Affairs: The Debate / Global
Do we need royal families?
What are the benefits, if any, of having an unelected family reigning over a nation’s people? And is this archaic institution on its way out? Monocle’s panel debates whether monarchies, republics or a happy mixture of the two can bring the most value to a country.
Though the idea of hereditary power now seems archaic, it has lasted remarkably well. Beyond the 15 countries of which the British monarch is head of state, there are about a couple of dozen more crowned heads, mostly in Europe and the Middle East. They might, however, be among the last of their kind. The past 30 years or so has seen the former monarchy of Nepal become a republic, while both Mauritius and Barbados have removed the British monarchy as their head of state. In that same period, only one monarchy has been restored – Cambodia’s, in 1993. There are a number of royal families in exile but there is little serious restorationist sentiment for any of them, though there was the quirky case of Tsar Simeon II of Bulgaria, overthrown in 1946 at the age of nine, then elected prime minister of his country in 2001.
Nevertheless, monarchy retains an appeal. The Middle Eastern monarchies all survived the 2011 Arab uprisings. Europe’s constitutional monarchies are broadly popular. In 2022, the UK and the wider Commonwealth are ungrudgingly observing the platinum jubilee – 70 years of steady service – of Queen Elizabeth II. Monarchies are old-fashioned. But then, that’s kind of the point of them. The question is whether the connection they provide to the past is akin to an anchor that prevents their country from drifting too far off course, or a ball and chain that stops their people from making any progress.
Meet the panel
Peter FitzSimons is chair of the Australian Republic Movement. He is also a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and a prolific author, mostly on Australian subjects: his latest book is The Opera House, a history of one of Sydney’s most famous buildings. He is a former rugby union player, who represented Australia seven times between 1989 and 1990.
Crown Prince Leka II
Crown Prince Leka II is the head of Albania’s unofficial royal family, the House of Zogu, and lives in Tirana. His grandfather, King Zog I, crowned himself in 1928 after serving as prime minister and president. He reigned until he was exiled by Italy’s invasion in 1939. Prince Leka’s father, Crown Prince Leka Zog I, returned to Albania after communism collapsed; a 1997 vote on restoring the monarchy was defeated.
Emman El-Badawy is the director of the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, and a Middle East expert who appears regularly on the bbc and Sky News. She is a fellow at the British Academy and of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
Let’s start with the idea that a monarchy can represent a pillar of stability and continuity. Does that still apply in 2022?
crown prince leka ii: Monarchies play a very important role in different regions. In the Middle East, monarchies have been very proactive in keeping stability and not allowing extremist groups to take control. In the Balkans, my family and other royal families engage with the republics. I work with the Albanian president, assisting with connecting with other governments and other royal families, and promoting Albania abroad. I have Australian blood. My mother was Australian. She was a relative of Banjo Paterson, the famous Australian poet. Her family felt very connected to, and proud of, the heritage of the British royal family. That stability has allowed Australia to be independent and have a strong Australian vibe but it has that sense of security because of the royal family.
Peter, have you heard anything there that has changed your mind?
peter fitzsimons: Well, if Prince Leka is descended from Banjo Paterson, that does make him royalty in my view. But to his point about the security provided by the connection to the UK – earlier this year we commemorated the 80th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. The notion in 1939 was that we’ve got to go with the UK, because they’ll defend us. And they didn’t: when Singapore fell in 1942 [to imperial Japan], Australia felt alone.
But look, the very notion that Australia can do no better with our head of state than a family of English aristocrats living in a palace in London is simply ludicrous. And with the greatest respect to Prince Leka, the premise of monarchy is that there are families who are better than the rest of us, that their blood is bluer than ours, that they’re wiser, that they have more integrity. I have two simple words: Prince Andrew. I rest my case.
“The notion that Australia can do no better with our head of state than a family of English aristocrats living in a palace in London is simply ludicrous”
If we look past the hereditary lottery, is there a case for monarchies nevertheless? The Middle Eastern monarchies all survived the Arab uprisings – and those countries, while far from perfect, have since been much less chaotic than Libya, Syria or Egypt.
emman el-badawy: The wealthier Gulf monarchies were in a position to throw around cash handouts as the uprisings spread across the region. But even the relatively poorer monarchies, Morocco and Jordan, could draw on important patronage relationships – strong loyalty bonds with tribes that have been deeply developed for generations. They’re also careful in managing the relationship with the Islamic clerical establishment.
It often surprises people, especially after years of Western democracy promotion, that there hasn’t been a civil-society pushback against monarchies, especially when many of their neighbours experienced revolutions that led to the republics we know today. You could argue that the monarchies in today’s Middle East are waving the rod of modernisation much more than a country such as Egypt, which is very much resisting reform.
pf: I obviously defer to Emman in expertise in the Middle East but can I raise Saudi Arabia? People who claim royal blood sitting atop a seriously repressed people. “We’re royal, we’re better than anyone else, therefore we control the police, the army, the oil, and you little people, you peasants – how dare you?”
ee: I don’t disagree. The human rights record is not great anywhere in the Middle East. But there’s an important point to make about why people don’t rise against the monarchies. The Arab uprisings were a symptom of the failed republican project in the Middle East; people were sick and tired of the corruption of the military regimes that replaced the monarchies. The other reason that the reputation of republics in the Middle East is not great is Iran – a monarchy deposed and replaced with a theocracy. That really scarred the region.
“I work with the Albanian president, connecting with other royal families and promoting Albania abroad”
Let’s take a look at Peter’s point about the idea that royal families believe themselves inherently better than their subjects. Prince Leka, does it feel like that when you’re raised in a royal house?
pl: If we’re talking about entitlement... I was brought up in exile. I was not allowed to return to my country. When I was born the leadership of Albania declared a death sentence on royalists in the country. To me, it’s not privilege; it’s duty. I’ve spent my life working. When the government offered my father and me free guard protection, we refused. So the entitlement argument can be easily made when you have a few beers with your friends, Peter, and start rambling...
pf: You didn’t answer Andrew’s question, though. Are you better blood than anybody else? It’s nonsense to say that one family is better than anybody else. No doubt throughout history there have been good kings and good queens – and Queen Elizabeth II is obviously an example of somebody who has genuinely devoted her life to public service. But in a sophisticated society, the idea that one family is better than any other is absurd.
pl: I don’t see myself as different to any other person. I was taught by my father to respect everyone and to work, and I’ve dedicated my life to my people. I’ve spoken to Albanians who spent 25 years in jail under communism and the only thing that kept them going was their belief in the monarchy. I believe in a democratic constitutional monarchy, based on the principles of Napoleon III, where a president becomes king and provides the legal format for change; and if you don’t like the king, you can fire him. And as a counter-argument, which I’m sure Emman would be able to build upon, what is the alternative?
“I don’t see myself as different to any other person. I was taught to respect everyone and to work, and I’ve dedicated my life to my people”
According to Transparency International, six of the 10 least corrupt countries are constitutional monarchies. So can running a monarchy alongside a democracy mean good governance?
ee: In the region I know best, the Middle East, I just don’t see the issue Peter has with the idea of a family or figure who considers themselves worthy of ruling. It’s a fair argument in principle but in practice, the republics I’ve witnessed and lived under... in Egypt we had a dictator who in 30 years never once held a fair election. In Iran, in 43 years of the Islamic Republic’s existence, it has had two leaders – both known as Supreme Leaders. When Prince Leka says he sees himself as a servant to his people, that to me is very similar to how we understand democratically elected leaders: if people aren’t happy with them, they’ll say so. My experience of republics in the Middle East is that they haven’t solved that problem.
“The Arab uprisings were a symptom of the failed republican project in the Middle East”
Peter, we should address the fact that Australia was given the choice, in the 1999 republic referendum, and opted to keep the monarchy. Why was that?
pf: Some polls suggest that 50 per cent of people are for the republic, 25 per cent are monarchists and 25 per cent don’t care. The problem is not whether we should be a republic but what type. There’s a schism between those who want direct election for a president and those who want minimalism, which is more or less how it works at the moment: every five years, our elected leader selects a governor-general [nominal representative of the crown] and then asks an unelected lady in England if it’s alright.
pl: In republics you have presidents who, because of the way that they are chosen, are part of a conflicted situation. There is no perfect system. No matter how we play with Plato’s ideas of democracy, a monarchy with a pluralistic political system is one of the best options. Australia has this, with a governor-general who does not affect the internal affairs but is able to represent Australia. In Albania, my family stays away from party politics but focuses on initiatives that serve the people.
pf: Can we not agree that an ideal system is something like what the Irish have? You have a head of state elected by the people, whose authority doesn’t rest on being appointed by God or having better blood than anyone else. You have someone who is among our brightest and best, and enjoys the confidence of a free people. Prince Leka mentioned our governor-general; we’ve had a lot of good governors-general. But when Mike Pence, then vice-president of the US, visited Australia, he tweeted about his wonderful afternoon meeting with Queen Elizabeth II’s representative to Australia, Peter Cosgrove [rather than an Australian counterpart].
Albania also had a referendum on its monarchy in 1997. Prince Leka, the vote went against your father, Leka I, though he claimed otherwise. Would it have been better for Albania if it had gone the other way?
pl: Albania in 1997 was utter anarchy, there was no way to monitor votes. Currently, our family is not working for a change of system. Instead, it’s important to look at how we integrate the royal family, which has a historical importance, and is a role model, into Albanian society. That’s why, every week, we sit down with anyone who wants to meet with us. The connection with people, with clan leaders, is why we still exist. This year they put up a statue of my grandmother, Queen Geraldine, in Tirana. There is a statue of my grandfather and the monarchy is a point of unity and stability in the country, which has very harsh and intense political debates that are ongoing.
There’s also the monarch as diplomat, operating above the political fray. And here we think of Queen Elizabeth II and her handshake with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness.
ee: Monarchies do have a soft-power edge over other countries because of the allure of a royal family. Peter will hate this but people are attracted to princes and princesses. It is a massive tourist attraction, which brings economic benefits, but there are diplomatic benefits too. In the Middle East there are many examples of monarchs as diplomats. The Jordanian royal family has been really important to the Middle East peace process as a relatively neutral broker and a consistent ally to the West in an otherwise unstable region.
“Can we not agree that an ideal system is something like what the Irish have?”
Does it just boil down to a question of what works? That maybe there are times and places where some sort of monarchical system is the best available option?
pl: Each country has to look at its own situation.
ee: The reason for my agnostic position on this is that in the last century we’ve really obsessed over political systems and got very little out of it. The reputation of liberal democracies is not great these days, which is not to say that we shouldn’t be promoting and protecting them. But there’s a general fatigue around liberal democracies – the sense that political leaders are just trying to get re-elected. They don’t have a long-term vision and strategy, which a constitutional monarchy can bring – that sense of wanting to be proud of the history and legacy of the nation.
pf: In the end, it’s absurd. These are not special people. These are not people who are better than the rest of us. The ideal is what they have in Ireland or France, or the US in a good year.
“Monarchies do have a soft-power edge over other countries because of the allure of a royal family”
If one were starting a country from scratch, it would be a struggle to make a case that any given family should be endowed with the privileges and burdens of royalty – even for purely ceremonial purposes. But not all societies, and not all countries, want the same things. Perhaps there is value in an impartial-ish figure with a link to history and an eye on eternity. And before installing or abolishing anything, it is prudent to have a think about the alternatives.