Robert Hazell and Bob Morris: How has Monarchy survived in the era of Modern Democracy? Part One


This month sees the publication of our book The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared, published by Hart.  This two part Blog reflects on some of its main conclusions.

Our comparative study looked at seven other constitutional monarchies in Europe, in addition to the UK.  In 1900 every country in Europe was a monarchy, save for just three: France, Switzerland and San Marino.  By 2000 most countries in Europe had become republics, with the only exceptions being the Scandinavian monarchies of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Spain and the UK.  These monarchies have survived partly for geopolitical reasons, most of the other European monarchies having disappeared at the end of the First or Second World Wars.  But they have also survived by continuously adapting to the needs of modern democracy: monarchy depends ultimately on the support of the public, and it has to be keenly responsive to public opinion.  So what lessons can be learned from these other monarchies; and what risks do they face in the future?

All these monarchies, ancient and modern, have witnessed a growing gap between the formal political power conferred on them by the constitution, and the actual power they wield in reality.  Allowing their political power to shrink virtually to zero has been the secret of their survival.  And as their political power has shrunk, new roles justifying their existence have emerged.  After the Second World War the monarchy played an important role in helping countries rebuild, not in the material sense, but rebuilding their sense of nationhood, through the monarchy’s classic role of representing unity and national identity, as well as its ceremonial and welfare role, discussed in Part 2.

Reduction of the monarch’s constitutional and political role 

Only in Sweden does the monarch have a purely ceremonial role, and the constitution matches the political reality.  The most striking thing in all the other constitutions is how powerful the monarch appears to be, in the formal text of the constitution.  Any stranger reading the Danish constitution would gain the impression that the Queen runs the country.  But in Denmark, and the other monarchies, the text has become heavily overlaid with conventions which constrain the monarch to act only on the advice of the government, often through the requirement of a ministerial countersignature to all the monarch’s formal acts.  In all cases there has been a gradual reduction of monarchical power.  And the erosion continues, with further reductions just in the last decade. In Luxembourg the Grand Duke has lost the power to assent to the laws made by parliament; in the UK the Queen has lost the prerogative power to dissolve parliament.

Yet the monarch still remains the ultimate guardian of the constitution, whose role in an emergency is to safeguard democratic and constitutional values.  The most dramatic illustration of that was in Spain in 1981, when King Juan Carlos helped to foil an attempted coup d’état by the Civil Guard.  There was a similar episode in Norway, when in 1940 King Haakon VII told his Cabinet that he would rather abdicate than appoint Quisling as head of a new government prepared to collaborate with the invading German forces. 

The guardian of the constitution must himself observe the constitution.  But it may not even require a violation of the constitution; if the monarch by his conduct loses the support of the government or his people, he puts his throne at risk.  There have been four examples of this over the last century: in the abdication of Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde of Luxembourg in 1919, of the British King Edward VIII in 1936, the Belgian King Leopold III in 1951, and the Spanish King Juan Carlos in 2014.  Ultimately, the continuation of the monarch in office, and the monarchy as an institution, depends upon continuing popular support.  That is a theme running throughout our book.

Modern monarchs have no political power, and only limited influence

Constitutional monarchs have little or no discretion when it comes to matters of state; little choice but to approve every action or decision of the government in the hundreds of documents they are required to sign every week.  But through Bagehot’s trio of rights, the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn, monarchs can develop influence, even if they do not have a power of veto.  The Dutch show that a strong minded monarch can occasionally have influence: Queen Juliana in preventing the execution of war criminals, and withholding assent to legislation limiting the size of the royal family; Queen Beatrix in her close interest in appointments. 

But monarchs who are too interventionist will encounter resistance and lose their reputation for neutrality.  The scope for the monarch to be a neutral actor is shrinking, as culture wars have extended into traditional areas for royal activity, and left them politicised.  But there is greater scope for the Crown Prince or Princess to support causes which might be deemed controversial or political, on the understanding that when they become monarch, their behaviour will need to become more restrained and strictly neutral.

So far, no other country has followed the example of Sweden, and formally reduced the monarch to a purely ceremonial role.  There are three possible reasons why the other countries have resisted the Swedish example.  One is simply inertia, and a reluctance by politicians to challenge the powers of an institution which commands strong popular support.  A second may be resistance by monarchs themselves.  But a final explanation may be the value in a political system of someone who has to be completely neutral: someone above the political fray, with a legitimising role, whose legitimacy derives precisely from their complete neutrality. 

Tight regulation of the monarchy, its size and finances

All the monarchies are tightly regulated by law.  There is a common core of matters which are regulated in all countries: the laws of succession, royal marriages, the royal finances.  But there is variation in who makes the rules defining the size of the royal family, and conferring royal titles. 

In the Netherlands and Norway the size of the royal house and royal titles are also regulated by law.  In Sweden titles are decided by the king, and in 2019 King Carl XVI Gustaf, in response to growing political pressure, reduced the size of the royal house by removing five of his grandchildren. The announcement was made in anticipation of  the findings of a parliamentary inquiry into the growing size of the royal family, and concern about its cost. Similarly in the UK it is the Queen who decides which members of the family have what title, and how much funding each receives.

Where official membership of the royal house is defined, it is mainly to determine which members should receive public funding, in return for carrying out official duties.  In some cases it is kept very tight: in Spain it is only the King and Queen; and in Norway it is limited to just four people – the King and Queen, Crown Prince and Princess.  But Norway is a country with a population of just over 5 million.  The UK has a population of almost 67 million, so it needs a larger royal family to fulfil all the demands for royal patronage and visits.  Spain is also a large country, with a population of 47 million; one reason for the low popularity ratings of the Spanish monarchy may be its limited visibility – a royal family smaller than that in Norway is serving a population ten times the size.  And the Spanish monarchy is doubly constrained, because it also receives far less public funding than the others: pro rata to population it receives 30 times less funding than the monarchy in Norway. 

In addition to the tight regulation of the size of the royal family and its finances, there are also formal and informal constraints on their behaviour.  Their freedom of speech is restricted, some lack freedom to travel, they are not free to marry whom they want, they lack freedom of religion (in Scandinavia and the UK), free choice of career, and the right to privacy and family life which ordinary citizens take for granted.  Marrying, or being born into a royal family thus involves big sacrifices: they lead very privileged lives, but within a gilded cage. 

Robert Hazell and Bob Morris, The Constitution Unit, University College London

The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared, is published by Hart Publishing in September. Exclusive discount for UK Constitutional Law Blog readers! Order now at and use the code UG6 at the checkout to get 20% off the hardback edition.  The e-book is also currently 20% off.

(Suggested citation: R. Hazell and B. Morris, ‘How has Monarchy survived in the era of Modern Democracy? Part One’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (1st Oct. 2020) (available at