The British Monarchy’s Surprising Benefit

The weather was wet, the eyes dry and the hats knew no peer in the modern world. In the end, the coronation of King Charles III was about as British an occasion as anything has ever Britished.

By now, every aspect of the ceremony, clothes, attendees, and personal dramas has been dissected and analyzed in minute detail. But the bigger question underlying the whole shebang got surprisingly little attention: Namely, what is the use of the British monarchy?

We all know the usual explanations: tradition, pride, tourism revenue, exciting celebrity news to support the tabloid industry. (And the usual retorts: The traditions and pride were purchased at a steep cost of blood and pain, particularly in the colonies; the tourists come for the palaces rather than the people; and the celebrity-royal industrial complex is cruel to many involved, particularly those who had no choice about whether to be born into it.)

But I think the more interesting answer has to do with the role that the monarchy has played in helping Britain solve an essential dilemma at the heart of modern statehood: how to design a political system that is strong enough to give everyone an incentive to participate in it, but not so strong that it becomes tyrannical and gives people incentive to overthrow it.

This is a hard balance to achieve! And history is full of examples of what happens when it tips too far in one direction or another.

In a famous paper, the theorist Mancur Olson, who studied how states formed, wrote that there is a fundamental problem at the heart of dictatorship and unconstrained monarchy when the leader did not expect to hold power indefinitely, or pass it on to his offspring.

The leader would then have reason to drain resources from the state as quickly as possible, even if that undermined productivity and stability — to get in and get out while the getting was good. (For a modern example of what that looks like, just search “kleptocracy.”)

That’s bad for the country in question, which is left with escalating cycles of political instability and economic crises. For most of history, the imperfect solution was to make power hereditary, because a ruler who expected to pass on the kingdom to their child would want to keep it healthy. But that had some obvious downsides, most glaringly that the job of king often didn’t go to the most qualified or skilled candidate around. And poor leaders, obviously, can create their own set of problems.

Democracy addresses those problems by turning politics into a repeated game. Because there are regular elections, everyone expects their team to win some of the time and lose some of the time. But that gives the participants a reason to preserve and play by the rules: If you know you might lose, you want to know that you’ll get another chance at winning after that.

As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote in “How Democracies Die,” one crucial element of democratic longevity is restraint. In a healthy system, politicians do not exercise power in ways that violate the spirit of the law or the norms of the political system, even if they technically and legally could, because they know it’s in their interest to preserve the system’s ability to function.

But often, the parties polarize and that restraint breaks down. Parties start treating each round of the game like it were an all-or-nothing endeavor, playing political hardball to keep their opponents out of power. In the United States, for instance, when the Republican Party refused to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat until after the 2016 election, that was a legal exercise of power. But it was a profound departure from American political norms.

After too much of that kind of adversarial, unrestrained exercise of power, parties and politicians start to lose interest in continuing the game. Democracies become fragile, and often collapse into quasi-authoritarian regimes or even dictatorships.

In Chile, Levitsky and Ziblatt write, democratic cooperation degraded during the Cold War, and norms of restraint crumbled under the strain. Eventually, a faction of politicians on the right abandoned democracy, overthrew the government in a coup, and installed a dictatorship that lasted 17 years.

It’s easy to forget, but the current role of the British monarchy is in many ways a reaction to a very similar problem. In the 17th century, King Charles I’s attempt to play political hardball with an uncooperative Parliament led to a revolution (and his eventual execution).

After the restoration of the Stuart kings and then the Glorious Revolution that put William and Mary on the throne in 1689, no political faction was strong enough to hold power in its own right, and none wanted to give the restored monarchy enough power to entrench an opponent.

So the best option for all the factions, Olson wrote, “was to agree upon the ascendancy of a Parliament that included them all and to take out some insurance against the power of the others through an independent judiciary and a Bill of Rights.”

Over time, the monarch became almost a vestigial organ: there to observe and advise on political decisions, but never participate in them. But the fact that there still was a monarch, even a sharply constrained and weakened one, meant that there was no need to create a new head of state, like a president. That meant Britain avoided the perils of presidentialism, which many political scientists now regard as a particularly unstable form of democracy.

And the unusual role of the British monarch has also created distinct barriers to those seeking to play political hardball.

Last year, for instance, when Boris Johnson was trying to survive his party’s efforts to unseat him as prime minister, he hinted heavily that he might try to call a snap general election to win a new public mandate. Such actions would have been a significant breach of British political norms, which allow parties to form a new government after ousting their own leaders.

But to carry out that plan, Johnson would have needed the queen to call the election. And while custom might have prevented her from actually refusing a direct request from the prime minister, there are other ways to exercise restraint. According to a recent book, her advisers let it be known that if Johnson tried to ask her for a new election, she would have been unavailable to answer the phone that day.

And restraint breeds restraint. Johnson does not appear to have even tried. Instead, the following day, he announced his resignation.

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