Forty four nations around the globe recognise a king or queen as their head of state, and all but a few of these are hereditary monarchies. Yet look around for an intellectual defence of the role of inheritance in government, and you have to go back to Hegel in the 18th Century.
Believers in hereditary government are instinctive and emotional but not apparently rational. Most Westerners would argue that one aspect of human progress is the gradual shift from absolutism towards democracy, and that the recent events of the Arab Spring demonstrate that the popular will towards the ballot box cannot be resisted. Republicanism is the inevitable future of the human race.
However, the same people who write off monarchies today were writing off family-owned companies yesterday. Only the market, they argued, can efficiently distribute scarce resources. Only a shareholder-owned company can harness financial and human capital effectively. Family firms, according to this view, are like monarchies – a stage in the evolution of capitalism which we will eventually leave behind.
The events of the last few years, however, have undermined the apparently unstoppable march of the joint stock company. Individual firms rampaged out of the control, as their executives lost any grip on the activities of employees, and the money invested by shareholders was in some cases completely lost.
“Individual firms rampaged out of the control, as their executives lost any grip on the activities of employees, and the money invested by shareholders was in some cases completely lost.”
Collectively, the markets demonstrated that they were not always effective and efficient at allocating resources. On the contrary, when not properly controlled and regulated, they pursued short-term greed and profit with no thought for the long-term consequences.
Only the intervention of governments and the injection of huge sums of taxpayers’ money saved the global financial system from collapse.
Family firms around the globe now offer a genuine alternative model which may yet play an important role in saving capitalism from itself.
In the same way, the limits of democracy are becoming more apparent. In countries without powerful checks and balances, the ballot box can be a short route to the tyranny of the majority. Or even worse, it can contain within it the seeds of its own destruction.
“In the same way, the limits of democracy are becoming more apparent. “
In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe began life as an elected politician; when he decided that he’d rather not subject himself to the will of the people, there was no force in his country powerful enough to stand against him. In South Africa, the African National Congress last month pushed through a Protection of State Information Bill, which the opposition parties have, not without justification, described as criminalising the ‘freedom that so many of our people fought for’.
Those countries in the Middle East that will now hold elections in the aftermath of the Arab Spring are also likely to face challenges, with the distinct possibility of Islamic parties being elected who are fundamentally hostile to basic democratic freedoms when they run counter to religious beliefs.
So there is a powerful case to be made for hereditary constitutional monarchs, with varying degrees of political and executive power, playing a role in nations making the transition to democracy.
In Spain, the successful shift from the tyranny of General Franco to the emergence of a truly modern democratic state owes a great deal to the role played by the restored monarchy. The massively respected King Bhumibol in Thailand has helped prevent his country from slipping into tyranny and chaos.
There is even a job for hereditary monarchies in Western nations with advanced democracies. America has in recent years created its own hereditary ruling families in the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons. Nations, it appears, need to see themselves as represented in the person of individuals.
In Britain, the monarchy looked into the republican abyss after the death of Princess Diana and drew back. Sir Anthony Jay, best known as the creator of Yes Minister, developed the concept of the Queen as the Head of the Nation in addition to her formal role as Head of State.
“In Britain, the monarchy looked into the republican abyss after the death of Princess Diana and drew back.”
The Queen’s website now claims both roles for her, and describes the former in these terms: ‘The Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service’.
No one is advocating a return to monarchical despotism. But perhaps the concept of a role for families in the governance of the nation, as well as in the governance of companies, is about to stage a rather surprising comeback.