where someone outside the parliament has to formally draw the conclusion which the election results indicate. This job can be given to an elected president who represents one or other party, or to a supreme court judge who may have been appointed by one of the contestants in the election, or to a hereditary monarch who has been kept out of party politics from birth. Evidently the last of these is best.
Republican movements are small marginal phenomena in most constitutional monarchies, such as here in the Netherlands and in England, Belgium, Denmark, Spain etc., In the Netherlands for example we can compare ourselves to several countries around us that do have presidential systems with the president holding executive power – Italy, Germany and France, for example, but we also compare our system to that in the USA. The voters here know instinctively what is best for them, and the republican movement doesn’t stand a chance. In those few constitutional monarchies that do have a viable republican movement, such as Australia, I am convinced that there is only an illusion of a movement. It may be possible to persuade a portion of the population that things would be better without a king, or queen, so long as the situation without a monarch is left undefined. But as soon as the republicans are asked ‘Which of our politicians would you choose for president’ or ‘which party would you support in presidential elections’ they would have many different answers on the second question, but only one on the first: “me.”
So I think there are good rational reasons for thinking Baha’u’llah was right about constitutional monarchy. In such a system, the monarch holds no power, but is not redundant: in any healthy political system, power is not the only good. Those who find constitutional monarchs redundant may not have taken a critical look at the historical performance of the various republican systems, as compared to constitutional monarchies. Or they may not have looked beyond the distribution of power, to see the other functions of the political system and how a monarchy serves them. Unity, identity, and continuity are also values that the political system must provide, and which a monarch provides best. An elected president who has executive power, has been elected as the representative of one faction, and will make decisions which are not equally popular with everyone. So the country has a Head of State who, in the nature of things, cannot be a symbol of unity: the elected president embodies what polarises the nation. Yet for the sake of stability, it must not be easy to remove the president. In most presidential systems it requires a judicial act (impeachment) rather than a political one, so that a president who has lost political support can remain in place if he has broken no laws, but he or she will be ineffective in power, and the country will suffer. In a cabinet system the Prime Minister and ministers are quite easy to remove, by cabinet coup, party putsch or parliamentary no-confidence, but since the PM is not Head of State, the effects of a government falling are limited.
I don’t know, that is for the Iranians to decide. I do know that it is not so difficult to dispose of a monarchy, but very difficult to recreate one. Perhaps the point has already been reached at which the Qajar and Pahlavi pretenders are both non-options. This is a matter of weighing the political balance: the democratic movement needs to achieve broad support, beyond the intelligentsia and the diaspora, and a monarchial stamp might win that support from two constituencies: a rural and lower class constituency and others who look back with nostalgia at the pre-revolution days, and also some of the ulama with a leaning towards the varieties of Shi`ah political theology that legitimated the (Safavid and Qajar) monarchy. A constitutional monarchy can also play a role in oiling the hinge between religious tradition and culture on the one hand, and political modernism and rationalism on the other, as in the English constitution (which also combines an established church with complete equality and freedom of conscience — another paradox for the American mind, but that is another story).
But given what the country has suffered under absolute monarchies, a monarchy in any form would frighten some people. Since we can’t take opinion polls in Iran, all we can say is that world experience is that parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch is by far the formula most likely to succeed. Some nations, such as Spain, have established or re-established monarchies: in considering whether to do so it is important that the issue should be, not the fitness of the best candidate in the present generation, but which system is most likely to give stability in the first few uncertain years, and then good governance generation after generation.
If the monarchial option is closed, Iran will have to make do with the next best thing, a parliamentary system with an elected president, and a constitution to resolutely limit the president’s powers, with all executive power in the hands of a cabinet. It can be made to work (in Israel, for example) but to my mind it is a second best. The French are on their 5th republic already: how long do the people of Iran want to wait before they have stable and democratic government?
~~ Sen McGlinn ~~