In a Constitutional Monarchy, a non-elected ruler shares power with an elected government. Modern constitutional monarchies in western Europe include the United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, Monaco, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Sweden. In Asia, Japan and Thailand are constitutional monarchies.
Each monarch has some form of a governmental function, although the power and control they are given varies widely. These powers are generally based on a constitution, although the contract is sometimes partly unwritten. A typical monarch is born into the ruling family of a country. Standard modern titles for monarchs are King, Queen, and Emperor.
Every form of government has advantages and disadvantages. Here are the pros and cons of constitutional monarchy.
Pros of Constitutional Monarchy
1. The monarch provides continuity and consistency in government.
The ruler can remain in power in a constitutional monarchy for many years. The line of succession is clear, and everyone knows who will become the King or Queen if the current ruler becomes disabled or dies. The monarch’s continual rule provides legislative and policy consistency over long periods.
In the democratic republic of the United States, presidents can change as often as every four years. Even when a president is in office for eight years, there is not enough time to enact and maintain long-term policies. Policies can be overturned when the majority party changes. For example, the Trump administration has effectively reversed the United States federal government’s position on environmental protection.
2. The Constitutional Monarchy structure of the government provides stability.
In a constitutional monarchy, elected and appointed officials change, but the monarch remains for life. In times of emergency, such as war or pandemic, these governments generally pull together and remain stable. A king or Queen provides a continual link to the past and elected or appointed officials to know they have to answer the monarch.
Constitutional monarchies are also less likely to be overtaken by a coup than most other forms of government. The separation of government between the monarch and the elected representatives offers a double layer of stability.
3. Constitutional monarchies encourage political unity.
Constitutional monarchies tend to stay centrist in policy and government, and radical shifts to a political left or right are generally avoided. The representatives and their parties are more willing to compromise because each understands the monarch will be required to approve any policy or legislation.
In countries where all leaders are elected, this kind of compromise is difficult, if not impossible. Newly proposed legislation often has prolonged debate and discussion between political factions, and the lack of stable policy causes many proposed bills to falter or disappear. In the United States, approximately 90% of bills “die” before leaving a committee.
4. Monarchs are trained to lead from birth.
In a constitutional monarchy, the line of succession is clear. Members of the royal family have been trained in government and diplomacy from birth. Even young monarchs understand their duty and are trained to rule. This training and education can provide a well-prepared ruler to lead their country.
Elected presidents in any country rarely have lifelong training to lead. Five United States presidents had never been elected to a public office before becoming president – Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Donald Trump. Jimmy Morales, the president of Guatemala, also had no political experience. With no monarch to guide them, some rulers encountered overwhelming problems.
5. The election of representatives keeps the Constitutional Monarchy in touch with the people.
A monarch’s legitimacy is based on the will of the people, and this fact alone provides an incentive to listen and respond to their concerns. The regular election of representatives keeps the monarch from becoming complacent and out of touch.
Elections allow the people to have their concerns addressed in the government. The elected representatives offer new perspectives and voices, allowing better communication with the people. They also propose and pass legislation and implement new policies based on the people’s wishes.
6. Constitutional monarchies have more money available to apply to the economy and public programs.
The cost of a presidential election and installing a new president is incredibly high. By avoiding these costs, constitutional monarchies can put more money toward their people and their economies. Of the above-listed constitutional monarchies, only one (Norway) does not provide universal health care. Free or low-cost college is also available in some of these countries.
A presidential election in the United States costs roughly $2 billion, about four times Queen Elizabeth’s estimated private wealth. Installing a new president, cabinet members, and representatives can cost an additional $4 billion.
7. They support national and cultural identities.
People tend to identify with their government and its policies. The stability and continuity of a constitutional monarchy promote a sense of solid national and cultural identity. The United Kingdom’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth, is the Queen of 16 Commonwealth countries worldwide, from the UK to the South Pacific and Canada. Each country has significant power to self-govern, but every person in the Commonwealth identifies with the Queen and the central administration.
When political leaders change frequently, it is more challenging for people to identify with the current leader and their policy. Regardless of their satisfaction with the current political situation, people cannot last long enough to develop a national sense of cultural identity.
8. The government can function without the active involvement of the monarch.
Constitutional monarchies have two levels of government – the monarch and the administration. Elected officials deal with matters of legislation and daily governance. Although the monarch must approve legislation and policy decisions, the government can continue to function in times of transition.
Many monarchs serve primarily as royal ambassadors. These monarchs have little daily control over the government. This does not mean they have little value, however. In addition to uniting a country, they have emergency powers.
9. The monarch has discretionary reserve powers.
The reserve powers are given to a monarch to help maintain accountability and government stability. These powers are discretionary and can only be used within constitutional limits and boundaries. For example, the Queen can withhold consent to legislation that does not meet the constitution’s requirements or does not align with the goals of the Commonwealth.
The Queen can also refuse to dismiss the parliament. In the recent Brexit controversy, the Queen knew the British public had passed a referendum to leave the European Union in 2016. To refuse Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request to suspend parliament would have been politically unwise, although she had the unquestioned authority.
10. Legislation can be enacted faster in a constitutional monarchy.
In governments controlled entirely by elected officials, party division can lead to long periods of controversy over legislation before a vote. The compromise is extremely slow. In 1964, the United States took more than six months to agree on a critical Civil Rights bill.
The lower level of the political divide in a constitutional monarchy leads to legislation being passed more easily and quickly than in democratically elected governments. Everyone in the government understands the need to compromise and fairly represent the people rather than their own party’s interests. In addition, a bill can be expedited to pass very quickly. Brexit is the most prominent recent exception to this general rule.
Cons of a Constitutional Monarchy
1. Children can become heads of state.
Because a monarchy is usually hereditary, young children can become the head of state. King Oyo of Uganda is currently the youngest monarch in the world. He was crowned King in 1995 when he was three years old. Young King Oyo reportedly took off his crown and crawled into his mother’s lap during his coronation. King Sobhuza II of Swaziland was only four months old when he was crowned in December 1899. Surprisingly, Sobhuza II became the longest-reigning monarch in recorded history, ruling until he died in 1982.
2. Monarchs cannot be voted out of office if they are ineffective rulers.
Unlike elected government officials, monarchs must be violently overthrown to end their reign. King Henry VI of England was nine months old when he was crowned King in 1422. He remained King until 1461 and returned to the throne from 1470 to 1471. He was reportedly quiet, studious, and withdrawn and suffered from periods of madness. Henry VI was a particularly ineffective ruler. His rule was marred by the Wars of the Roses, a series of battles between two branches of the royal family. He was eventually jailed and killed by the winning faction.
Monarchs can end their reign voluntarily by surrendering or giving up their throne. King Edward VIII voluntarily abdicated the English throne in December of 1936, when the royal family and the Church of England opposed his proposed marriage to American socialite Wallis Simpson. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated in favor of her son after 33 years of rule in 2013. Emperor Akihito of Japan surrendered in 2019 due to age and physical infirmity. Most recently, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle abdicated their royal titles and left their duties as royal family members.
3. Constitutional Monarchies sustain a class-based society.
Wealth-based societal structure is arguably a problem in almost every country and every governing structure. However, the wealth and prestige of a royal family can perpetuate a class- and wealth-based society. Social mobility is extremely limited in a monarchy, and titles such as Baron, Duke, and Lord reinforce the class structure. The average annual income in Morocco is $4,910, but the reigning monarch’s wealth is estimated at $2.5 billion.
In contrast, the sitting president of the United States, Donald Trump, is the grandson of an immigrant and the son of a New York real estate developer. This does not mean that the divide between the wealthy and the rest of America is insignificant. This economic divide was highlighted in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.
4. Constitutional Monarchs are not guaranteed to be good rulers.
Monarchs are generally trained to rule, but this does not ensure they will be good rulers. In countries where the monarch is given extensive powers, cruel and unjust monarchs can enforce oppression and injustice.
The United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven constitutional monarchies, is widely known for suppressing women’s rights and allowing crimes against women to go unpunished. These oppressive authoritarian regimes enforce strict patriarchal societal structures.
5. Monarchs are not strictly politically neutral.
Although many monarchs are theoretically only figureheads, they still retain some powers. For instance, the monarch in some countries can remove elected officials from office, and Queen Elizabeth has several times interfered with the prime minister’s appointment. In 1975, the Queen’s representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, removed the Australian prime minister, Gough Whitlam, and his government. The move was highly controversial and demonstrated the ability of a monarch or their representative to dismiss an elected official.
Sovereigns remain the final level of approval for legislation. Although monarchs should ideally be politically neutral, they rarely are. From refusing assent for a bill to privately interfering with negotiations, monarchs frequently help determine the policy that suits their needs and goals. Prince Charles of England is rumored to influence policymakers behind the scenes actively.
6. Monarchs can remove checks to their power and assert government control.
A sovereign’s ability to control the government in emergencies is both an advantage and a disadvantage. This reserve power can allow a king or Queen to declare war and enact emergency legislation, and Monarchs can refuse fundamental rights like freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Although modern monarchs rule by the people’s will, keeping an unpopular or oppressive monarch from ruling as they please is challenging. As stated earlier in the advantages of constitutional monarchies, these governments are pretty stable and difficult to end.
7. Religion and politics are often impossible to separate in a constitutional monarchy.
The ruling monarch is the head of state and head of the official religion in most modern constitutional monarchies, which can influence policy in harmful ways. In the case of the United Arab Emirates, religion is frequently used to justify the systemic oppression of women.
The Church of England played a part in the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936. The royal family, the parliament, and the official religion agreed the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson would not make an appropriate Queen. In his abdication speech, he stated: “But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
8. Social change is slow.
Because monarchs are the final decision-makers on policy and rule for life, social change is typically slow in a constitutional monarchy. The advantage of having a robust national identity becomes a disadvantage when the ruling family has trouble accommodating changing social norms. The recent marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has made this point abundantly clear. Harry’s recent abdication of his royal duties is strongly reminiscent of King Edward VIII’s abdication nearly a century earlier. The inability of a monarchy to adapt as society changes is a substantial disadvantage.
9. The character of the sovereign affects national identity.
As citizens of the United States have recently discovered, a country’s leader can define a country’s identity, even in the short term. This identity crisis affects both the people of the country and the international perspective of the country.
Unlike a president, who can be voted out of office, the monarch remains the ultimate authority as long as they live. If the sovereign is cruel, unfair, or oppressive, the public cannot eliminate them without violent rebellion.
10. Constitutional monarchies discourage diversity in government.
Sovereigns rule because they were born into the line of succession. A lack of new people and new perspectives can create stagnation. Elected officials help bring new ideas to the government, but the ruling family’s priority is to remain in power. As long as the King or Queen of a country remains the same, their governmental policy will be relatively consistent.
The disadvantages of constitutional monarchies often arise from the same basis as the advantages. Constitutional monarchies are difficult to displace, and the policy can be created and maintained for lengthy periods. Sovereigns strongly influence national and cultural identity. These points are both pros and cons of the form of government known as the constitutional monarchy.
History and current affairs both show that the leader’s character defines any country’s character, regardless of the form of government. Leaders who lead well generally are more popular and successful than those who are apathetic or oppressive. Unfortunately, some evil rulers rule for life.