By Shaan Katari Libby
With the death of UK’s Prince Philip, the Queen’s faithful consort, and the subsequent outpouring of condolences from the British public, one thing became obvious. With the death of the Prince, often the subject of controversy and humour, it became apparent that monarchies do continue to have a place in people’s hearts.
As someone who is married to an Englishman, I observed that my in-laws always kept track of the Royals’ lives, and were even invited to the Queen’s Tea Party one year. Although not Royalists by any stretch of imagination, they were not against them either. They were just woven into the fabric and an accepted part of existence.
More recently, most of us relived Queen Elizabeth II’s life in the film, The Queen, and rightly or wrongly, we all have an opinion on the role of the monarch vis-a-vis that of a president in a democracy.
What then is the actual difference between a monarchy and a democracy? The traditional answer to this is that the former is purely hereditary and the latter is elected by the people, hence representative. Monarchies have entitled royals, who are above all others, while a democracy is meant to have everyone equal, even those who represent us. Democracies can be direct or representative. Monarchies can, broadly speaking, be absolute or constitutional. Absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia are very different from constitutional monarchies where the monarch is a figurehead.
In constitutional monarchies, the monarch would do well to understand that he has precious little leeway when it comes to matters of State. Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg learnt this the hard way when in 2008, he refused to sign a euthanasia bill into law. The consequence was that he was stripped of his legislative role. Also, a constitutional monarch is meant to do the right thing and not cause a scandal or ripple. They are to be seen but not heard. Prince Andrew was far too visible for the liking of the monarchy, and finally his close ties with financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein led him to withdraw from public life in 2019.
These days, some countries feel that a small royal family is better—probably because it is not seen as such a drain on the public purse. In Norway, the royal family consists of just four people: the King, Queen, Crown Prince and Princess. In Sweden, the King, under political pressure, removed five of his grandchildren from the royal family. The UK, with a population more than ten times that of Norway, needs a larger royal family to fulfil all the demands for royal patronage and visits.
Monarchs continue to be answerable to the people. An interesting story of a monarch changing the system to a democracy was seen in Spain where Juan Carlos completely convinced military dictator Francisco Franco that he would continue with an absolute monarchy, only to bring in democracy. He then offended his people years later and in 2020, left the country, having handed over the mantle to his son.
Democracies like ours have a president as a figurehead and provide very little power to him. However, the Italian president retains large powers; the country appoints a prime minister of its choice when there is no clear majority government in parliament, creating a so-called “president’s cabinet”. If a prime minister loses the legislative mandate, Opposition parties may call for a vote of no confidence in an effort to topple the sitting government. In this event, the president may be called upon to formally dismiss the legislature and schedule fresh elections.
The president as a dual head of state and government began with colonial administrative structures in North America. Leaders of colonial councils were called presidents, as were the heads of some state governments.
The title stuck and when the US Constitution created the presidency of the country, the role carried greatly expanded executive powers. Those powers increased over time—particularly in periods of national crisis—resulting in what historian Arthur M Schlesinger Jr. described as the “imperial presidency”. The criticism often levelled at this form of government is that one sees the president carrying out largely ceremonial functions when pressing national concerns ought to be at the forefront. Where a figurehead exists, these functions can be carried out by them.
One of the reasons for having a president at the head of a constitutional democracy like India is that there is a sense of continuity as he is a neutral entity who is able to act as an advisor when required, but at other times serves as the ceremonial head. The prime minister is left free to do the business of planning and running the country for the benefit of all the states. The prime minister has the benefit of a cabinet of ministers who help with strategy and advice. Power is not wielded by a single monarch who may or may not be well-advised. Instead, a whole council of ministers on level with the prime minister dispenses advice. This is desirable as it is a collective decision-making and responsibility.
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The Queen in the UK is slightly different in that her term does not end as our president’s does. Instead, there is a continuity like no other there and if you have a good monarch with an ear to the ground, it is an invaluable neutral voice who can advise but whose advice need not be taken in a democracy. Recently, the UK Supreme Court held that the Queen could not prorogue Parliament indefinitely even on the advice of the prime minister, thereby further reducing the powers of the monarch and the powers of one man in a democracy.
At the end of the day, both styles of heads of state have their own advantages and disadvantages and we will continue to tinker with these systems as they continue to evolve.
—The author is a barrister-at-law, Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, UK, and a leading advocate in Chennai With research inputs from Jumanah Kader