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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 at 9:16
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    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 at 9:17
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    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 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... – PA71 Jun 29 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 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? – PA71 Jun 26 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 at 13:27
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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 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 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 at 10:54
  • 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". – PA71 Jun 30 at 11:00
  • @PA71 If you are addressing "can we", then the answer is an emphatic NO. It would never be confirmed in a referendum in Britain - certainly not in the lifetime of the present monarch. Wait until the time of her demise. There will never have been such a turn out in history as that which will accompany her eventual send-off to the next life. Even Australia, New Zealand and Canada have not managed to remove her as head of state. – WS2 Jun 30 at 14:14
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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 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... – PA71 Jun 26 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 at 17:25
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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 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 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. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jun 30 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 at 7:26

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