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As Americans we are blessed to live under a constitutional republican form of government, with lawmakers constrained by the dictates of a founding document that is difficult to change or subvert. The United States Constitution is the prototype of the modern written constitution of so many countries, yet it remains in many ways unsurpassed as an exercise in the construction of a lasting system for the preservation of public order and individual liberty.
The Power of the American Constitution
For more than 200 years, the Constitution has served, with only 17 alterations (excluding the ten amendments constituting the Bill of Rights, which was added almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified and was taken as more an addendum to it than an alteration), to preserve a form of government of, by, and for the people. For many Americans, the Constitution has come to be held as an almost sacred document, written upon the hearts of citizens, not just on paper.
That sacred character of the Constitution has protected generations of Americans against the overreach of powerful individuals, and government in general. Yet, those protections are often not afforded by other nations’ constitutions.
Across the world, many constitutions have been written, abused, and then discarded by greedy and corrupt regimes. In Africa, constitutions rarely survive more than a few years, leading to little respect or veneration for such constraints on government power.
Even in Western Europe, where democracy is generally considered thoroughly entrenched, constitutions have less significance. France, for example, has had three separate constitutions implemented since the end of World War II. Such constitutions are not sacred documents; they are just laws slightly harder to change than ordinary statutes. Such constitutions make it difficult to maintain a civilized republic for the long-term.
The Constitutional Monarch
Many European countries still have monarchs, kings and queens who ostensibly rule, though they rarely have any official political power. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom is certainly the most well-known of the surviving royalty, but there are also monarchs in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and elsewhere.
Generally speaking, European monarchs serve a valuable symbol for a nation. They function as reminders of a long national history, and add a degree of pomp to official proceedings. As symbols, royal families give a sort of continuity to government, even as elected governments change. This symbolic power has been utilized by governments in many countries by using monarchs as cultural ambassadors. The British royal family has been particularly adept in this role over the years. Furthermore, royalty has the added bonus of being a useful tourist attraction, one that can more than make up for the cost of maintaining the royals in the manner to which they are accustomed.
Yet, monarchs can at times be far more valuable than mere symbols or attractions. Sometimes they can be a nation’s greatest defender of democratic government.
More than Just a Figurehead
In the absence of thoroughly entrenched and respected constitutions, there is always the risk that laws will be susceptible to rapid change, whether democratically or undemocratically. When fundamental rights or the underlying shape of a country is susceptible to easy change, no one’s rights are particularly well protected. It is in these scenarios that monarchs can serve a valuable role.
Perhaps the most striking example of a monarch defending democracy against political forces is that of Juan Carlos I of Spain. It is timely to reflect on the Spanish king’s actions since his recent announcement of his intent to abdicate the throne in favor of his son. His rule has been tainted by some personal scandals in recent years, but his service to Spanish democracy will be his enduring legacy.
When he ascended the throne in 1975, Spain was in the final years of Franco’s fascist government. Expected to be a puppet of the dictatorship, Juan Carlos defied all expectations by leading the dismantling of the power structure of Franco’s successors. Appointing a reformist prime minister, and defending him against coup attempts and anti-democratic elements, the king ushered in the era of democracy that Spain now enjoys.
The example of Juan Carlos of Spain is that, in the absence of deep respect for constitutional laws and processes, the continuity and symbolism embodied in a monarch can serve some of the same functions. Similarly, in Belgium, the fractious relationship of the two major ethnic groups, the Walloons and the Flemish, is only maintained by a mutual admiration of the royal family that unites them as a single nation.
Likewise, in the Netherlands, the political parties can be so fractured that it can be exceptionally difficult to produce a majority that can form a stable government. The recently abdicated Queen Beatrix served as an apolitical mediator on more than one occasion to ensure that a representative government was formed that could effectively lead the Dutch people.
Constitutions Still Preferred
In America, we have no need of royalty, and in truth, royalty is not strictly needed anywhere. The idea of hereditary rulers should always be suspect in the mind of anyone supportive of individual liberty. Yet, it must be said that monarchs can serve a real valuable purpose in securing democratic government.
A constitution that the people will venerate is certainly the best choice. But if that is not available, there are worse things than a king or queen, who can act as a living embodiment of the ideals a constitution represents.