A State Visit to Britain by a foreign dignitary is a very special occasion. King Philip VI of Spain and his Queen Letizia have just been hosted in London by Queen Elizabeth II and Parliament for three days. I know, all those ceremonies look quaint when seen on television, but ceremony is an important part of life, especially in our proletarian times when no ties and crumpled jeans are becoming de rigueur. Further, and this is the point of my column, the pageant in democratic monarchies shows how deeply the role of kings and queens has changed with the spread of democracy in Europe and how important this new role is for a healthy social life. Perhaps, as the historian that I am, I am more sensitive than most to solemn celebrations of links with the past, but I think there is more to such ceremony than a mere recalling of ancient times. Monarchy is one of the ways of reminding us of the unimportance of politics in everyday life.

King Felipe, as we call him in Spanish, is the sixth of his name. His predecessor, Philip the Fifth, started his reign as far back as 1700 and was a fond enemy of then Queen Anne of England. Our two countries faced each other in the “War of Spanish Succession;” the English did not want a French king on the Spanish throne. Today the Queen of England and the King of Spain treat each other as cousins. How the situation has changed… except for one small spot? In 1706 during that same War, the English occupied Gibraltar, a fortress at the southern tip of the Spanish Peninsula, across from Morocco. The British have kept Gibraltar ever since and the Spanish haver never ceased claiming it back through fair means and foul. Would Philip VI mention the Spanish claim on Gibraltar in his speech to Parliament, was the question posed by the British media? More of this anon, but thus do small stones in the shoes of statesmen disturb the even pace of solemn processions.

The last state visit by a Spanish king to the United Kingdom took place in 1986, when Juan Carlos, the father of the present king, was given a royal welcome. That state visit was especially important at the time because democracy in Spain still looked fragile. The Mother of Parliaments gave Juan Carlos a precious accolade. Juan Carlos had done good service on the throne. I well remember how relieved I was the night of the 11th of February 1981 when I saw Juan Carlos on the TV screen in his full uniform as Head of the Armed Forces, telling the rebellious officers of the army and police in no uncertain terms to lay down their arms and return to their barracks: the coup failed, and he thus saved the Constitution and democracy. The end of his reign was perhaps less glorious. He resigned in favour of his son on account of an elephant and a blonde. The elephant he shot in Botswana, bang in the middle of the grave economic crisis his people were suffering; the lady was an Austrian beauty who acted as a business go-between for Middle Eastern sheikdoms.

Those of my readers who know London will remember the wide avenue that goes straight from Trafalgar Square and Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace. On state visits, the Household Cavalry in their gleaming cuirasses take the carriages with guests and hosts to Buckingham Palace. As always, it was a sight to be seen, with the Spanish flags and the Union Jacks fluttering in the wind along the red carriageway. The drive ended with tea at the Palace offered to her guests by the Queen. The English newspapers noticed that Felipe, after kissing Queen Elizabeth’s hand gave her a peck on the cheek, as the third cousins once removed that they are. The Queen also made Felipe a foreign Knight of the Order of the Garter founded by King Henry III in 1348. You may remember the fetching details of the origin of that Order. A garter of Joan “the fair Maid of Kent” fell to her ankle while dancing with her first cousin Henry III. The king picked it up and gallantly put it round his thigh. A titter went round the Court. And the King pronounced the words that to this day are the motto of the Order: “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, ‘Shame be who evil thinks’.

Brexit again

King Felipe’s speech the next day before the assembled Lords and Commons in Parliament also went rather well. At this point we must begin to go beyond ceremony and get down to brass tacks. The soon-to-come separation of the United Kingdom and the European Union is complicating the relations between Spain and Britain in more than one way. The first is the reappearance of a border between Gibraltar and Spain. The other is the uncertainty around the very large trade, investment, and personal relations between Spain and Britain.

Gibraltar is a small enclave of 2.6 square miles and some 30,000 inhabitants at the door, so to speak, of the Mediterranean Sea. It has a land border with Spain and is separated from Morocco by a mere ten miles of sea. While the United Kingdom was a full member of the European Union, the border between the Rock and the Spanish hinterland was quite porous. There were searches at the gate for contraband tobacco and marijuana but every working day about 7,000 Spaniards and another 5,000 Moroccan residents crossed the Gate to their employment on the Rock. The fact that the governments of Spain and Gibraltar are not on speaking terms allowed many of those workers to claim unemployment benefits in Spain and then draw a wage for the work they do on the Rock. Gibraltar also prospers as a tax haven and financial centre. Many of the executives of the companies domiciled on the Rock return to their homes on the Spanish mainland every evening, as space is at less of a premium on the British side of the border. What will happen after Brexit is anybody’s guess. The Treaty of 1713, whereby Gibraltar was ceded to the British, gives Spain the veto on any arrangement that does not include her. So the Spanish want to establish twin sovereignty over the Rock, British and Spanish. The British cannot forget the crucial role played by Gibraltar in World War II. Together with Malta, the island lying between Italy and Tunis that the Italians and the Germans could never conquer, Gibraltar kept the Mediterranean open for the convoys supplying British Egypt when North Africa was in the hands of Fascists and Nazis. Franco never gave in to the temptation of conquering the Rock for Hitler, in fear of British and American reprisals. So Gibraltar is part of the folklore memory of the British. An overwhelming majority of the ‘Llanitos“, as the Gibraltarians call themselves, refuse to be considered as anything but British. But in the Brexit Referendum 96% of them voted to stay in Europe; the vote in Britain went against their wishes. They now are in a pickle.1

Before his speech in the hallowed halls of the UK Parliament, King Felipe was warned there was a danger that some MPs and Lords would walk out if he claimed Spanish sovereignty over Gibraltar or denounced its anachronistic status as a colony, as he had done in the UN General Assembly. He contented himself with saying that the problem should be talked over, so that The Times was able to headline on its first page: “Spanish couple offer warm words on Gibraltar”.

Indeed, there were more things to be celebrated about this meeting of royal houses. It increased the chances that the economic and social ties between the United Kingdom and Spain would not be harmed by the British leaving the European Union. In 2015 Spanish exports to Britain were worth £25 billion and British exports to Spain worth £14.8 billion. The heads of a hundred Spanish companies were in the king’s party and could be seen round the table at the Mansion House dinner in the City. The royal couple’s plane touched down at Luton Airport, which is managed by a Spanish organisation, as is (in part) Heathrow. Scottish Power is owned by a Spanish corporation; and so is O2, one of the British telephone providers; Banco Santander is now a high-street name in Britain, and so is Zara in one or another of its different trade-marks. The reason why the United Kingdom is the first venue for Spanish investment is that, up to now, the UK government was free of any nationalistic prejudice stopping the sale of British assets to foreigners, which is certainly not the general attitude on the European continent.

Even more surprising is the human dimension of the friendship between Spain and the United Kingdom. British visitors to Spain (a country of 42 million people) last year numbered 17.8 million, 6 million more than those from the next nationality, the French. British expats in Spain are reckoned to be 296,600. Spaniards residing in Britain may be double that figure, and one should not think that most of those who are at work are to be found in hotels, restaurants, and cafes: a large proportion are teachers or health workers.

King Felipe did have words of warning about the future of residents of both nationalities in either country: he asked that both governments should find a way to guarantee “assurance and certainty” for their life and that of their families in the other country.

The changed role of the Monarchy

For more on these topics, see “The Conundrum of Crowned Democracies”, by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, August 4, 2014; and Is royalty the most absurd thing? by Alberto Mingardi, EconLog, July 23, 2013. See also European Union, by Marian L. Tupy, in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Of course I am glad to be able to celebrate these economic and human ties between our two countries, but my readers may wonder if I have not grown soft in the head when celebrating the encounter between the Queen of England and the King of Spain amid glorious pomp and circumstance. I argue in atonement another, weightier, reason for my giving attention to this royal occasion.

Since at least the 16th century and through 1914, the monarchy was the symbol and instrument of statehood and centralisation. As Max Weber put it at the beginning of the 20th century when the process was coming to full and venomous fruition, “the state is […] a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a territory”. Another way of expressing this political theory was to say that sovereign power resided in the state and that from there flowed the monopoly of legislation, taxation, and conscription, a monopoly barely contained by constitutional democracy. Ever since Machiavelli, political philosophers have lent a willing hand to the reinforcement of state sovereignty; nothing changes much if we say that sovereignty belongs to the people so as to give it a democratic varnish. The warnings of Alexius de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek, and others have been to no avail, for the idea that sovereignty is indivisible has become a part of constitutional philosophy in the West, with the exception perhaps of Switzerland and the United States.

The role of kings and queens in this process of concentration of state power was crucial. Henry VIII in England, Philip II in Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon in France, Maria Theresa in Austria, Frederic the Great in Prussia, and Bismarck in Germany, all put the figure of the monarch at the service of Leviathan. So what is it I celebrate in this saga of monarchs slowly transforming powers dispersed in society into political sovereignty?

“With the growing predominance of democracy, parliamentarian monarchies have morphed into quite a different institution from what they were when monarchs actually governed.”

My thesis is that with the growing predominance of democracy, parliamentarian monarchies have morphed into quite a different institution from what they were when monarchs actually governed. Kings and queens have ceased to be sovereigns. They are bereft of power but now are symbols of Individuality in their nation and their society. As Walter Bagehot wrote in The English Constitution (1873), “A family on the throne is an interesting idea […] It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life.” Politics and government are boring and often dangerous. As an antidote we need to feel that the lives of the great are on the same plane as ours. Is it important for us to know that Queen Letizia of Spain for her tea at Buckingham Palace “wore a yellow on lemon dress with a guipure lace hem and a complementary tweed coat”, duly form-fitting to stress her attractive figure? Maybe not, but still importantly for those of us who at bottom are wary of politics. As I have said in other columns, it is crucial that we should understand that the greatest part of our lives, personal and social, is non-political. When religion, sport, education, art, and cuisine are turned into political weapons, personal freedom is in danger. Monarchies take our minds away from power games.


Another border poses a problem after Brexit, though a much graver one: that which will split Ireland again into two, Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic as a part of the European Union. The ghosts of civil war may haunt the Green Isle again.


*Pedro Schwartz is “Rafael del Pino” Research Professor of economics at Universidad Camilo José in Madrid. 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. He currently serves as President of the Mont Pelerin Society.

For more articles by Pedro Schwartz, see the Archive.