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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?

coatofarmsThe 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.

dame-te-atairangikaahuqe22The 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.

beatrixThe 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.

margrethe-iiRepublican 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.”

governor-general-rt-hon-dame-cath-tizardSo 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.

king_cupsHow does this apply to Iran?

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).

governor-general-the-rt-hon-jeanne-sauveBut 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 ~~

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5 Responses to “The practicalities of monarchy”

  1. Gerald said

    I agree with what you have to say, but I have a question.

    Baha’u’llah is translated as having used the word “republic”. In english that does not just mean any old system of government in which the people have say, but a specific type of representative democracy. While it would certainly be possible to combine a republic and a monarchy, I am not aware of any such system havin existed in Baha’u’llah’s time or our own. Does the original Arabic word have such a narrow meaning, or does it mean any form of representative or democratic government?

  2. Hi Gerald,
    the word republic does have a broad meaning, and not just in Arabic.

    The fifteenth ‘Glad-Tidings’ is a section originally translated by Shoghi Effendi in Promised Day is Come:

    Although a republican form of government profiteth all the peoples of the world, [although the benefits of jamhuuriyyat return to the generality of the people of the world]
    yet the majesty of kingship is one of the signs of God. We do not wish that the countries [or cities, or civilizations] 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.

    Jamhuuriyya comes from the Arabic 4-letter root jamhara, to gather things together. The way it is used honestly in Arabic, you could translate it literally as “collective government” or describe it as any form of government by and for the people – where the benefits return to the generality of the people. However most of the governments called “republics” in the Arab world are not honest republics, they are dictatorships more or less disguised, fiefdoms of the ruler, who calls himself President and calls the country a republic.

    In the nature of things, a genuine republic must be governed by laws and procedures, rather than by the person of the ruler. To combine monarchy with other elements, in a way that the monarch cannot dissolve at will, requires that the combination has to be governed by a law which is above the monarch: so one gets some form of republicanism. So you could also translate “republican” with “constitutional,” providing that the constitution is above the will of the ruler, which in turn requires an independent constitutional court. Kant for example uses ‘republican’ in this sense: not as the lack of a monarch but as the rule of law, and therefore says that it can be combined with monarchy.

  3. Gerald said

    Thanks Sen, that is clarifying and enlightening.

  4. Actually, in Libya the terms was translated as People’s Libya Arab Republic (Jamahiriya).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamahiriya

    Doubly ironic, given that People’s Republic is associated with Communist Dictatorships like China.

  5. Stephen Kent Gray said

    Ceremonial or executive?

    Executive monarchies: Bhutan, Bahrain, Cambodia, Jordan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Monaco, Morocco, Tonga, Thailand, Swaziland and the United Arab Emirates.

    Ceremonial monarchies: Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Canada, Denmark, Grenada, Jamaica, Japan, Lesotho, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Spain, Sweden, Tuvalu and the United Kingdom.

    Note: The United Kingdom represent the whole Commonwealth Realm in the list. In referenda, Ghana, South Africa, and Gambia got rid of the British Monarchy from being their head while Tuvalu, Australia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines had unsuccessful attempts to do so as of yet. Australia and Jamaica have shown interest in holding such referenda in the future, while Australia has already done so several times.

    United Kingdom, Spain, and Cambodia are the only examples I can think of restored monarchies. Uganada may or may not count as while it is overall a republic, some autonomous regions have monarchies like Rwenzururu region among others.

    Wikipedia has articles on the line of succession to various former monarchies: Albania, Austria-Hungary, Baden, Bavaria, Brazil, Bulgria, China, France (Bonapartist, Legitimist, Orleanist/Unionist), Georgia, Germany, Greece, Haonver, Hesse, Iran/Persia (Qajar, Pahlavia), Italy, Mecklenburg-Strlitz, Montenegro, Nepal, Oldenburg, Ottoman/Turkey, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saxony, Two Sicilies, Württtemburg, and Yugoslavia/Serbia.

    Example: The Bonapartist line of succession

    Napoléon I (Napoléon Bonaparte) died 1821 (Emperor of the French, 1804-1814, and in 1815)
    Napoléon II (Napoléon François, Duke of Reichstadt) died 1832
    Joseph I (Joseph Bonaparte) died 1844, brother of Napoléon Bonaparte
    Louis I (Louis Bonaparte) died 1846, brother of Napoléon Bonaparte
    Napoléon III (Louis Napoléon Bonaparte) died 1873 (Emperor of the French, 1852-1870), son of Louis Bonaparte
    Napoléon IV Eugène (Napoléon, Prince Imperial) died 1879, son of Napoléon III
    Napoléon V Victor (Victor, Prince Napoléon) died 1926, grandson of Jérôme Bonaparte
    Napoléon VI Louis (Louis, Prince Napoléon) died 1997, son of Victor Bonaparte
    Charles (Charles Napoléon) born 1950, son of Louis, Prince Napoléon
    Jean-Christophe (Prince Jean-Christophe Napoléon) born 1986, son of Charles Napoleon.

    France has flip flopped between monarch and republic several times. United Kingdom did have a republic during Oliver Cromwell. Cambodia had a Communist government under Pol Pot. Spain had a Fascist government under Francisco Franco. I don’t really know for sure what this specifically means for any of the current republics of the world, but it seems to imply that only countries that have had really really bad experiences with Republicanism restore their monarchies.

    There are also Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Swaziland as well as Vatican City as the remaining absolute monarchies in the world.

    I also don’t know if the Western Sahara (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) counts as a republican movement in Morocco or not as they want to seperate from Morocco to form a republic rather than turn all of Morocco into a republic.

    There are also several micro nations who are constitutional monarchies like Hutt River, Sealand, and Seborga Principalities.

    I still wonder what implications for any current republics constitutional monarchy will have because monarchist movements in republics seems way way weaker than even the weakest republican movement in a monarchy.

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