Jun 12, 2006

On Monarchies, Pomp, and Democracy

Left: Thailand's Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (far right) greets Crown Princess Mette-Marit from Norway; photo courtesy of CNN

(Bangkok, Thailand) Representatives from 22 of the world's 44 remaining monarchies are expected to arrive in Thailand to mark the 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne by Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Of those 44 countries with a monarch at the head of state, 16 are part of the British Commonwealth, and include such countries as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Thus, Queen Elizabeth II "speaks" for 16 nations; Prince Andrew is the UK representative being paraded past the crowds of Thais.

I am amazed that this outmoded form of government continues to hold on to some power. True, most of the remaining monarchies are constitutional in nature (Bhutan, Brunei, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland and the United Arab Emirates are the only absolute monarchies left), but a great deal of expense is associated with the upkeep of these historical anomalies. Great Britain spends over $40 million per year to keep its royals feted in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

Even more interesting are the number of monarchophiles in the United States and in other countries that do not have a monarch. An estimated 700 million people worldwide watched the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981, while some 33 million Americans watched all or part of the 25 hours of network coverage of the funeral of Diana in 1997.

By comparison, the televised funeral of President Ronald Reagan - arguably the most popular American leader of the last few decades - was viewed by 36 million Americans.

Despite our professed love of democratic traditions, many Americans seem to have an odd fascination with the idea of monarchy. Perhaps the rise of the imperial presidency, which many historians trace to the era of Theodore Roosevelt, owes a debt to monarchophiles. That presidency witnessed the beginning of a gradual increase in the power of the executive branch.

The founding fathers feared and hated monarchy. George Washington was reluctant to accept a second term for fear of setting a monarchical precedent, and he adamantly refused to seek a third term for the same reason. Jefferson perhaps foreshadowed the rise of the imperial presidency with this quote:

"The general [federal] government will tend to monarchy, which will fortify itself from day to day, instead of working its own cures."

As I write this, my 15-year-old son is playing "God Save the Queen," the anti-monarchy anthem by the Sex Pistols.

Moments like this give me hope for the future, but if I turn on one of the cable news channels, I will likely see more of the ostentatious frivolity being lauded on the world's monarchs in Thailand.

I think I'll leave the television off today.


Anonymous said...

Nice read, Mike.

Petrograde said...

Heh. I dated a girl who loved the British royals (we lived in Philadephia). She watched all that Charles and Di crap for a whole week when they got hitched.

We broke up by the time Di was killed, but I'm sure she was bawling her eyes out.

I thought GWB was made king, anyways?

Anonymous said...

I might argue that people who fawn over monarchs are almost traitors!

--Charles S.

Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

Power corrupts...and history tells us that no "free" civilization yet has stayed that way forever. My only question is whether the next American Revolution will happen in my lifetime or not.

Anchorage Activist said...

Well-run monarchies can serve as effective unifying symbols for nations. In the case of Britain, their monarchy is a relic of its imperial past. Perhaps the British believe the $40 million expenditure is offset by a greater amount of revenue from tourism. I was in London for Prince Andrew's wedding back in the mid-'80s, and there was an endless see of humanity surrounding Buckingham Palace, much of it foreign.

What you characterize as an American fascination with the idea of monarchy may actually be a subset of a greater overall fascination with CELEBRITY. Consider how music, movie, and sports stars are treated as virtual kings and queens, consulted as "oracles" by various pundits. Recall the spectacle and pageantry associated with "anniversary shows" of the Today program and Oprah Winfrey. Recently when Queen Katie made her final Today appearance, it was treated like the formal abdication of a monarch. The market skillfully exploits and encourages consumers to worship celebrities so they will consume more fervently and feverishly, adding to corporate profits and distracting the populace from the greater problems besetting us.

However, I am relieved to know more Americans watched Reagan's funeral than Princess Di's funeral. There may be hope for us yet. ;-)

Brian said...


Perhaps you need to turn your children on to a more respectful rendering of God Save the Queen. I recommend the version on Queen's A Night at the Opera.

I think the institution of the monarchy is archaic and useless. How wise our founding fathers were in eschewing it and how wise George Washington was to keep its trappings from the presidency.

historymike said...

Thanks, anonymous #1.

historymike said...

I dated someone like that too, Petrograde. I think that girl secretly wished she was born in Britain.

historymike said...

Anonymous #2:

"Traitor" is probably too strong of a word. I like Anchorage Activist's celebrity-fawning take.

historymike said...


Very difficult to say. I suspect that, if income levels remain stagnant or decline, parts of the US may secede in 50-100 years, with increasing poverty as the economic spark that fans the flames of other sources of discontent.

historymike said...


Nice recommendation.

I forgot to add that the kid was playing the song on his guitar. He's getting quite good.

As far as musical influences, my son is all over the map (like me). He has a healthy respect for the past, but knows every new band before they even get an album out.

Peahippo said...

Britain is a Constitutional Monarchy. As such, the Monarch is a fundamental part of the government; to my recollection, and for example, when elections take place the PM has to formally ask the Monarch for "permission to form a government" from the resulting winning candidates.

In practical terms, said Monarch has been highly marginalized and has become a figurehead much restricted by routine. In modern times, the exampled permission to form a government has never been withheld.

How much money is wasted in Western Civilization on symbolic acts of government? $40 million doesn't seem much, on that basis.

Still, if worth saving on that expense, for Britain to truly dispense with such a thing some session of its government added to a Populist movement would have to formally inform the Sovereign that he or she has been dethroned. Such notice would be sufficient since the royals obviously won't fight it out.

The royals could then be cut loose with a fraction of "their" current wealth, leaving them just another wealthy British family, and then the nation can assume the form of a Constitutional Republic.

Hooda Thunkit said...

$ 40 mil. is a cheap subsidy to keep the British tabloids going.

As for our so-called American Royalty, they're more of a Royal pain in the ass; completely without the breeding (and education) that is necessary to be worthy of such a title, even in jest...