A few years ago I realised, to my surprise, that I am actually in favour of costitutional monarchy. Generally, my political tendencies are what, in Europe, we call republican – I hold that all matters involved in government should be public matters, subject to scrutiny by all who wish to comprehend them; they should be justified in terms of the common good; those in positions of authority should be held to account if they let such decisions be made on any other ground; political expediency is explicitly an other ground. I'm also a democrat (that is, I believe that The People should have responsibility for making the mistakes government shall inevitably make; it is a mistake to let a ruling elite be in control of the process of government). Yet it appears that (constitutional) monarchy is actually a good way to run a country.

People have, against all sense, a propensity for loyalty – perhaps it's instinctive, I'm not sure; it might equally just be a piece of common cultural baggage. I can understand loyalty to one's family, especially loyalty to the other parent of one's childern. To some degree I can make sense of loyalty to one's network of social peers, or to one's village – these make sense (in evolutionary terms) as survival strategies. But loyalty to one's nation is an oddly abstract thing; I am surprised that people commonly have an attachment on such a large scale. People generally despise their governments, but don't go slagging off the people running their nations – you'll find they take it personally.

I can see how national loyalty has its practical utility; but it also generates a singular problem. This is most easily seen in the United States of America: indeed, that nation took steps to partially correct the problem, amending the constitution to not allow a president more than two terms after it had seen its own response to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. National loyalty tends to attach itself to the person who is head of state – and, in the U.S.A., that rôle is held by the president, who is elected. National loyalty expresses itself as loyalty to the president, with the result that decent folks shall vote for the president as a matter of course: and most of the U.S.A.'s citizens are decent folk, so the president would be re-elected forever. Worse, the binding of national loyalty to the person of the president means that decent folk can't deal rationally with information indicating that their president is abusing his position.

The surprising virtue of (constitutional) monarchy is that decent citizens attach their sense of national loyalty to the monarch, rather than the government: decent citizens are thus able to make rational judgements about their government and (largely) vote with their minds rather than their hearts. Decent folk still have their sense of national loyalty, but they bind it to the person of the monarch, who has little practical power. Nominally, the monarch may have significant authority – commander-in-chief of the armed forces and no decision of the government becomes law unless the monarch signs it – but the proper process of democracy ensures that the monarch cannot afford to exercise that authority: it would precipitate a constitutional crisis, meaning that the government would insist that it, having been democratically elected, should have its way. The monarch can only afford to pick such a fight when it's clear (not just to the monarch but also to the nation as a whole) that the government is out of whack with the nation and needs to be kicked back into line. This is actually a secondary virtue of monarchy: someone is trained from birth for the job – or, at least, once they get the job they know they're lumbered with it for life, so need to think about how to do it properly – without having to pander to common idiocies, yet can afford to say what they believe, even if those things are unpopular, and has the authority to kick up the fuss that it would take for a (very) bad government to be replaced.

As Winston Churchil said of democracy, monarchy is obviously the worst possible way to run a country, but it turns out to work better than all the alternatives we've seen tried.

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