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The strange persistence of monarchies

24 minutes


Dennis Altman

Professorial Fellow
La Trobe University

Episode Notes

Go on, admit it. When Prince Harry and Megan Markle left the UK – you took note. Ok, maybe YOU didn’t, but millions of others did.  But why, in modern society, are monarchies so persistent? Guided by declared republican Professor Dennis Altman, we look at monarchies from a global perspective: the ones that work, the ones that don’t, and the ones that remain popular even when they make no political sense.


00:00 – Ginger Gorman

Okay, so we’re recording now. So Mum, one of my childhood memories when we lived in London is of you dressing in this enormous emerald gown and going, my dad was a diplomat and his wife, my mom would accompany him to all sorts of events. This one was to Buckingham Palace and I remember so vividly her dressing in this amazing gown. I seem to remember as a little girl watching you put on about seven petticoats underneath.

00:35 – Ginger’s mum.

I’d worn evening dresses of course, because when I was growing up a student, we went to lots of balls and wore long dresses. But I’d never had a dress like this with so many petticoats. It was all right when you were upright, but not trying to crawl out of a car with about five other people in it.

00:51 – Ginger Gorman

She’s not talking about a limousine either. The Palace had requested their guests bring as few cars as possible. So mum was in the back sitting on dad’s lap.

01:03 – Ginger’s mum

When we arrived at the Palace, this courtier opened the door and I tried to get out. My foot got caught in all the petticoats and I almost fell flat on my face except the courtier caught me – it wasn’t a very dignified entrance to Buckingham Palace.

01:23 – Ginger Gorman

It sounds like a glamorous life. But they didn’t actually meet the Queen that evening. Although as mum recalls it Her Royal Highness was there, along with Princess Diana.

01:34 – Ginger’s mum

She was very beautiful princess Diana, in real life, with a beautiful tiara. I remember the Queen’s tiara. It had these huge pearls on it. The Queen was wearing these drop pearl earrings. They were huge and I whispered to Brian: “one of those would pay off our mortgage”.

01:55 – Ginger Gorman

And there it is. Royals are born with wealth and power and the opportunity to adorn jewels more valuable than their subjects’ houses. Why do we the people stand for it? And why are we so enamored with them?

02:10 – Professor Dennis Altman

It is I think to do with people’s desire for a sense of immersion in something that is glamorous, that is bigger than them, and that is at the same time is safe, which is of course the point of the constitutional monarch: he or she has all the pomp, the ceremony, the splendor, but does not have any real political power.

02:35 – Ginger Gorman

Dennis Altman is a Professorial Fellow at Latrobe University and a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. His book “God Save the Queen” examines the strange persistence of monarchies, not just for those of us in the Commonwealth realm, but in Norway, the Netherlands, Thailand, and some 40 other kingdoms throughout the world.

02:56 – Professor Dennis Altman

Some of the most progressive countries – and one thinks of the Scandinavian countries, one thinks of the Benelux countries – are also constitutional monarchies. Is there actually more to this than we’ve thought? And why in fact, have so many monarchies persisted into the 21st century?

03:16 – Ginger Gorman

This is Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. And on the podcast today, we’ll look at monarchies from a global perspective, the ones that work, the ones that don’t, and the ones that remain popular, even when they make no political sense.

03:52 – Ginger Gorman

Let’s begin with a definition.

Professor Dennis Altman –

A constitutional monarchy is essentially a system where the head of state comes to that position through inheritance, being part of the ruling royal family. They reign but they do not rule – that is to say they have ceremonial but not political power. And that’s a classic model that Great Britain essentially developed in the 19th century.

04:15 – Ginger Gorman

I know that you are a raving Republican.

Professor Dennis Altman

Well, I wouldn’t say raving ginger.

Ginger Gorman

Well you’ve been quite outspoken about being Republican.

04:27 – Professor Dennis Altman

There are arguments for constitutional monarchies. But there is no argument to be a constitutional monarchy when your monarch resides 12,000 miles away. So being a republican in Australia is rather special, although we share that with a number of other former British colonies.

04:46 – Ginger Gorman

So it’s an old model. You might even argue outdated if you’re so inclined. But Australia is a relatively conservative nation. We’ve only voted yes in eight out of the 44 referendums held since Federation. But how does Dennis explain that some of the most progressive nations in the world – the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark – are still constitutional monarchies?

05:11 – Professor Dennis Altman

I think we have to be very careful not to assume that a correlation and a cause of the same thing. It may well be a historical accident that because there has been greater political stability in those countries, there has been less reason to overthrow the monarchy.

But the monarchies’ persistence isn’t actually connected to democratic or social justice norms. What I think is, is true, and I think it’s provable – is that a system where you separate the head of state from the head of government is actually preferable. And if anyone doubts that, just think of the situation of the United States: the fact that the President of the United States is simultaneously the head of the effective government, and the ceremonial representative of the country – is, I think, a really bad political structure. And in that sense, there’s certainly an argument to be said, for a non-political head of state. Whether it has to be a monarch or not, is a different question.

06:21 – Ginger Gorman

If we look around, though, Dennis, at the current state of world affairs, there’s so much polarisation, there’s so much political tyranny. And as you said, you’re a Republican. But if we just lob a grenade into this discussion for a moment, are monarchs perhaps sometimes seen as more trustworthy than political tyrants? And therefore, the public see them somehow as beneficial.

06:49 – Professor Dennis Altman

Oh, I think certainly, I mean, the great example in the last half century was what’s happened in Spain after the death of General Franco.

When Juan Carlos came to the throne, and against the expectations of Franco’s supporters, he was actually a strong supporter of transforming Spain into a liberal democracy. And I think there’s no question that his role was enormously significant.

The current challenge, that I think is most interesting for us in Australia, is whether the king of Thailand is going to be able to do the same thing in a country where the monarchy has huge overwhelming popular prestige, but also has an extraordinary amount of power that is clearly far beyond anything that liberal democracy would see as appropriate.

So I think that if one looks at the countries that have retained monarchies, there is a sense in which people value the stability, in which people identify the monarch as standing for the country in a way that no politician actually is able to do.

08:05 – Ginger Gorman

Thailand’s an interesting one. My dad’s work as a diplomat took us to Thailand when I was a teenager. And like that visit to Buckingham Palace, my mum recalls the pomp and ceremony that the Thai royal family commanded.

08:20 – Ginger’s mum

The Thais go on their knees in front of the princess when she stopped. She was walking around greeting people. They did not expect the foreigners to go down on their knees. But every Thai that talked to her or she approached, went down on their knees for the duration of the conversation, and until she moved on, they didn’t get up.

08:44 – Ginger Gorman

And how did that make you feel as someone that would never treat the British Royals in that way yourself, to watch this going on in a country that’s not your home country?

08:56 – Ginger’s mum

I found it interesting. I didn’t find it confronting because the foreigners like ourselves, of course, the Australians, the Brits, were not expected to go down on their knees. I just found it rather than interesting. To me of course, it’s a humiliating sort of sight. But I mean, you’re a guest in that country. So yes, you abide by the rules.

09:26 – Ginger Gorman

And in the case of Thailand, defying the rules can lead to harsh punishment.

09:30 – Audio from news story

Many of these protesters I think 175 have had arrest warrants issued against them. Some of the charges carry seven years in jail, some of them even life imprisonment.

09:40 – Ginger Gorman

This year, a Thai woman was jailed for 43 years for criticising the royal family.

09:46- Audio from news story

But traditionally, tides have always felt you simply, it’s almost sacred. You simply can’t touch it. But there’s a new king in Thailand…


Thailand remains a case where the monarch embodies almost supernatural powers or respect. I think that the interesting contrast in Asia is of course with Japan. After the defeat of Japan in World War Two, the Americans decided to retain the Emperor, even though they’d spent four years blasting him as a war criminal. They actually retained him. But the Japanese constitution deprived him of all political power. And the Japanese Emperor, therefore, is purely a symbolic role.

But he also embodies to some extent, certain spiritual and national beliefs. Now, it may well be that that gives a sense of continuity and national identity that you wouldn’t have had had the American Society on a different postwar structure.

And I think if we look at the countries in Europe, the smaller countries that retained monarchs, what’s striking is that republican movements are small, and on the whole without much support. The one exception is Spain, where the separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country are both separatists and Republican.

11:12 – Ginger Gorman

I’m interested in whether, according to your research, the public trust in monarchies is increasing or decreasing, as the public’s trust in politics decreases. What is actually happening there?

11:29 – Professor Dennis Altman

I think that’s a very important question Ginger. Of course, I don’t have I haven’t got access to the latest public opinion polls in every country that has a monarchy.

But as far as I can tell, there is remarkably consistent support for monarchies in the countries of Western Europe with as I’ve said, some exceptions in Spain.

I think there is almost universal support for the monarchy in Japan.

In Thailand it’s become very complicated because the democracy movement are very critical of the current King. But so far as saying they want a constitutional monarchy: they don’t want to overthrow the ruling dynasty, they want to reform it.

I think then, if we go to the countries like Australia, and as I said before, there is something like 15 or 16 other countries like us, who have retained the British sovereign as a head of state. What is fascinating is how slowly public opinion has changed.

Certainly public opinion polls in Australia and in Canada, I think also New Zealand, all suggest that there is basically quite strong support for the monarchy. And I think that people support it essentially for the reason your suggestion: there is a growing distrust of politicians. There is a growing sense that therefore, we don’t want to change a system that in any way might give greater power to elected politicians.

13:13 – Ginger Gorman

Another thing I find fascinating about constitutional monarchies is how obsessed we are with them. Magazines ride on the back of their personal miseries, when they marry their weddings are broadcast and millions of people watch. It’s estimated that around 2.5 billion people, including me, tuned into the broadcast of Princess Diana’s funeral. So the question is, are we happy to put the discomfort of classism and inherited power to one side, for the sake of celebrity?

13:45 – Professor Dennis Altman

You know, one of the things I write about in God Save the Queen is the way in which the royal families of the world have become super celebrities, but are actually more than celebrities.

And I think they’re more than celebrities because essentially they continue generation after generation and we grow up with them.

So anybody in Australia, there are very few of us now still alive after all, who couldn’t really remember anything other than Queen Elizabeth, but most of us, however young or old we are, are very conscious of the succeeding generations. You referred to Princess Diana, but of course before Princess Diana, there were all the scandals around Princess Margaret. After Princess Diana, there are the current scandals around Prince Harry and Megan.

I think that the immersion in that ongoing soap opera is something that people actually like it.

In fact, it’s interesting how much people in non-monarchical countries get caught up in it.

Have a look at the popular press in France. The coverage of royalty in a number of French magazines is quite extraordinary. There is this obsession – I think you’ll find the same thing the United States – a great interest in following royal antics.

And what’s interesting is, of course, that they get away with almost everything.

Now, there are limits. Juan Carlos for Spain, whom I talked about earlier unfortunately, in his latter life became extremely corrupt had to leave Spain and is now living in exile in the Emirates.

Prince Andrew, as we know, has been basically expunged from the royal family because of sexual scandals. But essentially the families continue and I think people are very tolerant of them.

So if they “marry out”, you know, that is they marry someone who is not royal, that’s just another frisson in this ongoing drama that we all live with.

Ginger Gorman – Why are we so obsessed with them? I mean, I just can’t understand it.

Professor Dennis Altman – The issue here is that you didn’t grow up in Australia. I think that if you’ve grown up in a country in which the royal family was constantly before us in the news, they become for many people, a surrogate family. I mean, I talked about in the book, the way in which there’s research that shows how frequently people have dreams about the queen.

Now, I will admit, that I, to my best of my knowledge, have never dreamt about the Queen even while I was writing about. But apparently many people do. And I think I’d find the same is true in most countries.

16:32 – Ginger Gorman

The tension here is that monarchies are supposed to be above the people, but their popularity also rests with us believing in some way that they are also of the people. How does that work in practice?

16:45 – Professor Dennis Altman

Look, I think that that tension is in the end, irresoluble. I mean, you know, royal families can pretend to be like everybody else. And we all know stories of the queen of the Netherlands going and doing her shopping, or the King of Sweden driving to work in his own car.

But the reality is that, in the most egalitarian and democratic of constitutional monarchies, possibly Norway would be the prime example, the royal family still has access to considerable wealth, the royal family has access to huge prestige. I don’t think, for example, that however much, the king and queen of Norway might portray themselves as equivalent to everybody else, they stand in the same lines that you and I would stand in to get into a concert.

So in a sense, of course, royalty is the apex of a non-egalitarian structure. It’s most obvious in countries where there’s a great deal of panoply around them: Britain, Thailand, are probably the two that I would think of.

But even in the most democratic of countries, you can’t actually deny the reality that to retain a royal family is to retain some sense of inherited importance and interest and prestige.

18:14 – Ginger Gorman

They are maintaining a class system effectively, even if, like when I lived in the Netherlands, it was classic that, you know, the Queen would ride around on her bike and get milk and so forth. There’s still a sense of class there.

18:27 – Professor Dennis Altman

Oh, absolutely. And of course, the Dutch royal family are one of the wealthiest royal families in the world. I think the difference is the queen can choose to go on the bike to get milk; other people don’t have that choice.

But of course, if we look at countries that don’t have monarchies, it’s hard to argue that they somehow have less of a class system. In the United States look at the number of senators, for example, who are millionaires. So I think, yes, I find the feudal remnants of monarchy somewhat objectionable, but I think they’re probably no more objectionable than oligarchies anywhere else in the world.

19:08 – Ginger Gorman

The argument has even been made that if Germany still had a monarchy after World War One, Hitler may not have risen to power.

19:17 – Professor Dennis Altman

I think I quote Ernest Bevin, as the British Foreign Secretary, interestingly, a labour Foreign Secretary as suggesting that.  I’m not sure. I mean, the reality is that the German Kaiser after world war one when he fled to the Netherlands was such an impossible, autocratic, deeply anti Semitic figure, that it’s hard to believe that if he or his descendants had retained the throne, much would have changed.

I think it is possible to make to make an argument which, as I say, Bevin did, George Orwell did, that a constitutional monarchy, had it been in place, might have prevented some of the worst excesses. Having said that – Mussolini came to power initially with the full support of the Italian King. In fact, the Italian monarchy collapsed after World War Two, essentially because the king had been a supporter of Mussolini’s. So I think we have to be very careful about making these sorts of suggestions.

20:23 – Ginger Gorman

Although there is an argument that you’re making in the book that constitutional monarchies do offer a sort of break on authoritarian politicians, in some cases.

20:35 – Professor Dennis Altman

Yes, I think that when they work – when the person on the throne is smart enough to know, the limits and the possibilities, I think that that is possibly true. I think that you know, Queen Elizabeth, in a sense has been a great model for that as has the current Queen of Denmark.

I think that what we’re seeing today with the growing polarisation and distrust of politicians, is that in some cases, monarchies are actually becoming more powerful. And the classic case in our region is Malaysia, where, in the last few months, the collapse of the Malaysian government and the installation of a new prime minister, saw the king play a much more important and central role than it had been imagined was the role of the king in previous Malaysian changes of government.

So yes, there is, I think, a case to be made. But I would make it carefully. And as I said before, cause and correlation are not the same thing.

21:45 – Ginger Gorman

So if we look to the future with that example, in mind, will there be less or more formal models of monarchy, in your opinion?

21:58 – Professor Dennis Altman

Well, I think it depends where we’re speaking. And, you know, we are speaking now in Australia. I think that what we need to talk about is how do we live with a system where we theoretically have a constitutional monarchy, but in practice, we don’t.

One of the things that people seem to always overlook in our case, is that our effective head of state is the Governor General who represents the queen, but effectively has the powers of a sovereign. Limited power: certainly, much more limited after John Kerr’s dismissal of wisdom. But the striking thing about our system is that the Prime Minister alone gets to pick the Governor General.

Now, Boris Johnson does not get to pick the sovereign to whom he or theoretically is answerable. And I think that glitch in our system, the enormous power that it gives to a prime minister to name the head of state, is absolutely absurd. I don’t think having said that, that we’re going to see a rapid move to republicanism in Australia. Because I think as I’ve said before, there is such distrust of politicians that if asked the question, I suspect most people will say, don’t change it. It’s not broken.

23:18 – Ginger Gorman

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. If you’re enjoying the podcast make sure you check out our website for more content like articles and videos on the amazing work of Australia’s leaders in the social sciences.

Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester engineered by Mark Gargeldonk, aka Baldy, and executive produced by Sue White and Bonnie Johnson. It’s an initiative of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

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