The monarchy is a weird concept. It’s a pricy circus paid for by ordinary people owned and performed by a group of wealthy and privileged individuals for the benefit of a certain tradition which has long lost its relevance. As long as the circus is entertaining ordinary folk don’t seem to mind to host it.
In the country of my birth, the kingdom of the Netherlands, for 65 years the circus called the monarchy came to every town in the country on 30 April. That date is Queen’s Day, a party for the people with all sorts of activities in the name of the Queen. It used to be former-Queen Juliana’s birthday. Her daughter Beatrix who became queen in 1980 after her mother abdicated, maintained 30 April as Queen’s day in honour of her mother’s birthday and for practical reasons: Her own birthday is in January which weather wise-is not terribly practical for a street party. Today the nation is celebrating her very last Queen’s day for at least a generation. Queen Beatrix has abdicated this morning to make way for her son Willem-Alexander who has been inaugurated as King of the Netherlands a few hours later. The new king has plans to implement King’s Day on his own birthday on 27 April.With the exception of a few dissident views the country seems keen to except the new king and pays tribute to the 33-year reign of his predecessor.
A new king raises old questions about the relevance, the democratic deficit and the costs of a monarchy. Although the role of the Dutch monarch has recently been reformed to a far more ceremonial role she or he is still able to exercise political influence completely invisible to the people or their representatives in parliament. But then democracy is a fallacy. While I can deal with the undemocratic nature of a constitutional monarch as every democratic system has a democratic deficit, I seriously wonder why, when we have recognised the equality of humans as a universal good, should we, the people, be subsidising the rather lush lifestyle of one of the richest families in the world especially in times of austerity? Why should a country like the Netherlands that takes much pride in the principles of equality, levelling and consensus give the finger to the principle of meritocracy? Equality is nice and all that, but in the end some are more equal than others and should be bestowed certain tasks not on the basis of merit but solely on the basis of birth. The new king of the Netherlands used to have the nickname prince pilsner in his younger days and he is not known for his intellectual prowess. Some say he lacks charisma. Yet, he is determined by birth to be the head of state.
As with probably all constitutional structures with a royal entity as the head of state, the Dutch monarchy was implemented from above. As the occupying force of what was then the Netherlands, the French turned the country into a monarchy in 1806 and made Napoleon’s brother king of the realm. He was popular though. And that is the whole issue with the monarch: It’s a circus, a piece of Roman policy; give the people bread and games. Give them pomp and ceremony. Give them an entity that is just like them just a bit more special. An entity to look up to, to draw inspiration from. Then the people are fooled that despite a democratic deficit and considerable amounts of tax payers money this circus is good for them and good for the country. Monarchs in modern liberal democracies are clever enough not to talk of a god-given right like they used to do back in the days. They talk of duty instead. The principle is the same, however.
I’m sure most individual members of royal families are lovely people who support all sorts of good causes. Princess Beatrix was seen as the mother of the nation when she was Queen, while Queen Elizabeth of England is a hardworking gran who is still going strong. That all might be sweet and highly inspirational. I think their workings can just be as unifying and inspirational without the state paying for it. There is nothing wrong with a family with a certain history and traditions attempting to define and redefine the role they could play in society. Society could even benefit from that role. That doesn’t mean society should pay for it. We all need heroes and we all need to be entertained. I like the circus, but when the owners are wealthy enough I’m sure you understand I don’t want to pay for it. Everyone loves Queen’s-Day-to-become King’s Day but if that is to validate the monarchy it just ain’t good enough.