“Political activity is no doubt necessary in a democracy, but it must not encompass everything that people do, personally or collectively.”

Spain is still dumb with surprise. Last June 2, King Juan Carlos I, after eighteen and a half years on the throne, unexpectedly announced he would step down. His abdication was made effective on June 18 with the requisite law voted by both Houses of the Cortes, the Spanish Congress. That very day and before the same Cortes, his son was solemnly sworn in as the new King, with the title Felipe VI.

Spain’s new King

As a political and economic historian, these events have opened a floodgate of memories in me. The Spanish royal family has been a part of the life of my family ever since I can remember. As a university student and lecturer I got in trouble with the police and the courts for wanting to substitute a liberal monarchy for the Franco regime. I have a vivid memory of the moment when, with Franco just buried, Juan Carlos was crowned before the Cortes on November 22, 1975. Franco had overseen the education of the Prince and had chosen him as his heir to ensure continuation of his rule beyond his demise. Young Juan Carlos I, on succeeding his mentor, was vested with virtually the same powers as the old dictator, but just in case, Franco had left him with his own Prime Minister in charge. But the new King soon became his own man and dismissed the inherited government. By 1978, Spain had a democratic constitution. Another poignant memory of mine involves the way in which in 1981 Juan Carlos successfully and by sheer weight of authority put down the anti-democratic coup of some old style officers. By 1986, Spain had been accepted in what today is the European Union. There followed many years of progress and prosperity. Thus, in the first thirty years of his reign, Juan Carlos I successfully steered Spain towards becoming a full member of the civilized world. My youthful hopes of seeing freedom restored in my country were being realized.

For more information, see European Union, by Marian L. Tupy in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

But then the Crown started to lose its luster. In 2007 the real estate bubble burst and the Great Recession struck. Growth stalled and then receded. Firms began to fall in droves. Unemployment increased hugely. Savings banks went bankrupt and the other half of the financial sector had to be rescued. A conservative government, elected to pull the country out of recession, imposed a severe tax increase instead of drastically reducing state expenditures. Widespread corrupt practices were uncovered. The size of the protest vote in the recent European elections shows just how far confidence in government has waned.

Then scandal hit the royal family. First, one of the King’s sisters and her husband were arraigned for tax fraud and money laundering. It was even suggested in the press that King Juan Carlos could have been party to some of these deals. Then, in the midst of the crisis, the King had to be hauled from Malawi, where he had broken a hip on an elephant shoot. The public loves an elephant. There also was anger at such a pleasure trip when everybody was having to tighten their belts. Worse yet was the revelation of the company he had kept on this holiday: an Austrian belle whose role was to arrange business for Spanish corporations with clients in the Gulf, where the King has many friends. Juan Carlos’ love affairs had never before been discussed in public, mainly out of respect for Queen Sophia, who always behaved with admirable restraint. This time it was too much. The story and the photos hit the news. Juan Carlos felt he had to take the extraordinary step of apologizing to the Spanish people. His continued poor health must also have sapped his will to stay on the throne.

Nothing had been prepared for an abdication, except that there was a capable heir ready to take over. The last thing Spain needed in its present fraught situation was uncertainty about who presides over the State and even less a long battle about replacing the monarchy with a republic. The transition was unexpectedly smooth. Both Conservatives and Socialists backed it with their votes. The new King Felipe is young. His education includes a law degree, commissions with the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force and a Master’s degree from Georgetown. His Queen Letizia is a divorced journalist and they have two lovely daughters. To avoid discussion over the place of the Church in Spain there was no crucifix by the crown and scepter when Parliament swore him in. Among the first people he received in audience was the Association of Gays, Lesbians, Transvestites and Transsexuals. King Felipe is even trying to build bridges between Catalan nationalists and the rest of Spain, to help avoid the country breaking up. Whatever the disquiet among Conservatives, the change of image is shrewd and is attuned to the new Spain of the 21st century.

The other monarchs

There are no less than ten democracies in Europe at whose head is a monarch. The full list will surprise many: the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and of course Spain. And there also are some crowned democracies in the rest of the world, such as Japan and some of the members of the British Commonwealth.

These years have seen a revival of the fortunes of the crowned democracies of Europe, with a general move to open the door to the younger generation. In April of 2013, the beloved Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated and Willem-Alexander was proclaimed King. His popularity has jumped, no doubt helped by his Queen Máxima, whom the Dutch say they find fascinating.

Less than three months later, King Albert II of Belgium abdicated in favor of his quiet and retiring son Philippe of Brabant. Albert had shown signs of exhaustion with his efforts to keep his country together despite the perpetual nationalist tensions between Flemish and Walloons. Philippe and his wife Mathilde have seen their popularity double, even among the Flemish who seek independence or want to join the Dutch. His is an example Felipe VI of Spain must be trying to emulate in the matter of nationalist tensions between the Catalans and the rest of Spain.

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, now seventy-four, famously declared on reaching seventy that she “did not intend to abdicate or quit smoking”, so she must feel the monarchy is safe there. As to King Harald of Norway, he is not in good health but no matter: both he and his heir Haakon enjoy popularity indices over 90 percent. And, if you watch the Nobel Prize ceremonies, you will have noticed how happy in his role King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden is—and how happy his people are that he is there to play it.

And I have no need to say anything of the place of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in her subjects’ hearts! A single detail will suffice: Alex Salmond, the Chief Minister of Scotland, who wants Scotland to be independent, has promised he would keep the Queen as the head of the new state. All this must look strange to American eyes? Be that as it may, crowned democracies seem to endure.

The knowledgeable are wont to present a constitutional monarch as a quaint figure with no political use. Questions keep being asked, especially in a country like Spain, gripped as it is by egalitarianism. Does it make sense to top a democracy with a monarch? Is it not a contradiction to combine the hereditary principle at the top with the electoral principle below?

The uses of monarchy

It was no doubt lucky for Spain in its present perilous circumstances that the changeover at the top happened without a hiccup, especially when there seem to be so few true monarchists around and society after the recession is in a fractious mood. People abhor a vacuum at the top. Historians remember the “Great Panic” that swept France after the beheading of Louis XVI. Paris seemed to have taken it in stride, but in the provinces communal life came to a halt. Even today, many would have felt alarm, if not panic, at the deposition of Felipe VI. The left would have welcomed it, no doubt, but conservatives would have seen it as the starting shot for revolutionary change—not the best development at this delicate moment of slow economic recovery.

A first explanation for the relief felt at the enthronement of Felipe VI could be the simple one of inertia. If this is meant to imply that people do not care a whit who is at the head of the state, the explanation is clearly wrong. One should rather speak of tradition, whatever that mysterious word may mean. In many crowned democracies the monarchy plays the same symbolic role as the Constitution in the United States: I mean a dignified role, not an efficient role, to follow Walter Bagehot’s apt distinction. I will have more to say about the book Bagehot published in 1867 with the title The English Constitution.1 At this point I want to note that he was right in underlining the representative role of the Crown, embodied in his time in the person of Victoria Regina, the name she used in her official signatures. She was a symbol, a much needed element in attracting the allegiance of the people to the abstract machinery of government.

In the case of Spain, tradition is embodied in the very title of the King, the sixth of the name of Felipe. The romantic side of my historical avocation comes to the fore when I think of some of his forebears of the same name: of Felipe II who built El Escorial and whose Armada the Dutch and the English (thankfully) routed; or of Felipe IV, the patron of Rubens, his magnificent ambassador, and Velazquez, his masterly portraitist; or of Felipe V, the first of the Bourbon dynasty, who fought the War of Spanish Succession and opened the Age of Enlightenment. Still, many people do not have an ‘historical ear’ by which I mean they lack a ‘musical ear’ for the vibrations of history. So there must be other reasons.

If tradition does not move the masses, pageantry does. But it is pageantry of a special kind. It allows people personally to relate to the pomp and glory of the state. The public and the media show an interest in queens, kings and their families that verges on fascination. This interest cannot be attributed to mere snobbery, a feeling that perhaps moves the courting elite but not ordinary people. As Bagehot observed,

… a family on the throne is an interesting idea […]. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life. [Thus,] a princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind.

We ordinary people love to see our pride, our happiness or our sorrow personified:

[A] Royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events. It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to ‘men’s bosoms’ and employ their thoughts. (Bagehot, page 104)

I am sure many of my readers have watched The Queen, the film by Stephen Frears. There you saw the English monarchy endangered because Elizabeth II did not seem to understand the outpouring of popular feeling at the death of Princess Diana. The Queen must have said to herself: ‘One’ does not show one’s feelings with so little restraint; and ‘One’ need not publicly mourn the death of a young member of one’s family, especially if deceased in such embarrassing circumstances. Tony Blair, of course, was right to convince his Queen to change her attitude and to take the lead of the mourning procession. That is how we the vulgar react, sometimes excessively, other times appropriately as with the wedding of Kate and William, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and now the progress of their toddler son.

A King’s political role

Despite his not exercising any political powers a constitutional king can have a political role that may prove crucial in difficult times. As Bagehot perceptively noted for the Britain of his era,

… the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. (Bagehot, page 139)

This is something Felipe VI seems to have taken immediately to heart. The Prime Minister, Se˜or Rajoy, is regularly received in audience to run over the affairs of government. Philip may be still too young and inexperienced to help much with his advice but the consultation with him will have a sharp edge, since he knows that, if the affairs of the nation do not start mending, his throne may be in danger. Unjustly perhaps, public opinion seems to expect that he will help to right the ship of State, buffeted as it is by contrary winds. This is true even of the radical left and the Catalan and Basque nationalists, who paradoxically want him to usher and ease the breakup of the ancient monarchy that has kept Spain together since 1469.

To understand his plight I will recall the book of another thinker who, you may be surprised, has much to say to a king of the present age: Niccolò Machiavelli. In The Prince,2 written five centuries ago almost to the day but published only after his death in 1531, Machiavelli distinguishes three kinds of principalities: hereditary, new and mixed. Hereditary principalities are easier to keep than new. The prince who heads a state by descent has the simpler task; he need only avoid too much innovation and weather the storms that may come his way.

The prince of a new state on the contrary is always in danger of losing it for, as a newcomer, he will find it difficult to attract the love and obtain the obedience of his people, says Machiavelli. Now, do not mistake me. The methods of government sometimes proposed by the Secretary of the Florentine Republic for new princes are not fit for a Western democracy, be it crowned or not. The passages of The Prince which Felipe VI might find instructive are not those where Machiavelli praised the behavior of Cesare Borgia or of Pope Julius II, for their cruelty to their opponents or their lack of faith in their promises. On the contrary, he should read those pages explaining how a new prince can come to be regarded as an old sovereign, “with good laws, good arms, good allies, and good example”. (Machiavelli, Chapter XXIV)

True, Felipe VI has inherited his throne; but many in Spain see him as something of an upstart with no right to lord over them. So, the model and duties of a mixed principality are the ones that best fit the estate to which he has acceded. He cannot imitate his father King Juan Carlos I, who came to the throne with much ‘Machiavellian’ ability, if I may say so in a positive sense. Juan Carlos first obtained the full confidence of General Franco but then managed to undo the Old Regime by bringing all parties, right, left and center, to agree to the establishment of a crowned democracy. Felipe VI, I am sure, is aware that heredity is not a right easily accepted by doctrinaire democrats. He has to bring politicians over to his side and conquer the loyalty of his people. He must start by helping rid Spain of some of the blemishes that spoiled the last years of his father’s reign.

Felipe’s personal behavior and that of his Queen must appear blameless in the eyes of his subjects. Bagehot wrote that the example of Queen Victoria led the British people

[…] to believe that it is natural to have a virtuous sovereign, and that the domestic virtues are as likely to be found on thrones as they are eminent elsewhere. But a little experience and less thought show that royalty cannot take little credit for domestic excellence. (Bagehot, page 118)

The Spanish people, tired of scandals, seem to want the same of their new sovereigns, Felipe VI and Queen Letizia. There is a great deal of anger in the country about the degree of corruption in political parties and trade unions and even the Royal Household uncovered during the crisis. It is clear that that there will be none of the indulgence that shielded the father in the first part of his reign.

One favorable trait of Felipe’s character is the seriousness with which he takes his duties. Bagehot noted that “a king, to be the equal of his ministers in discussion, must work as they work; he must be a man of business as they are men of business.” (page 91) However, the danger lurks “that a constitutional prince is the man who is most tempted to pleasure, and the least forced to business.” In sum, it is clear that Felipe VI must be seen to behave well and work hard.

The antidote to ‘republicanism’

Whether Felipe VI endures and his eldest daughter succeeds him in good time on the Spanish throne future generations will tell. I have listed the many reasons for not breaking the tradition of crowning democracies where that tradition exists. However, before closing my reflections on this most peculiar of institutions, I want to throw light on an unnoticed contribution of kings and queens to the healthy functioning of democracies.

Monarchy has another positive contribution to make, especially to democracy in lands given to excessive political strife or administrative intrusion. Political activity is no doubt necessary in a democracy, but it must not encompass everything that people do, personally or collectively. In that sense politics could be likened to a nuclear power plant. These can be very useful installations but their reactor has to be placed in containment buildings with thick walls and their refrigerating system kept well insulated from the atmosphere.

There are many people, especially on the left, who believe that everything in a society is political and that all common decisions have to be taken ‘democratically’ by majority vote, from the conduct of corporations and the management of churches, to the working of schools and the organization of opera houses. Experience shows that if everything is politicized and becomes the object of ideological deliberation, the atmosphere of a society becomes suffocating and prone to explosive accidents.

Political democracy is based on the realization that there is no common system of values accepted by everyone. In matters that are not as divisible as they are in the economic sphere, political decisions imply imposing majority solutions on dissenting minorities. The more restricted the sphere of politics the larger the scope for differences in tastes, ways of life, moral beliefs, all uncurtailed by power. Neither religion, nor education, culture, sport, nor family life should be ruled by majority voting. Democracy is not a continuous plebiscite on all social or personal matters but only a useful procedure for a restricted number of communal decisions. Democracy must be limited or it soon becomes totalitarian.

The virtue of parliamentary monarchy is precisely that the King symbolizes everything that lies outside politics in a civilized society. If the succession to the highest office of state is automatic and if the Sovereign can take no political decisions, citizens in countries given to social tension or political busy-bodying can come to understand that the greatest part of their personal and social life should not be invaded by politics but devolved to the private sphere.

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In September 1990, Queen Elizabeth II made Pedro Schwartz an Honorary Officer of the British Empire.


Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company: 1872.) Online at Internet Archive.

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1531): Il Principe. Giuliano Procacci and Sergio Bertelli, eds.: Il Principe e Discorsi sopra la prima decca di Tito Livio. Feltrinelli, 1984. Machiavelli’s book is also available as a pdf file at Il Principe. L. Arthur Burd, ed., with an introduction by Lord Acton. Online Library of Liberty.


*Pedro Schwartz is “Rafael del Pino” Research Professor of at San Pablo University in Madrid where he directs the Center for Political Economy and Regulation. A member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Madrid, he is a frequent contributor to the European media on the current financial and social scene.

For more articles by Pedro Schwartz, see the Archive.