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

If these European monarchs have no real power, what is the modern monarchy for?   

Part 1 of this Blog described how no European monarch now has any real political power: they have no choice but to follow the advice of their governments.  So the question arises, if they have no real political power, what is the modern monarchy for?  Answers to this question seek to explain the monarchy in terms of its utility, to government, to society, to tourism; and through its ceremonial and welfare roles. 

Monarchies depend on continuing support of government and the people

Monarchies have survived because of the continuing support of government and the people.  The most formal way of testing popular support is to hold a referendum.  Greece held six referendums on the subject in the twentieth century, but was not alone.  Eight other European countries have held referendums on the monarchy since 1900, leading to a grand total of 18 referendums. These include referendums held in Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Spain.

Another way of demonstrating that all monarchies depend on continuing support from the people is to observe what happens when monarchs lose that support.  The answer is that they are forced to abdicate, and lose their thrones.  Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde of Luxembourg was forced to abdicate in 1919 because of her closeness to the German occupying forces during the First World War; and King Leopold III of Belgium because of his controversial behaviour in the Second World War.  In Britain King Edward VIII had to abdicate in 1936 because he would not abandon his wish to marry a twice-divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson; and in Spain King Juan Carlos stepped down in 2014 when the opinion polls were showing that two thirds of Spaniards felt he should abdicate.

At a lower level, popular support helps to determine the level of state funding for the monarchy, which is a sensitive issue for all governments.  It is no coincidence that the Spanish monarchy has much the smallest budget: of all the eight monarchies studied it has the lowest popularity ratings.

Opinion polls provide another means for testing support for the monarchy.  Support remains high in all countries, with polls regularly showing that between 60 and 80 per cent of the people wish to retain the monarchy, and only 15 to 35 per cent would prefer a republic.  Support is highest in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK, where it ranges between 70 and 80 per cent; and a little lower in Belgium, Spain and Sweden, at around 60 to 65 per cent. 

It may seem surprising that an ancient institution such as a hereditary monarchy can command such high levels of popular support, with opinion poll ratings which elected politicians would die for.  That brings us to the arguments which seek to justify a non-elected, hereditary head of state as part of government in a modern democracy. 

Reasons for governments to support the monarchy

The main reason why governments support a hereditary monarchy is because it has widespread popular support.  Even governments with republican sympathies, such as the Socialist Workers Party in Spain or the Social Democrats in Sweden, have not dared to propose abolition of the monarchy, because it would be electorally unpopular.  But there is a conditionality in government support: governments support a hereditary monarchy so long as it remains neutral and above politics.  Monarchs who seek to intervene find themselves removed or cut down to size.

Apart from popular support, there are several other reasons why governments may want to support the monarchy.  A respected monarchy can lend legitimacy to the other institutions of the state.  And a monarch with no political mandate may be easier to deal with than a President who may have a political past, or claim democratic authority through having been elected or appointed.  A further small advantage for governments, when politics has become so international, with frequent attendance at international meetings, is being able to despatch the monarch or lesser royals to ceremonial or sporting events, or state funerals. The royal family can help to increase the size of the representational team.

Reasons for the people to support the monarchy

For most members of the public their support relies more on the roles performed by the monarch as head of nation rather than head of state, in the ceremonial roles rather than the constitutional and political functions. This includes speaking to and for the nation, at times of crisis and at times of celebration. All eight monarchs gave broadcast addresses to the nation at the start of the coronavirus crisis, rallying and comforting their people.  Other examples include Queen Elizabeth’s visits to the disasters of Aberfan and Grenfell Tower; and the visits and speeches after terrorist attacks made by the Kings of Norway and of Spain. And all the monarchs give a Christmas or New Year address, which is their own messsage and not simply a government script.

Bagehot in 1867 claimed of monarchy, ‘Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic’. 150 years later, the reverse has become obligatory. Whereas royal marriages in Britain once were solemnised in private, now they are public affairs broadcast to the world.  Almost 40 million people in the UK watched the wedding of Prince William in 2011, and 25 million Spaniards the wedding of Prince Felipe of Asturias in 2004.  Every new royal baby has to be promptly shown off to the media.

Behind such events is the way in which monarchy – performing as an undying family – can represent continuity and stability in a rapidly changing world. Whereas governments and politicians come and go, the family continues. People of all ages can identify with royal family members of their own generation. Bagehot suggested that monarchy had survived and indeed thrived by appealing to the heart rather than the head; and it is ceremonial functions, and events like royal weddings, which have the greatest appeal. 

The welfare monarchy is exemplified in the hundreds of charities with royal patrons, and the large number of royal visits to charitable and voluntary organisations. There is less emphasis on such activities in the Scandinavian monarchies and the Netherlands, because of their more extensive welfare states.  The monarch can symbolise and encourage dedication to public service, by virtue of links with the military, but also by visiting hospitals, schools, and other public services.

This is not to argue that these features cannot be seen in republics. There is an important sense in which European monarchies are republics except for having hereditary heads of state. But republican heads of state have shorter terms of office, will tend to be on the elderly side, will have been elected or appointed instead of someone else, and normally have a history of political partisanship. They cannot bring the symbolism of the family to national life, nor can they bring the numbers of a family to the personal encounters involved in royal visits; nor can they bring the glamour and stardust of royalty.

Risks and threats

The greatest threat to the monarchy is the loss of privacy.  Harassment of the royal family in pursuit of stories about their private lives is worst in the UK; but other countries have also seen flagrant intrusions into their private lives, and those of their children.  And it is not just by tabloid newspapers or gossip magazines: harassment is also rife on social media, with wild speculation about the sexual orientation of younger royals, or rival support groups promoting vicious Kate versus Meghan stories.  It was in flight from such harassment that Harry and Meghan decided to flee to Canada in January.

A second threat to the monarchy is simply human frailty.  Loyalty now is less to the institution, and more to each holder of the office; and it is conditional on good behaviour.  The UK is not alone in having had kings who have been mad, bad or just plain stupid. The decline of deference, proliferation of media outlets, and the ruthless competition of modern journalism have permanently altered the intensity of media exposure. Bagehot’s mystery has been eclipsed by the modern capacity for investigative intrusion.

Some of the investigative journalism is justified, in holding the monarchy to account.  The monarchy is a public institution, which receives significant amounts of public funding.  Investigative journalism has helped to expose corruption scandals, most recently in Spain, where the former King Juan Carlos is under investigation, and his son-in-law is serving a six year prison sentence for fraud and embezzlement. 

The future for monarchy

Granted its continuing popularity, European monarchy must be doing something right. Its survival, on the other hand, cannot be taken for granted. For the time being, its powerlessness allows it to remain acceptable to governments and politicians; and at the same time popular with the citizenry for its symbolic national functions, impartial bearing, and the glamour it brings into people’s lives.

Its room for manoeuvre is, however, increasingly circumscribed by the demands put upon it. Many of these demands are contradictory. Monarchy has to be special, a living fairy tale and an endless source of glamorous images; but its members must also be accessible and ordinary as individuals. We expect them to be interesting and entertaining, to show an informed interest in modern life, to be an inspiration for charitable endeavour and yet always be unimpeachably neutral. Royal families should demonstrate impeccable family values, and yet they are just as human and fallible as the rest of us, with children who go astray, and marriages that break down, but all in the harsh spotlight of relentless publicity.

To conclude, monarchy may be ancient but it has also proved adaptable in response to enormous social and political change. It has weathered severe storms, and survived.  Five of the eight monarchies in our study were occupied during World War II and came through even that experience.  Many of the previous monarchies in Europe have disappeared following defeat in war, revolution or the collapse of the state.  But for those eight monarchies that remain, there seems no reason why they should not continue for many years to come, so long as they retain the support of their governments, and their people.

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 Two’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (2nd Oct. 2020) (available at