There are very few instances in history where the removal of a monarchy has led to better national outcomes

Wednesday, September 28th, 2022

If you were to go back over the past couple of centuries, Ed West reminds us, the vast majority of the most appalling regimes would be republics:

Mussolini’s Italy might merit a place, and perhaps Tsarist Russia, which killed a fair few political opponents and jailed many more — but compared to their Soviet successors those were rookie numbers.

Such are the obvious advantages of monarchy that there was a point in 2015 when every single Arab republic had Foreign Office advice warning about travel, while every Arab monarchy was considered safe in its entirety.

Comparing countries inevitably suffers from the apples and oranges problem, but it’s still worth contrasting the fate of neighbours: the Syrian Arab Republic has been ruled with unrelenting cruelty by various military upstarts since independence from France, and this competitive brutality has reduced a sophisticated, ancient society to ruins.

Neighbouring Jordan suffered huge disadvantages from the start, having no natural resources, little access to the sea, few cities with established trading networks and a population that was majority refugee, West Bank Palestinians who had fled Israeli victory in 1948. Yet today it is a successful, well-functioning nation-state, having enjoyed decades of rule under the Hashemites, GDP increasing five-fold in 30 years. Is there any scenario where a republic would have been preferable for Jordan, or a monarchy worse for Syria?

Similarly, Morocco has had the benign rule of monarchs while neighbouring Algeria has endured decades of intermittent misery. The two countries have different histories, in particular regarding France, but next-door Libya did previously have a monarchy and has gone through hell since its downfall. Little wonder that many Libyans would have it restored.

There is much that can be said for monarchies but without doubt they insulate against extremism, in particular extremism of the Right. They provide an ersatz version of the militaristic splendour and rigid hierarchy that some crave, and ersatz tradition often works very well. One friend has a theory that royalty presents a healthy outlet for people who might otherwise be patriotic to the point of being dangerously unhinged, channelling their obsessions into mere crankdom.

Meanwhile, compared to the men who rise to power, monarchs tend to be more tolerant as individuals; the King of Morocco’s grandfather heroically saved the country’s Jews during the Second World War, and he was certainly not the only royal to have shown their moral worth during that conflict.

There are very few instances in history where the removal of a monarchy has led to better national outcomes. To take the most famous example, everyone knows the line by the Chinese official that it was ‘too soon to tell’ whether the French Revolution was a good thing (although it’s perhaps a myth, as he was talking about the ‘revolution’ of 1968). In reality the downfall of the Bourbons led to a million deaths in political violence and wars; thousands died in the terror and tens of thousands in the Vendée genocide. France was never really a leading power again, and it has left the country’s politics permanently divided, even to this day; this was in part because its conservative movement emerged out of the bloodshed far more uncompromising than its British equivalent. They got de Maistre; we got Burke.

The fall of the Habsburgs was an unrelenting tragedy and disaster, leading to dangerous instability and eventual mass murder; the Hohenzollerns were unlovely but German history shows that there is always worse around the corner. Romanov Russia was the prison of peoples — yet the Bolsheviks were far more violent and oppressive, and because of Russia’s size and structure there was little chance that a moderate, democratic form of government would survive when the monarchy fell. Today, in the Arab world, monarchy is far more effective because there are otherwise not enough neutral institutions in societies with very powerful clans, and therefore low levels of wider trust. In the absence of a strong civil society, religious extremists sweep all before them — unless a monarch can stop them.

It is true that at a certain level of political development monarchy becomes less important to the functioning of states; the majority of the most developed (and egalitarian) countries are constitutional monarchies, but no more so than neighbours: Britain is not better off than the Irish Republic, nor is the Netherlands compared to Germany, or Sweden with Finland. It is just that republics tend to have had more troubled histories, either conquered by neighbours or subject to revolution or totalitarianism.

Yet even among rich democracies there is benefit to having a king or queen. A few years ago financial journalist Mike Bird collated many of the academic papers looking at the empirical evidence for the effect of monarchy. Among the findings was that social capital is higher in monarchies, that the existence of monarchs boost economic growth where a country has weak executive restraints, and that governments ruled by kings or queens tend to otherwise behave with more restraint, and act with greater accountability towards voters.

Even in western countries like Belgium the monarchy plays a major role in national unity, and in a Britain which has become significantly more divided in recent years, between the composite nations, over ideology, race and religion, and lifestyle. This greater division may explain why British republicanism, once something of a force in the 1980s, ran out of steam at the turn of the millennium. It was not just that republicans could never answer the question of alternatives; there was also the recognition that the unifying power of the Queen might help broadly center-Left aims, especially in a society with far more religious and ethnic diversity than before. Constitutional monarchies, like established churches, tend to be theoretically conservative but progressive in practice.


  1. Felix says:

    Most of us are bred for living in a monarchy. Notice how little kids love games with kings, queens, princesses, and princes?

    Vote-based governance beyond tribe size (100-200 people) is NOT intuitive. Really hard to run. But, note, too, that vote-based systems win. Ed West’s observations argue that a transition to a vote-based system can be eased by keeping a king around for a while. Sounds right.

  2. Szopen says:

    Yup. Just compare Switzerland with Lichtenstein. Such a huge difference :P

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Weak people need a strong leader.

    The elite cement their power by infantilizing the culture. Then it’s: “See? The sheeple need us!”

    This falls apart when the elite themselves become degenerate.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    By the way, the Habsburgs fell because they became inbred.

  5. VXXC says:

    Harry, I would give the Hapsburg’s another look before I indulged common wisdom…

    The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire – by Wess Mitchell.

    No, not inbred in a word. They fell from Exhaustion after centuries of holding off enemies Tous Azimuts – all points of the compass. Turks to the South, Prussia to the North, France to the West, Italian states to the South, Russia to the East.

    Inbreeding would have revealed itself much sooner, in fact it never revealed itself. The Final Grand old man Franz Joseph the Emperor died working at his desk, he slept on an army cot and wore his uniform every day of his life. He had terrible misfortunes, no one ever called him a fool.

    Really they fell because of the critical error of alienating their key ally Russia over the Crimean War, inability to modernize fast enough and above all nationalism. For the Hapsburgs to have survived nationalism they would have had to at least recognize the Czech’s, Croations, as a co-equal monarch giving them 4 monarchs instead of one – but they also lacked a common enemy to unite their peoples and their neighbors when the Ottomans retracted. The need to not destroy the Ottoman’s just to keep them managed may have influenced the fatal mistake of making Russia a friend instead of foe – a bitter foe – over Crimea.

    In many ways balancing their neighbors friends and foes, picking their fights carefully and keeping the balance of power was their strategy and their greatest achievement. In the end they were simply overwhelmed. The mistakes of WW1 must be in context of all these forces tearing them apart and their choice to essentially go down fighting.

    I wouldn’t toss the great achievements of the Hapsburg’s away. Because of them we have the modern military staff system, cartography in a military sense but above all Imperial America can learn how to balance friends and foes at all points of the compass – Austria had no choice, although we did and perhaps still do.

  6. Szopen says:

    We were their friends to the north, before they decided to participate in our partitions.

  7. Jim says:

    Certain eminent persons have often observed that in a democracy the people have no vote in their government and no means by which to redress grievances. It may rightly be said that one does not establish a democracy in order to enfranchise the people, one enfranchises the people in order to establish the democracy.

    Federal Senators are supposed to be elected by state legislatures.

  8. Jim says:

    *to safeguard the democracy.

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