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Several Western-European countries are monarchies (Belgium, United Kingdom, Netherlands). All these countries have from time to time some discussion on if this system should be kept. So far, the side that wants to get rid of the monarchy is always a minority.

One of the arguments to get rid of kings is that they cost a lot of money. A common counter-argument is that a president may cost more money, because then you also need elections. But I never understand why the king/queen should be replaced by a president, isn't it easiest to have no head of state?

(there are more arguments on both sides, but I focus on the one I don't understand)

What would go wrong if the UK would make the royals ordinary citizens, and don't create a new elected position? (Obviously some laws that involve the king have to be changed, but can't all powers/duties be distributed between parliament and prime Minister?)


I seem to struggle to get the question across. I think I am missing something about the concept that is so obvious for others. Please interpret the question in the simplest way possible, like it was asked by a five-year old. Complex political or economic knowledge might be needed to understand the answer, but not to understand the question.

Here are some types of answers I could imagine:

  • The United Nation rules say that you need a head of state. A country can eliminate the position, but then it would be thrown out of the UN, which practically prevents a country from doing so.
  • The country of Oilystan refuses to trade with countries without a head of state, so countries are economically pressured to have a head of state.
  • In case of unexpected events that kill everyone in the government, a country benefits from having a head of state with a sufficiently long line of succession, so there is somebody to restart the system.
  • No, a country does not need a head of state, but countries have one because of tradition.
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    Are you asking for "head of state" in the paper, of "head of state" for the people of the country. In the latter case, if we follow your suggestion wouldn't the prime minister be seen as a head of state then ? By the way Switzerland doesn't have one : politics.stackexchange.com/questions/210/…
    – Walfrat
    Jun 26 '20 at 9:16
  • 2
    Speaking as a Brit, a far more common counter-argument is that the royal family bring in more money through tourism than it costs to maintain them. I don't know how true that is, but I feel like the number of people willing to travel to Britain to see the Queen, the corgis, and the guards in funny hats, is much higher than the number of people willing to travel to Britain to see Boris Johnson and his silly haircut.
    – F1Krazy
    Jun 26 '20 at 9:17
  • 1
    A little unclear whether you mean a monarchy or a head-of-state - if the former, perhaps politics.stackexchange.com/questions/8264/… helps?
    – CDJB
    Jun 26 '20 at 9:40
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    I'm confused, the question does not talk about heads of governments, it clearly talks about getting rid of kings, not presidents, and it gives the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands as concrete examples. You say it is presented as universal, while the very first words limit it to Western Europe. People interpret the question in another way than I meant it, so obviously I did something wrong, but the question is so extremely clear to me, that it is difficult to see how others can interpret it in other ways, so I don't know what to change...
    – user33025
    Jun 29 '20 at 6:26
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    I believe the confusion is that most people use "head of state" to mean anyone nominally in charge of a country. So, the Queen of the UK is a head of state, but so is the prime minister. If you want to focus on whether monarchs (or "figure-head" heads of states) are needed, you should specify that in the question. If you want to focus on whether presidents/prime ministers (people with "real power", depending on the country) are needed, you should specify that.
    – Josh Eller
    Jun 29 '20 at 12:09
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The question could be understood in several ways:

  • Are kings and other ceremonial heads of state strictly necessary for the functioning of the institutions of their country? They typically retain a role so changes would be needed but that's not insurmountable. The Netherlands provides a model in this respect: the country still has a king of course but it recently transferred one of its only subtantive function (naming a formateur) to the parliament itself.

  • Is it necessary to have separate offices for the head of state and the head of government? Clearly not: for better or for worse, the US and numerous Latin American governments have conflated both functions in one person. That doesn't seem to be what you have in mind however.

  • Can you dispense entirely with the notion of a single person leading and representing the state in some way? That's more difficult but one country that comes close would be Switzerland. The country does have a head of state, on a one-year rolling basis among the members of the federal council. That person assumes in particular all the diplomatic functions of a head of state but has no preeminence over the other members of the council.

Ultimately, the answer would then appear to be yes, it is possible to dispense with a monarch without necessarily creating an elected position to replace it, either by gradually redefining and distributing its functions to existing institutions while retaining the current nature of the regime (the Netherlands) or creating a completely different kind of constitution (Switzerland).

Note that in Europe, many countries (Germany, Portugal, Italy) went another way: they have a parliamentary system where a president basically assumes the role of the monarch in constitutional monarchy but is not elected directly by the people (s/he is elected by some sort of electoral college based on earlier elections). An indirect election (e.g. by parliament) would not necessarily entail the same dramatic political consequences and the costs you worry about.

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  • I intended the first interpretation. If the head of state is only a ceremonial figurehead, can you not simply remove it, without putting a different figurehead in place? Could the Dutch model taken to 100% work, if the population wanted it?
    – user33025
    Jun 26 '20 at 16:49
  • @PA71 Yes, from a pure institutional point of view I think it could, that's what I was trying to explain. A sizable portion of the Dutch population seems quite fond of their royal family's ceremonial and symbolic roles, including in relation to the other parts of the kingdom (Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten).
    – Relaxed
    Jun 27 '20 at 13:27
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There is little doubt that a nation needs a head of government. The role of a head of state may be filled by the head of government or another person. There are plenty of states which merge the two positions. There are some good arguments why the two roles should be split, but checks and balances can be created by other means.

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  • Not sure what's wrong with this answer, +1 from me.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 26 '20 at 15:11
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    I'm sorry, but I don't see how this answers my question? I was not asking who could fill the role of head of state, I was asking if the role should be filled at all, or could be left vacant. I'm probably missing something very obvious...
    – user33025
    Jun 26 '20 at 16:43
  • @PA71, I'm suggesting that the role can easily be a "second hat" for the head of government. That's not quite the same as leaving it unfilled, but close. Without a head of state, the head of government is likely to fill much of the state role (shaking hands, receiving the credentials from foreign diplomats, signing official documents) unless another official gets saddled with that role. Should I add a sentence to that effect?
    – o.m.
    Jun 26 '20 at 17:25
  • The need for a separate head of state is greater in parliamentary systems which usually elect a symbolic President to fill the role if there is no monarch, mostly to serve as a midwife facilitating the election of a new Prime Minister and cabinet after elections when the person who should receive that post is ambiguous as it can be at time in parliamentary democracies with more than two political parties.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 1 at 20:34
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You need a head of state to have quick conversations and relations with other entities during times of crisis or issues where you need a quick response to other parties. That being said, you don't literally need a single head of state. Look at Switzerland, for example, where the President of the Swiss Confederation has six other councilors of equal authority, creating a situation where there are technically 7 heads of state to negotiate with depending on the pressing issue happening within or outside of the country that needs to be discussed.

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A country doesn’t need a head of state, but it can be useful to have one. As an example:

The German Bundespräsident is the head of state. Officially he or she is the number 1 in the leadership of the state, with the Bundeskanzler coming officially second. In reality, it’s the Bundeskanzler who makes the decisions.

So what does the Bundespräsident do? He or she is there when someone must be there to officially represent Germany. Say some foreign head of state died and someone from Germany must attend the funeral then the send the Bundespräsident. He is officially number 1 in Germany, and it leaves the Bundeskanzler to keep running the country. I suppose in the USA they might send the Vice President for that kind of job. But the Vice President is number 2 in the USA, not the number one, so sending the Bundespräsident is better.

But he has one bigger job: He is the conscience of the government. If the government does something wrong, it’s the Bundespräsidents job to give them a telling off. From Bundeskanzler downward they all have to listen to him. He can’t force anyone to do anything, but being told by the Bundespräsident that you messed up isn’t good for your reputation.

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The advantage of having a Head of State is that there is a single person to turn to when issues arise. That's not always essential, but in crises or rapidly developing events — natural disasters, invasions, catastrophes, etc. — having a single person with the capacity to make quick decisions and rapidly organize resources is useful. Deliberative bodies are slow, contentious, and not what one wants to rely on when the flood waters are rising.

The disadvantage of having a Head of State is that any given person in that role might be short-sighted, lazy, corrupt, greedy, malicious, or just plain incompetent, and having someone like that in charge can be worse than having no one in charge at all. Again, if the flood waters are rising, you don't want to have to rely on someone who might demand a thousand dollar bribe before he mounts a rescue operation.

The general solution since the Enlightenment has been to create qualified Heads of State: people who have executive authority over the nation in order to make certain collective decisions for that nation, but whose authority is bounded and limited in various ways to prevent him from misusing or frittering away that power. Thus, the US president can create agreements with foreign governments — something that's comparatively quick and easy for two Heads of State to work out between themselves — but any such agreements then have to be consented to by Congress in a slower, more deliberative process. Likewise, the US president can take military action to protect the nation, but (ostensibly, though this hasn't been the case in recent decades) must justify his actions to Congress and seek their approval before any conflict becomes prolonged.

Unless a nation were extremely small, it would be difficult for it to function efficiently without some kind of Head of State. Foreign nations would not know whom to turn to for diplomatic discussions; different factions or agencies would operate independently and at cross purposes; Every decision, no matter how time-sensitive, would have to grind its way though a prolonged deliberative process. There have been cases where the putative 'Head' is not an individual but a small cabal: a junta, an oligarchy, an aristocracy... Perhaps the closest historical example is the ancient Greek polity model (what we call Athenian Democracy), but even that was an oligarchy of land-owning citizens with a strong class system, such that real political clout rested in a small cohort. The ethics of governance might call for power to be distributes broadly and evenly across a society, because that strikes most of us as fair. However, the pragmatics of running a large collective community call for some centralization of power — at least concerning certain kinds of necessities — in the hands of someone who can take quick, decisive action. There's a balancing between the New England town hall and the rule of the tyrant's that isn't easy to strike.

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    All that seems completely beside the point of the question. In all the countries mentioned, the head of state does not have any particular capacity to make quick decisions or organize resources in time of crisis, the cabinet is. The real alternative is not between a powerful president (which is rare in Europe) and a deliberative body like congress. It's between a prime minister with personal authority to make decisions and a small committee.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 28 '20 at 21:43
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    Also, I keep coming back to the same example but Switzerland doesn't really have a head of state or government with special emergency powers. If you look at the current crisis, all decisions are taken by the 7-member federal council as a whole and they seem to be doing OK.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 28 '20 at 21:54
  • @Relaxed but why exactly should we take Switzerland as a model to emulate, rather than just another data point? I for one would feel very unhappy if say Canada was to use a council rather than have one person (the PM) taking responsibility and many many countries have also elected to hold 1 person accountable. Certainly other Swiss traditions do not always get implemented very well elsewhere, see California's messy use of referendums (prop 13 and 65 ) for example. Jun 30 '20 at 6:56
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Who said we should emulate it? Personally, I don't see why I should be particularly (un)happy about having one person nominally in charge (seems a bit of circular argument borne out of habit more than anything else) but there are aspects of the Swiss political system I am not keen about and I don't think it would be easy to reproduce elsewhere. I am merely pointing out that it is possible, one data point indeed but one many answers and comments here seem to imply does not and could not possibly exist durably without serious problems. It does and they are doing fine.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 30 '20 at 7:26
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In 2000, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister there was a fuel tanker-driver strike, which for complicated reasons was actually supported by the major oil companies - or at least they did nothing to stop it. (Outside oil refineries picketing lorry drivers were supplied with cups of tea and bacon sandwiches.) Both sides were trying to force the government to reduce the tax take on fuel.

At one point very few fuel stations had any supply and goods were going short in supermarkets. Hospitals were in danger of having to close.

Blair went to the Queen to obtain an Order in Council to allow him to use soldiers to shift oil. Immediately granted the strike caved in in days, and before any squaddie commandeered an oil tanker. Blair retained public support throughout.

Had there been no Head of State, who might have granted such an extra-parliamentary order? Indeed who, other than the Queen, would have been trusted sufficiently by British people to exercise absolute power in such a crisis?

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    (+1) Interesting example and certainly relevant to the question at hand but what would prevent Parliament from playing that role? Importantly, if I understood you well, the Queen is not taking specific measures or directing policy, she is merely granting the prime minister permission to do so. That seems very similar to various “state of emergency” provisions across the continent. Another possible mechanism is for the cabinet to seize this power directly (Spain, Switzerland…), sometimes with an obligation to seek the parliament's retrospective approval within a few days (France).
    – Relaxed
    Jun 29 '20 at 9:27
  • I feel the immense urge to draw a parallel to certain recent events in the United States but at the same time I’m very happy you left them out ;)
    – Jan
    Jun 29 '20 at 9:55
  • @Relaxed I'm now a bit hazy on the details. I think there was insufficient time to get parliament's approval - things came to a head at a weekend, if I remember. Perhaps it was that declaration of a State of Emergency was needed. Anyway the important point is that the Queen and a few hastily summoned Privy Councillors were able to grant the necessary powers. The whole point about the Queen is that she represents stability, and commands respect across politics. Whether that will remain the case under her eventual successors is anyone's guess.
    – WS2
    Jun 29 '20 at 10:54
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    Couldn't the prime Minister just have the power to make such decisions, his actions being judged afterwards by parliament? Why add the extra step of a king/queen? If the king/queen can refuse the request, this extra step reduces stability, if they can not, it is an unnecessary step. But anyhow, even if I would 100% agree with the argument, this is an answer to "should we get rid of the head of state", not "can we".
    – user33025
    Jun 30 '20 at 11:00
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    @WS2: are you suggesting me I should ask the question on stackexchange? I did that a while ago, and it lead to this discussion...
    – user33025
    Jul 5 '20 at 5:14
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In a democratic country heads of government come and go and you need a permanent head of state to make sure the the constitution is adhered to.

For, example, in the United Kingdom there is a convention that the Prime Minister can only continue so long as they have the support of a majority of the House of Commons.

The voting system in the UK ("first past the post") is such that usually one political party will have an overall majority in the House of Commons and, in that case, obviously the Queen appoints the leader of that party as Prime Minster.

But occasionally no party has an overall majority and in that case the Queen has to decide who to appoint as PM. Whoever she appoints will have to negotiate with other parties to see if agreement can be reached about a coalition (or some kind of support agreement falling short of a coalition). If the appointed PM can't reach an agreement and so does not have the support of a majority of the HoC then, of course, the PM will offer their resignation and then the Queen will have to appoint someone else as PM to see if they can get the support of the HoC. But someone has to make the initial decision as to who gets to have the first try at forming a government and you need a non-political head of state (the Queen in the case of the UK) to do this.

Mostly a head of state is a formal ceremonial role but occasionally they need to make actual constitutional decisions.

If a UK prime minster loses (or never gains) the confidence of the HoC then the constitutional convention is that they have to offer their resignation (or call an election). If they failed to do that then the Queen would have to dismiss them. I am not aware of this ever happening in the UK but something similar happened in Australia in 1975

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1975_Australian_constitutional_crisis

Essentially the Australian PM lost the support of the legislature but refused to resign or call an election. To put pressure on the PM to resign the legislature refused to vote money for the payment of public servants. So the country was faced with the possibility of chaos if public servants (police, army etc.) were not paid. The Governor General (Queen's representative but for all practical purposes head of state of Australia) dismissed the PM and appointed the apposition leader PM after having extracted a promise by him to (1) call an immediate election and (2) not to change any government policy before the election.

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  • There are plenty of heads of state that come and go every four or five years or so, so permanence is not a compelling argument for the necessity of a head of state.
    – phoog
    Nov 10 at 0:33
  • Need and necessity are no quite the same thing.
    – Nemo
    Nov 10 at 8:43
  • Need and necessity have some different senses, as most words do, but most of their senses are synonymous. It is equally correct to say "permanence is not a compelling argument for the necessity of a head of state" and "permanence is not a compelling argument for the need for a head of state." They mean the same thing. For example, one definition of "necessity" is "the state of being required," and one definition of "to need" (the verb, as used in the question title) is "to require."
    – phoog
    Nov 10 at 9:03
  • @phoog I mean it can be a good idea to have a head of state - it has advantages - even if it is not an absolute necessity.
    – Nemo
    Nov 10 at 11:32
  • In the UK, civil servants do everything in their power to avoid the Queen getting involved in politics, which includes ensuring that she doesn't have to make a choice who to nominate as PM. This was particularly crucial after the inconclusive 2010 election, when the head of the civil service facilitated meetings between the parties, in the hope that an obvious candidate would present himself (which is what happened). Nov 24 at 18:35

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