The late Queen Elizabeth II– a figurehead for the United Kingdom, reigning for seventy years as Head of State, the Sovereign, the Queen, Her Majesty, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and so on. Though she touched the lives of many and represented her country well, did she truly fulfill her duties as Head of State? Or rather, should she have been provided the responsibility to represent a nation in the first place?
As Sovereign of the United Kingdom, the royal must participate in a constitutional monarchy—a modern form of government imbuing “an embodiment of power and statehood with no personal public role in politics, and tight constraints even on private influence,” according to the New York Times. Constitutional monarchies aim to serve the political interests of democratic republics while sustaining the tradition of a state monarchical family. As of 2023, one in five countries operate under a constitutional monarchy, including highly economically successful nations such as Japan, Canada, and Sweden. Though the United Kingdom has reaped the economic benefits of its constitutional monarchy for decades via tourism and novelty, when examining the intricacies of its government, one issue with its “constitutional” monarchy becomes very apparent: the U.K. itself does not have a ratified constitution.
Not many political economists have acknowledged why certain nations elect for a constitutional monarchy. As described by political scientist George Tridimas, “Scholars have inquired the factors which led to democratization, but not whether the democracy which has emerged is headed by a hereditary king serving for life or an elected president serving for a limited term.” The question of “Why a constitutional monarchy?” has plagued political scientists for decades, somehow evading a concrete answer. In the case of the United Kingdom, the question remains more peculiar in light of their lack of constitutional documents.
Though serving as a relatively stable form of government, a question of validity presents itself: How can a constitutional monarchy exist in a country without a ratified constitution? The New York Times reports, “[the] constitution basically depends on very British sentiments of decency and fair play, and it assumes people who reach high office will respect conventions, precedents, and unwritten rules. If you get a person in office who wants to tear all those up, you find the system is fragile.” As with many institutions and complexities of daily life in the United Kingdom, tradition serves as the primary—and sometimes only—reason for how things operate. As the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated her devotion to the tradition of the U.K., showing that “things are done the way they’re done because that’s the way it’s always been.” But should tradition be the basis for a country’s government?
In a statement on their official website, the Royal Family states, “The Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognizes success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.” If one considers the political standings of the country to be dealt with by the Prime Minister, what is the point of a monarch in a constitutionally-based nation? The answer: money.
Regarding tourism, a monarch is only as good as their ability to attract tourists. By standing as the figurehead for the nation, the monarch not only represents the goodwill of their people, but also acts as a sort of zoo animal for curious foreigners. For many Americans specifically, the Royal Family is a relic of times past, a way for them to play dress up as Europeans and gawk at the noble and wealthy. In short, a monarch is a more palatable way to look at extreme wealth in comparison to the egregiously wealthy Silicon Valley tech lords of California. I know more about the affairs between Meghan Markel and the Queen than I do of First Lady Jill Biden—which says something to the point of a monarch.
Besides the obvious economic benefit of having a royal family, some political scientists argue that constitutional monarchies exist to balance the ever-growing number of democratic republics worldwide—and I would have to agree. Research conducted by Tom Ginzburg et al. argues that constitutional monarchies are a “stakes-reducing device, helping to make democratic politics possible in some environments through integrating the policy and providing what we call ‘crisis insurance.’” By having a Head of State serve a purely ceremonial role, constitutional monarchies can reduce the stakes of political turmoil, protect the constitution, and integrate a nation. In case of emergency, the country can break (metaphorical) glass to receive a new Head of State.
Although I have my qualms with the lack of a written constitution, the objectification of the royal family for tourist money and the lack of an actual political duty to the state, the United Kingdom’s constitutional monarchy has long outlasted the democratic republic I know as an American. The monarchy of the U.K. has proven itself stable, lasting, and honorable—perhaps we ought to take a page from their book.
This article was edited by Elizabeth Muzilla-Fullem and Katherine Brennan.