Royals: More Than a Fairy Tale

Royals: More Than a Fairy Tale
What kind of role do monarchies play in our world, so utterly rational and unromantic? Radio Sputnik is discussing it with Lars Hovbakke Sørensen, expert in European monarchies.

X-mas time is always about a bit of magic, of a fairy tale with Kings and queens, and brave princes marrying beautiful princesses… In fact, fairy tale is so many are craving for. That might explain why hundreds of millions get glued to their TVs to watch a royal marriage live, or why stories of a newborn royal offspring make the best-selling news…

However, it appears that there is so much more about monarchies and royals, than simply entertaining the public…

Says expert in European monarchies Lars Hovbakke Sørensen, Lecturer in History at Copenhagen University:

In most Western European countries we have monarchies, like in Denmark, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium etc. In these countries the monarch is also playing a role in connection to the formation of the new government, for instance. He is signing the laws. And when a new government should be formed, after an election he as a monarch plays a role where the party leaders realize the will of the monarch – the queen or the king – and he is part of the negotiations about forming the government. And since he actually plays a political role, even if it is primarily a formal political role and he does not have an influence on the policy, it is also an important thing – this connection between the head of state and the political system with the government and the parliament.

But still, do you see it more as a PR role or do they have influence in the economic matters, for instance?

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: They only have an indirect influence. But you can say that a word by a monarch, by a king or a queen, when he or she is giving a speech, it is a very important role. It is something which people and politicians are listening to. And for instance, the New Year speech of the Danish Queen is something which almost everybody is watching on television on the 31st of December. The monarch also has a role as a person who gives the general advices to the politicians, as well as to the ordinary people about how to behave and what should we focus on in the year to come. So, therefore, even if the monarch is not having a direct influence on the politicians and the people, indirectly she or he means a lot.

Is there a political difference between the old European monarchies and the younger European monarchies? 

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: Yes, there is a difference between the older and younger monarchies in the Western Europe. Generally speaking, you have a larger public support for the older monarchies. For instance, in the UK and in Denmark, here you have a larger percentage of the population supporting the monarchy and only a small minority or republicans. While in Spain, for instance, where the monarchy has played a political role and there has been a republic in some of the years in the 20th century, and then they returned to monarchy, here the support for the monarchy as an institution is not so strong, because you have other historical experiences and the monarchs have been involved in a lot of political fights during the 19th and 20th century.

And you could also say that you have more authority connected to an older monarchy, than to a newer one. It is fascinating, a lot of people think, that you have had the same family on the throne for one thousand years in Denmark, for instance. You can say that we have a lot of history connected to the UK monarchy, because it is also old. So, in that sense there is a large difference.

And there has been a recent trend of monarchs abdicating in favor of their offspring during their lifetime. Is it indicative of anything?

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: Yes, you can say that the main reason why we have a monarchy today is because it nourishes the nation’s and the state’s history. And therefore you have more success if you are an old monarchy with the same family on the throne for many centuries, than if you are a newer monarchy. And also, if you are a monarch who has been reigning for a lot of years, as for instance Queen Elizabeth in the UK and Queen Margrethe II in Denmark, these are the two examples of persons who have been in office for many-many years.

Here you also have the idea of the old and wise king or a queen. A lot of people think that the head of state is some kind of a cult for them, especially young people, they are fascinated by our old wise queen in Denmark. And that also means a lot.

But then, why would certain royals chose to leave the throne during their lifetime?

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: This has to do with traditions. Different nations have different traditions. In the Netherlands, for instance, you have a tradition where the queen or the king is abdicating before he or she dies. That is a tradition which has existed for many decades and many centuries now. In Denmark, for instance, and in Sweden, and in the UK you have other traditions, namely that you should be staying on throne until you die. If you take Denmark, we have to go back to the year 1523 before we find an example of the king who has left the throne before he died. So, that is a very-very long tradition and, therefore, also in the future you will see that the Dutch kings and queens will abdicate, while the Danish will not.

It is so interesting! I'm sure not many people knew that.

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: I think you are right!

But when we are talking of monarchies, when we look into history, we know that most European monarchies have very deep links between them. I mean, there’ve been family connections. Does it help their countries, perhaps, when they run into some kinds of problems in the bilateral and multilateral relations?

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: I think before it meant a lot, until the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Today it is not a very important thing – the family ties between the different monarchies, because they play this very limited political role today. But of course, it means something. And in our sense it means that when you have a big event or a party for the family, then you invite the royal persons from other countries, because you are a royal family. And that means that the people and the nations around you, they have a feeling of belonging to each other through their monarchs, so to speak. They think that there is something fascinating about the fact that the Danish Queen is a cousin to the Swedish King and so on and so forth. So, it also creates an interest in Denmark, for instance, for the Swedish monarchy and thereby for the Swedish society in general. So, in that sense it plays a role.

I remember that several years ago when the Norwegian Prince married, like they put it, a commoner, when the Prince in the UK also preferred to marry a commoner that gave rise to many gossips and many arguments. But do I get it right that people in those countries actually tend to perceive it as a more positive sign than vice versa?

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: Yes, I think so. The thing is that the key to success for a monarchy today is actually make a balance between being traditional and being modern – to modernize in some ways and to keep the traditions in other ways. And therefore, you can say that the monarchies which are having the biggest success and the biggest support in the European populations are those which are, for instance, having a prince marrying an ordinary girl from another country, but not maybe necessarily a girl from his own country.

You can say that in Norway where the Crown Prince married a girl who came from Norway and who had a child in advance, that was a little bit too modern, maybe, for many Norwegians. And with that marriage you could say that the Norwegian royal family became a little bit too normal, they became a little bit too much as everybody else and that is not a good thing for a monarchy. Therefore, there was a lot of critical discussion about this marriage, while after some years it was more accepted because she did a good job as the wife of the Crown Prince. 

While, if you take the example of the UK where Prince Charles married Princess Diana and we had a lot of scandals and other things, and this tragic history of Diana’s death, in that case you can say that here maybe the Queen in the UK was too conservative. She became unpopular, because she was too conservative and had decided that her son should marry a certain person, instead of the person who he actually loved. And therefore, there was also a critical debate about the monarchy and the falling support for the UK monarchy for some years in the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, until William and Kate entered the scene and made the royal house popular again.

So, it is a question of having this balance and trying to keep that balance between modernizing and also keeping some of the traditions, instead of being extreme by either being too modern or too traditional.

In fact, since you’ve mentioned the British royals, I was quite amazed at people   saying that it really costs the nation quite a lot to support a royal family. But on the other hand, the British royals, as far as I know, are the richest royal family in the world. And the rest of the European Royals are not poor, either… 

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: You have this ongoing debate both in the UK and in other monarchies in the Western Europe about the costs and how much do we spend, and how much do we pay too the royal persons, and is it fair that the ordinary people pay taxes and by that support the rich families. But here I can say that you have some very concrete statistics about how much does a monarchy cost, but we don’t know exactly what income it gives to the country. So, that is also the reason why it is always a very-very hard and difficult discussion, because you can never prove that the royal house is a good thing for the country, because it makes the foreigners interested in your country and so on and so forth, and it creates a lot of tourism and so on and so forth.

So, therefore, we have this discussion all the time, but it is a discussion which doesn’t bring something fruitful to the society, because it is very hard to prove how many more tourists do we have in Denmark because we have a queen, compared to if we had a president. It is impossible to answer that question.

By the way, getting back to the British Queen, I remember her trip to the Pope. I suppose it was last year and everyone was left puzzled about why would the Queen, who is the head of the Church of England which does not recognize the Pope as the ultimate authority, go to Vatican.  

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: I think it has something to do with the fact that the British monarchy is a special one. It has always had the self-perception that it is something special and more than the other monarchies, and more important than the other monarchies in the Western Europe, because you had the old British Empire all over the world, and now we have the Commonwealth and the Queen is also the head of the Commonwealth. Therefore, she thinks that it is important to meet another leader of a large part of the world, so to speak, because the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and in that sense is the head of a lot of people, of millions of people all over the world.

And therefore, it is a natural thing and also a symbolic act for the British King or the Queen to visit the Pope, while it would be more strange than if a Spanish or a Danish one, or a Dutch one did the same thing. So, it is a question of also stressing that this royal house is something special, that the British monarchy is something special and, in that sense, it had a lot of effects, talking about publicity.

Precisely! But nevertheless, that visit was quite unprecedented. I suppose it was the first time the Queen went to meet the Pope — ever.

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: Yes, I think you are right! And of course, you can say it is strange, because the heads of the two different directions in the Christianity and two different churches, but, at the same time, they are also having something in common. Namely, what I've described before, that they are the heads of a lot of people around the world. And that’s what they have in common, first of all.

And besides, they are also two of the most powerful people in the global finance by the way, because the Vatican has so much financial power.

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: That’s right!

I think that the major reason for a very large success of the Western European monarchies today (and you can say that we have a rising success, as more and more people are supporting the monarchies in these years), I think that the major reason for this is that here we have an institution which is common for everybody in the nation. Today we have a lot of states in Europe where you have very mixed cultures and very mixed societies concerning religion, language, cultures of immigrants coming from abroad and so on and so forth. And we have a lot of different cultures in generations – the youth culture is something totally different from the older people’s culture and so on.

So, therefore, in this very inhomogeneous world we need something which can unite everybody. And that is exactly what the institution of monarchy can do – it can unite everybody in a nation, which in other senses is very much split today. And therefore, the monarchies are so important and they are having more and more importance for many people, because here you have something you can talk of with your neighbor and your cousin, and your friends, and your colleagues. Everybody knows who the royal persons are and they can relate to them, no matter if they are against them or in favor of the monarchy, but everybody knows them. And therefore, you have an institution which is special, compared with all the other institutions in the Western European society today.

That might explain why the Spanish preferred to restore their monarchy after Franco’s rule.

Lars Hovbakke Sørensen: Exactly! And that is also what we can see when we have this critical debate about the Spanish monarchy in the very recent years, that as soon as the monarch is behaving so that the people think that he is not having this role as the uniting person for the nation, then they become more critical of the institution. The most important role it has is to unite the nation in this modern inhomogeneous society we have today.

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