In Support of Monarchy

I wrote this shortly after King Baudouin of the Belgians died unexpectedly on July 31, 1993. It was intended for an op-ed piece but was never published.

king-baudouinThe grotesque overexposure of the British royal scandals can lead American observers to see constitutional monarchy as a mere anachronism, a kind of perpetual soap opera without any serious function or purpose. And so it can become when the undignified escapades of self-centered dynasts degrade the bond between crown and people into something trivial or absurd. King Baudouin of the Belgians, who died on July 31, gave us an example of how worthwhile an un-Fergified monarchy can be.

Vesting supremacy in a king helps keep ambitious people from trying to seize it for themselves. In 1981, for example, some of the Spanish military attempted a coup d’état. King Juan Carlos saved his country’s freedom by insisting that the generals follow his orders and abandon the coup. And they did – they had taken their oath to him, and in the end they could not bring themselves to disobey him, because he was the King.

Just last year [1992] in Thailand a military-dominated government tried to appoint a general as prime minister. There were huge pro-democracy demonstrations, and the army responded by arresting and shooting demonstrators. An ugly showdown was imminent when King Bhumipol Adulyadej (Rama IX) summoned the leaders of both sides to the palace. They were both shown on television approaching the King on their knees and sitting together on the carpet at his feet. There was no talk of a showdown after that – instead the general resigned and an election was called.

Does a coup in Belgium seem far-fetched? Maybe that’s because of the monarchy. Of the most stable countries in Europe, the majority – Benelux, Scandinavia, Britain – are monarchies with foreign dynasties.

Constitutional monarchy cannot always protect a country from tyranny – by its nature it cannot save a willful people from themselves. But it sometimes works, which can be a great help. And even when it hasn’t worked at the beginning, it can still work at the end. In 1943, the day after Mussolini lost control of the Fascist Party, King Victor Emmanuel arrested him. Better late than never – and only the King could have done it. Similarly in 1945, only the authority of Emperor Hirohito could have compelled surrender and avoided another year or so of savage warfare.

Belgium is not a national state in the usual sense.  Since its founding in 1830 (when the southern Catholics rebelled against the Protestant majority in the Netherlands) it has been deeply divided into two almost irreconcilable communities – the Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons.  More than once Belgium has nearly come apart in violence.  But the Belgian kings – who being a German dynasty are neither Flemings nor Walloons – have worked tirelessly to present a common focus for their divided people.  King Baudouin used to say he was the “only Belgian.”  Last year [1992] Belgium was reorganized into a federation of three communities – Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels – a solution in which the King was deeply involved.  The federalization accords were ratified last month, and it looks as if Belgium will continue as a state.

Contrast the case of Czechoslovakia, where the two constituent communities could not see themselves as part of any unity. Almost as soon as Communism fell, Czechoslovakia split into two rather less viable states. The Czechoslovak President, Vaclav Havel, although a patriot of great moral stature, could not save his country. He was a Czech, and so he couldn’t be the “only Czechoslovak.” Even to the Slovaks who respected him he was still unavoidably one of the “others.” If Czechoslovakia had had a king of a foreign dynasty it might not have flown apart so easily.

A similar thing happened in Yugoslavia – once coercion was removed, the lack of a common focus of loyalty led promptly to dissolution. Even though the Kings of Yugoslavia were Serbs, if they were still reigning and set their authority and military supremacy against anarchy and genocide as firmly as Juan Carlos stood against the coup, the present catastrophe would probably not have happened.

In 1990 the Belgian parliament passed a law permitting abortion.  Belgium is a Catholic country and the people were deeply divided on this issue.  As a very serious Catholic, King Baudouin could not in good conscience sign the law, but as a committed constitutionalist he couldn’t block it, either.  So for one day he invoked the constitutional provision passing supremacy temporarily to the government when the King is “unable to govern,” and the law took effect without his signature.  By this dignified, honorable and scrupulously constitutional gesture the King took a position both sides could support, and again provided his people with a focus of unity.

King Baudouin had no children, and his brother Albert, Prince of Liège, was only three years younger than he.  Most people expected that when the time came Albert would pass the succession to his son Prince Philippe, and for the past few years Philippe had been publicly and deliberately presented as the King’s eventual successor.  But even though King Baudouin had been in poor health recently, no one expected him to die at 62.  When the moment suddenly came the Belgian government (and perhaps Prince Albert also) decided that Philippe, only 33, should wait.  A wise decision.  At the beginning of the federal experiment Belgium needs continuity in the monarchy – the occasion calls for a mature figure of substance and experience, an established personality, a familiar face, and a smooth transition to the legal heir.  Prince Albert was inaugurated on Monday as Albert II; everyone expects him to work as hard and effectively as his brother did to keep his country together.  The King is dead; long live the King!

When constitutional monarchy works well you hardly notice it. But watch out if you need it, and it’s gone.1

August 1993

  1. Postscript: In July 2013, after a reign of almost 20 years, Albert II abdicated in favor of his son Philippe. Although Belgium went through some difficult times constitutionally during Albert’s reign, it did not break into separate countries. King Albert had a lot to do with that result.