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Why I am a monarchist

10 September 2022

In connection with the death of Queen Elizabeth II the other day, some of my American friends on Facebook have posted various messages expressing their befuddlement over the persistence of monarchy in modern, democratic countries such as the United Kingdom. This post is an attempt to answer them, with reference to my country, Denmark, ruled for 50 years now by Queen Margrethe (Margaret) II.

First, let us define a few terms. Every country has a head of state and a head of government. In most cases, the head of state performs mostly ceremonial duties and even if initially elected by the people or the parliament, is generally not part of the political process. The head of government (usually known as the Prime Minister, occasionally by other titles such as Chancellor in Germany and Austria) is the political leader. In democratic countries, the head of state is either elected (directly or by the parliament) or a hereditary monarch. Examples of the former system include Germany, Finland, Italy, Israel or Ireland. Those countries have presidents, but the real political power is exercised by their prime ministers.

A number of European countries have retained their monarchies. In this context it should be noted that historically, most countries were monarchies; those monarchies came to an end usually as a result of some violent event: the French Revolution, Germany’s defeat in World War I, the Irish war of independence in the early 20th century, and so on. But in countries including the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden), Benelux (Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands) and of course the UK and a few others, the monarchy has survived, albeit in a very different version compared to what existed 200 years ago (other countries around the world are monarchies too, of course, but I am restricting my discussion to democratic countries, thus ignoring dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia).

In a few democracies the roles of head of state and head of government are merged into one office, the president. The most prominent examples include France and the United States. I believe that the fact that the US head of state also has real executive power is one reason why Americans confuse the European monarchies with what their forebears overthrew in 1776. They do not fully appreciate this distinction between the roles of head of state and head of government, because it does not exist in their country (which in my view is very dangerous, as is illustrated by the behaviour of the US president from 2016 to 2020, including the attempted coup d’état in 2021).

With this as a background, let me describe the monarchy in Denmark as I see it, and what it means for me.

Queen Margrethe II ascended to the throne in 1972, following the death of her father Frederik IX. She is extremely popular in our country, including among people on the left whom one might normally expect to be republicans. As is the case with other European monarchs, her duties are largely ceremonial. While she formally names the government and meets the prime minister regularly, she never comments on any political issue. In short, she is above politics, which is precisely what gives her a certain moral standing when she does speak about issues such as racism and the need to make room for everyone in our multicultural society as it exists today (as she has in the past, during her New Years Eve address).

On a practical level, the Queen is extremely useful in promoting Denmark abroad, much more so than an elected president would be. When she travels to another country on an official visit, there is always a large delegation of business people accompanying her, taking advantage of the occasion to sign contracts etc. This is vulgar in some sense, but such export promotion is not to be sniffed at. Furthermore the Queen is an educated and artistic person, speaks several languages, has translated French literature into Danish, choreographed ballet, and engaged in other artistic endeavours.

But the main reason why I revere Queen Margrethe has nothing to do with these practical considerations or even with her as a person. What I revere is what she represents–more than 1000 years of history of a unified Denmark, tracing her ancestry to the 10th century king Gorm the Old. The previous Queen Margrethe, the first, ruled in the late 14th and early 15th century and established the Kalmar Union, uniting Denmark, Norway and Sweden for more than a century. It is this continuity of my country, despite all the changes, some for the better, some for the worse, that the monarchy represents and this is why I, along with the vast majority of Danes, value the institution.

To be sure, the monarchy has evolved too. The next king, Crown Prince Frederik, is married to an Australian TV personality, has served in the military and is an avid runner, having participated in the New York City marathon among other events. His younger brother, Prince Joachim, also has had a military career, attended the École Militaire in France and is now the military attaché at the Danish embassy in Paris. Still, it is the Queen who matters. And the fact that throughout her 50-year reign, she has conducted herself with dignity, humanity and skill of course contributes to the continuing support for the monarchy in Denmark.

This is another fact about constitutional monarchies in the 21st century: their survival is dependent on the behaviour of the people who occupy the post. For example, in Spain, King Juan Carlos I, while credited with helping squash an attempted military coup in 1981, thoroughly ruined his reputation in his later years via dubious business dealings and unsavoury behaviour (shooting elephants in Africa, for example), and was compelled to abdicate in favour of his son Felipe in 2014. The British monarchy has undoubtedly been damaged by scandals such as Prince Andrew’s association with Jeffrey Epstein. In Denmark, while there have been some mild controversies, they have been nothing on this scale, and the Kingdom of Denmark will remain a kingdom for the foreseeable future.

I do not advocate countries that are republics today should adopt constitutional monarchy. I think that it is a one-way street: once you get rid of the monarchy, there is no bringing it back. But for the old countries in Europe like Denmark, to retain the monarchy is the right choice.

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