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Issue #69: Voting to Keep or Abolish the Monarchy
This issue has been on the ballot many times
The passing of Queen Elizabeth, the longest-reigning monarch of Great Britain, has led to a renewed debate about the Monarchy in Britain and the world. With Prince Charles ascending to the throne as King Charles III, the transition had led to a new focus on monarchy vs republicanism. There are right around 30 monarchs (depending how you count) left in the world. Many of these are constitutional monarchs - who effectively have little real political power. In the constitutional states, these monarch systems have faced challenges from the voters before in the form of referendums. Some public votes have maintained a monarchy system, others have opted to go the route of a Republic. How will the UK decide its future?
British Politics Crash Course
Great Britain is a prime example of a constitutional monarchy. Elizabeth, and now King Charles III, had power on paper, but no political power to exercise it. British decisions are made by the Parliament, and while the Crown must give its approval, it is long past the time where it can reject a parliament’s decision. This current system is the result of centuries of movement; with parliament slowly gaining more power and the King/Queen becoming more of a figurehead. For those unfamiliar with the modern British system, I recommend this fun video (and this channel).
Aside from power (or lack of it), the debate has been raised about the cost of maintaining monarchies. This cost can range by nation. In the case of Great Britain, the Royal Family receives tens of millions in taxpayer money each year for events and living allowances. Of course, this cuts both ways - as the royals also forfeits profits on the lands it owns to the UK Government (which exceeds the cost). Realistically, the monarchy actually saves money for the UK government. Another fun explainer video below.
I am not British and not offering an opinion over keeping or abolishing the monarchy of the UK. I believe the British public should decide this. Do referendums every decade or something. If the public want the monarchy, then they can have it. If they don’t, then a Republican they should become. Polls right now show the monarchy remains broadly popular in great Britain. This polling data is from YouGov.
The only group with a strong anti-monarchy sentiment in Great Britain is 18-24 voters; where 28% say the monarchy is good and 21% say its bad (with alot undecided). How Charles performs as King could decide if those voters stick to their iffy sentiment or embrace the system. While there is no likely threat to the monarchy in Great Britain directly, the same cannot be said for its commonwealth realm.
The Commonwealth Realm
In addition to Great Britain, King Charlies III is the official leader in 14 Sovereign states. All together this is known as the Commonwealth Realm.
Antigua and Barbuda
Papua New Guinea
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
The realm has only been getting smaller with time. Over the decades, nations have left the realm and become Republics. Barbados was the most recent state to do so, just in 2021. The crown makes no effort to stop these moves; which are likely to increase now. Since 1960, six states have held referendums on abolishing the monarchy. While initial referendums were successful, the most recent have not been.
Australia’s referendum was the largest of them all. Originally polls showed the move was likely to succeed. However, divides within the Republic camp; namely whether the head of state should be directly elected or picked by parliament, led to the referendum’s failure. Full background (and high-res version of image below) here.
The passing of Queen Elizabeth is only going to ramp up efforts, however. The Queen was a longtime and well-regarded Monarch. Charles, William, or really anyone, could not live up to the Queen’s reputation. There is a sentiment among many critics of the monarchy that they personally liked Elizabeth. Her death was always likely to be a major inflection point for the realm. Her absence makes it more likely sovereign states will consider leaving. This is especially true for the Caribbean states; where the legacy of slavery and oppression are still a very painful. The crimes of the British Empire have not been fully accounted for, and the monarchy, for many, is a symbol of that empire. This dynamic was seen in the icy-at-best reception that Prince William and Kate Middleton received when they traveled the Caribbean states. The tour saw the couple beset by protests from people demanding accountability and reparations for the crimes of the empire. It should be no surprise, when looking back at the past-referendum table, that African states like Gambia and Ghana gave overwhelming vote shares to ending the monarchy.
Already three states are making it clear they will hold referendums on the monarchy; Jamaica, The Bahamas, and Antigua and Barbuda. In the case of Jamaica, Prime Minster Andrew Holness made their intentions clear to Prince William directly earlier this year.
Even in Canada there is a lukewarm attitude toward keeping the monarchy.
Granted, its unlikely the Canadian government will make any real moves on the issue. New Zealand recently made it clear they were not pursuing any changes at this time. However, more states falling off is inevitable. I do see a major drop-off in the states with tragic histories like those in the Caribbean; specifically where the majority of the population descend from those oppressed in the past; places were the pain of the empire’s crimes are felt hardest by the most people.
Nations that Ended Their Monarchies
We will see which UK commonwealth states ditch the monarchy; though its very likely the monarchy as a whole will remain in the United Kingdom. I think a referendum would be fun though. In that spirit, I wanted to look at past monarchy referendums. There have actually been far more than people may realize. Different nations have voted on retaining the monarchy or reforms to its rules (like succession). Many of these referendums, especially before WWI, were rigged votes. However, far more were legitimate than you might expect. The era of the constitutional monarchs, which became common after WWI (though different rulers had some degree of power and used it) saw more open discussion around these systems vs full-fledged republics. In this context, there are three referendums that I specifically want to discuss in greater detail.
Italy 1946 Referendum
The first is Italy; which voted to abolish its monarchy in 1946. The monarchy had taken the blame for much of Italy’s troubles in recent decades. It was King Victor Emanuel III who asked Mussolini to form a Government - which quickly became a fascist dictatorship. The video below is an excellent summary of this.
The entry of Italy into WWII on the Axis side, the eventual invasion by the allies, and the outbreak of civil war, left the nation in tatters. As the nation began to rebuild, it put the question of monarchy or republic to the voters. The crown had been heavily damaged by the war. Emanuel, still technically king, had to make his son, Prince Umberto, the regent for the monarchy. Umberto, in this role, would agree with the provisional government on putting the referendum to a vote. With it believed a republic could win the vote, Emanuel finally agreed to abdicate and allow the more-popular Umberto to become officially king; just says before the ballots were cast.
The campaign saw heavy involvement from the Catholic Church. Priests gave sermons pushing for the continuation of the monarchy; which they saw as the best way to prevent a socialist/communist government. In a Cold War context, its easy to think of this as just being about Soviet fears. However, the French Revolution and Spanish Civil War, which saw attacks on the Catholic Church by left-wing forces in both clashes, aided in this fear. A constitutional monarchy (in a time before the monarch would be completely powerless) was viewed as a way to stop a full-blown left-wing takeover.
In the referendum, the conservative southern districts, which had been part of a south Italy Kingdom after the allied invasion/liberation, supported the Monarchy. The Northern states, which had suffered under Mussolini’s North-Italy puppet state post-invasion, wanted a Republic. These Northern states had been radicalized against any form of single-person rule.
While the referendum’s regional divide could have led to more war; King Umberto refused to adhere to the calls of royalists to declare a south Italy Kingdom. Umberto states - "My house united Italy. It will not divide it.” That said, Umberto was openly angry about the results; claiming it was rigged, but he would not use violence. After he abdicated, he left the country.
Italy officially became a Republic with this vote.
Belgium 1950 Vote
In 1950, Belgium held a referendum on its monarchy. However, this was a bit different from the Italian vote. Belgium’s King, Leopold the III, had been in exile since WWII. His history was very controversial. Full details are here; but I will offer a short summary.
Leopold is King when Belgium faces Nazi invasion in 1940
Leopold leads Belgian army, refuses directive from civilian government to become part of Government-in-Exile (a major break from norms).
Leopold negotiates a cease-fire with Germany. This moment is a major point of division around his legacy. The allies, especially the French, did not want a quick Belgian surrender, but rather wanted them to fight as long as possible to slow the NAZI advance into France. Leopold viewed this as feeding his people to the meat grinder; as everyone knew they couldn’t defeat the Germans.
The surrender leads to a major anti-Leopold campaign in France; effectively scapegoating him for the quick fall of Paris.
Leopold becomes a prisoner of war, under house arrest, in occupied Belgium. He does not protest NAZI actions, arguing he aims to keep peace to the country.
His popularity with the people begins to give way as NAZI oppression grows (especially in French Wallonia).
He gets married during occupation, which further angers residents as its seen as a luxury and not him “sharing their burden” of occupation.
With German defeat likely by 1943, he begins to make moves to justify his actions during occupation.
Following D-Day landings, he is deported to Germany by the NAZIs, who don’t want him to be a rallying figure for resistance.
By the time Belgium was liberated, Leopold had been declared unable to perform his duties by the government-in-exile. As a result, his brother, Prince Charles, was named regent. Over the period of 1945-1950, the country debated how to handle the issue while Leopold opted for self-impose exile in Switzerland. Leopold was seen as too authoritarian-friendly for the left-wing parties, while right-wing parties wanted a vote on the matter. The 1949 elections saw a majority in parliament for the Catholic-backed Christian Democratic Party. Finally, a referendum was agreed for 1950.
The referendum was on whether to return Leopold should return to the throne. Many in government opposition believed the Flanders region, which was heavily Flemish, would support the King, while Wallonia, which was French dominated, would not. This proved to be exactly right. While the referendum succeeded with almost 58% of the vote, it had a stark regional divide.
The division in the results was untenable; and even the right-wing government knew Leopold had too little support for the nation to unify around him. This proved true, as Leopold’s return to the country led to protests, a strike, and riots. Within months of the referendum, Leopold had agreed to abdicate; paving the way for his son, Baudouin, to become king. Baudouin would serve much better as a unifying figure in post-war Belgium. The nation remains a constitutional monarchy.
Greece in 1974
Believe it or not, Greece has held SIX referendums on whether to keep or remove its monarchy. Many of these votes were rigged, but this final one certainly was not. A quick breakdown of the first five votes.
1920 - A referendum for the Return of King Constantine I, following the end of WWI. Was passed with 99% and is considered rigged.
1924 - Following the disasterous war with Turkey, which saw massive ethnic cleansing from both sides, Constantine was forced to abdicate. A referendum to make the nation a Republic got 70%.
1935 - A vote to bring back the monarchy, which was part of creeping fascism in Greece; highlighted by Prime Minister Georgios Kondylis’ shift to the far-right. He hoped to use the King as a puppet, but died in 1936 after a falling out. Passed with 97% of the vote amid reports of intimidation and violence.
1946 - A vote to retain the monarchy; coming as the Civil War in Greece continued. Communist-controlled provinces were unable to vote. While many were not hyper-supportive on the monarchy, a unified front against the communists was formed to side with the King, which represented non-communist rule. Passed with 69% of the vote in eligible areas.
1973 - The ruling military Junta, on its last legs, held a referendum to conform their decision to make King Constantine the II abdicate. The vote was tightly controlled and got 68% of the vote.
The reason for 1974 referendum that followed was largely a repeat of 1973, but under true democratic principles. I am just going to copy over the text I wrote for my in-depth look at Greece’s Political History. I recommend checking that out for even more Greek details. This passage below, however, covers the Greek political situation around 1973 and 1974.
“Modern Greek politics began in 1974, with the fall of the Military Junta that ruled the county from 1967-1974. The dictatorship, led by right-wing Colonels, was orchestrated to prevent a left-wing government from emerging in the upcoming elections. The move came two years after King Constantine II had dismissed the left-wing Prime Minister, Georgious Papandreaou, and tried to appoint a new prime minister to form a government. These efforts failed and the 1967 it was believe Papandreaou’s Center Union Party would win the most seats and probably unite with the UDL to form a government. Many in the army believed the UDL to be a front for the Communist Party; which was banned in Greece.
Subsequently, the King and Generals in the army discussed a possible coup if a left-wing victory emerged in the election. However, two weeks before the elections, a group of right-wing colonel’s staged their own coup and King Constantine swore them in as the legitimate government. They ruled until 1974. The cause of their fall is long and complicated, but the nail in the coffin was the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey – a move that caused many in the army to lose support for the military leadership and weakened the Junta enough to force a unity government and scheduling of new elections.
The November 1974 elections saw the right-of-center New Democracy Party win power. A month later the country held a referendum on whether to abolish the monarchy and become a full Republican. King Constantine claimed he only supported the Junta out of intimidation (indeed the coup was not carried out by the same people he had been talking with). However, the clashes between Constantine and Papandreaou, and the belief he the King didn’t respect Democratic institutions, made the referendum a landslide. Constantine wasn’t allowed back into Greece until 1981, and even then just for a few hours for his mothers funeral.”
Constantine’s actions are a perfect example of destroying your institutions reputation. The Greek public had no stomach for a monarchy after the political meddling of Constantine that pre-dated the coup; much less his actions after it.
We will see how things progress in Great Britain when it comes to the monarchy. Right now I don’t think the UK is heading for any Greek or Italian situation. However, many of the sovereign states of the realm may begin to indeed leave. With each generation, fewer and fewer people will live under any form hereditary monarchy.