Kings and Queens

Mohammed VI of Morocco

As we near Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the issue of the monarchy is one cast very much into public focus. Few can have failed to notice the somewhat gushing reports from Andrew Marr about the nation’s favourite octogenarian – but what is monarchy like outside of the UK? Well, earlier this year I took a look at the small mountain kingdom of Bhutan. Squashed between the colossal forces of India and China, this nation of unspoilt scenery and craggy mountain passes has in recent years gone from having a strong monarchy to a much more democratic way of doing things, with the first elections taking place in 2008. This was concomitant with the growing popularity of the Gross National Happiness Index which aims to make citizens as content as possible through, among other factors, democratic engagement. So far, so egalitarian.

Moving westwards somewhat, we have in the past year seen what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa have seen enormous populist movements rising up against the various oppressions and abuses of human rights from their leadership. Many of the better-known uprisings have not been against monarchies: Egypt, Tunisia and Syria had (or still have) presidents and Libya was ruled by a military dictator. However, popular movements are also present in the Kingdoms of Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco, where the monarch still has a large amount of political influence. Similarly in Oman and Saudi Arabia, where the system is an absolute monarchy, there has been a degree of turbulence. In the latter two countries, unrest has generally been quashed rapidly and little media presence has been tolerated, demonstrating the autocracy of these states.

A final group of countries, including our own, comes under the banner of “parliamentary constitutional monarchies”. This basically means that the government does all the work and the monarch is little more than a fancy hatstand. This is the case in the UK and the many other former colonies who still put old Betty on their stamps: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Kitts and Nevis (phew! Thanks Wikipedia for that…).

Mrs. Windsor?

Other countries meanwhile have got fed up with the monarchy at various moments of Elizabeth’s reign, viewing it as a remnant of colonialist past and subjugation under Europeans. These countries include South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). Indeed the latter, having become nominally independent shortly after World War II, was barred from UN membership for precisely the reason that still wasn’t really independent – the UK still had a lot of control over it and the government was filled with white colonial settlers. It took until 1957 for the UK to take the hint and leave the island to the Sri Lankans.

Likewise in South Africa, the Queen was top dog for less than ten years before it became a Republic. The monarchy’s relationship with this patch of Africa had always had an awkwardness about it. Feeling a little bit uneasy about claiming themselves to be “King of South Africa”, royals generally went by the odd-sounding “King in South Africa” until it was decided that Betty was either going to be Queen of it or nothing at all. This was somewhat badly received in South Africa, since the republican National Party was then in office. Needless to say, she never got to go on safari along the Limpopo before they gave her the boot.

In Europe, monarchy is still standing in Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, Monaco, the Vatican, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Sweden, although these are all in much more reduced forms than even our own. Indeed most European monarchs are rather keen to keep their noses firmly out of politics, since their unelected and hereditary position makes them susceptible to criticism for being undemocratic.

The issue of monarchies has been brought up time and again throughout the ages. Both ancient Greeks and Romans despised them – one of the Greek words for king is tyrannos, giving us a sense of their negative views of the institution! Of course the UK was for a while a non-monarchist “Commonwealth”, though that was hardly an improvement and, frankly, the flag was crap too. Would the UK and its commonwealth co-subjects fare better or worse if Queen Elizabeth II were to become Mrs. Betty Windsor? Or do we enjoy flag-waving and the occasional bank holiday too much? This question is open for discussion.

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