Every Wednesday I take part in a Dungeons and Dragons game with a group of friends of mine. During the course of events, my character – a Minotaur ranger called Connochbar – somehow managed to become King of the Beastfolk. Excited at the prospect of building my own fantasy kingdom, I immediately set to work writing out how the government of said kingdom would function. As Minotaurs in the campaign setting were fairly Anglo-Saxon in their culture, I decided an elected monarchy would be most thematically appropriate.
Upon hearing this, of my friends remarked, “An elective monarchy? Isn’t that a contradiction of terms?”
Said friend quickly regretted bringing up the topic of monarchy around me, but the point was an interesting one. Just what exactly makes a monarchy a monarchy? The popular idea is that a monarch inherits their position from their parents, however, there have been many monarchies where this was not the case. The Anglo-Saxon kings, for example, were elected by the Witangemot, a sort of royal council, while the Holy Roman Emperors were elected by the German elector-princes. Today’s Cambodia and Malaysia also elect their monarchs.
Further, what does this say about republics where the President passes their office to their relatives, such as North Korea, Syria, or Cuba? Are they monarchies, or just hereditary republics? What about so-called “crowned republics”?
What makes all these different to each other, if anything?
Before I begin, a quick disclaimer: I am not a political scientist, nor a student in political philosophy. This is just me proposing, as one monarchist to a larger collection of monarchists (or even a few republicans), how I think the issue can be addressed. Please do correct me if I misspeak, but keep in mind that this is done mostly for my enthusiasm for the subject, not so I can be thought of as an academic authority.
The Problem of Definitions
In any discussion about anything, it’s essential that things be properly defined, and that popular definitions are separated from official definitions.
For example, in a scientific study, a “theory” refers to working models that are thought to accurately describe a natural phenomenon as they are observed, such as the theory of gravity, the theory of evolution, or the theory of thermodynamics. However, the popular use of the word “theory” refers to an idea that is untried, untested, and unproven, something that is described as a “hypothesis” by scientists. This creates confusion, as people unfamiliar with the sciences develop the idea that when scientists use the term “theory of” there’s the implication of uncertainty or debate.
There isn’t and the science is settled, but the damage is done nevertheless.
The same applies with the discussion of the monarchy. The problem is, we tend not to discuss monarchy at all nowadays in day to day conversation, except in the most superficial of terms. In school, the topic of what the Crown is and does is never brought up, and as such terms are never properly defined.
This leads to situations such as the one described earlier, where people gain a mistaken idea of what a thing is, does and refers to. This, in turn, makes further discussion difficult as the participants fail to communicate properly their ideas.
So how can we properly define what makes a monarchy? Well, the first and most natural place to turn to is the Dictionary. The Oxford dictionary describes a monarchy as being:
- [mass noun] A form of government with a monarch at the head.
- [count noun] A state that has a monarch.
- (the monarchy) The monarch and royal family of a country:
Meanwhile, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is a little more specific, and describes a monarchy as being:
- Undivided rule or absolute sovereignty by a single person
- A nation or state having a monarchical government
- A government having a hereditary chief of state with life tenure and powers varying from nominal to absolute
Square Blocks Do Not Fit into Circle Holes
The latter dictionary’s choice of definition is unhelpful because by using it we disqualify countries that otherwise describe themselves as being monarchies. Because Cambodia’s King is elected by the Crown Council and is invested only with ceremonial powers by the country’s constitution, it fails on two of the points used. The remaining is also unhelpful, as it fails to describe what a monarchical government is without referring to the other two points.
Further, let’s look at North Korea. It’s most definitely a country in which power is invested in a single leader. Further, that leader claimed his office from his father, who in turn claimed it from his father, making it hereditary. Yet few political scientists would describe it as a monarchy, nor is it usually referred to seriously as such.
Meanwhile, the Oxford dictionary could be described as a bit too liberal and wishy-washy, that falls prey to serious circular logic. So a monarchy is a country that calls itself a monarchy? Is that it? Even if it doesn’t behave in any way like a monarchy is expected to behave?
This also fails, because a monarchy must behave a certain way. Even if the Donald Trump were to declare himself Emperor of the United Imperial States of America, for example, the USA does not suddenly become a monarchy by that alone. This is because it functions explicitly as a constitutional republic underpinned by a representative democracy. Trump can dress himself up with all the titles and ermine cloaks he wishes, but that would not make him the monarch. It would make him an elected president with a pretentious title, and one who’d most likely be impeached and arrested for high treason by Congress for betraying the republican ideals of America.
A Possible Solution
I propose this as a possible means of defining a monarchy.
Monarchy is a system by which authority is bestowed upon a single person, and it is by that person’s authority that government operates. This separates it from republics, whereby authority is derived from the people, and also from dictatorships, where authority is usurped and enforced by power, whether military, economic, or social.
North Korea defines itself as a People’s Democratic Republic, and its authority is derived from the people via communist ideas of popular socialist republicanism. However, that power is usurped by the Kim family, who hold power without the people’s consent, thus making North Korea by function a dictatorship even if it’s a republic on paper. Further, it helps maintain Cambodia’s status as a monarchy, as while power is wielded by the government, the King nevertheless maintains a position of authority. The USA remains a republic even if Trump should decide to adopt monarchical trappings because authority is invested in the American people, not the office of the President or in Congress.
The difference between power and authority can essentially be described as might vs. right. On paper Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the British (Canadian, Australian, Jamaican, etc.) state, and the British Government operates in her name under her authority, hence the term “Her Majesty’s Government”. This is further exercised in Her Majesty’s privileges of appointing a Prime Minister, dissolving and opening parliament, and investing ambassadors and diplomats, as well as the seldom-used Royal Assent. The Government operates because she has authorised it to.
However, Parliament holds power. It is Parliament that legislates, and Parliament that makes the country tick. With the passing of a bill, it could easily strip The Queen of office and declare a republic, and while Her Majesty may protest she cannot do much to oppose it. It may be called Her Majesty’s Government, but Parliamentary Sovereignty dictates that it’s Parliament who holds the cards.
To put it another way, The Queen may open the games, declare the winner and present the cup, but it’s Parliament who decides what game is played and who scores the points.
Thus the definition of monarchy is rooted not in how a government is chosen, or how power is operated or by whom, but who is thought to be the central, authoritative figure. Is the source of authority a singular person (a monarch) or a multitude of people (a republic)? Therein lies the deciding factor.
Before I pat myself on the back, though, I fear even this definition doesn’t quite work. The question of parliamentary sovereignty poses the question as to whether or not The Queen is the source of authority or Parliament. Does The Queen only lend her name to the Government because Parliament lets her do so? Further, modern notions of democracy and parliamentary representation may insist that in modern Britain it’s the British people who hold authority and that Parliament operates because the voters have authorised them to do so (the Crowned Republic). The Queen is an irrelevant left over who just provides a little colour to the proceedings.
Perhaps, in this case, we best let Oxford’s definition sit in unless – a monarchy is a government that describes itself as having a monarch as its leading figure. It’s not ideal, but it creates less headaches.
And there’s only so much ibuprofen one can have before you start to wonder whether the mental exercise is worth it.