Britain's monarchs revived: Historian David Cannadine reflects on Penguin's royalty series

The series casts a new light on 45 British kings and queens
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The Independent Culture

Two recent events in the United States, the pioneering home of democracy and republicanism, are a vivid reminder that hierarchy and monarchy still matter, even there, where they are not supposed to. When Barack Obama sought to address the problem of immigration by presidential fiat and by side-stepping Congress, he was denounced by his Republican critics as behaving like a monarch or (even worse) as an emperor. And when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited New York on their brief, whistle-stop trip, the American media was once again beside itself with excitement and curiosity.

Yet both of these seemingly straightforward episodes reveal more than at first glance might appear. Although the Republicans meant it as a term of abuse, there is something to be said for describing any occupant of the White House in quasi-royal terms because, along with the papacy, the American presidency, true to its eighteenth-century origins, is just about the last elective monarchy there is. Americans don't like to think of it that way, but history suggests otherwise.

And while the enthusiasm for the Duke and Duchess doubtless owes something to the shared language by which the United States and the United Kingdom are by turns united and divided, the fact that William is the grandson of a head of state who has met virtually every American president since Harry Truman, and who seems set fair to become the longest reigning British monarch, must surely have something to do with it.

The Duke and Duchess will probably have to wait many years before they are both crowned in Westminster Abbey. And one of the ways in which they could most profitably use their long waiting time will be to collect, read and ponder the new, short biographies of England's-then-Britain's monarchs, of which the first five have just been published by The Penguin Press. In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that I am one of the authors of one of these books, on King George V, and my book is preceded by biographies of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Charles I, and followed by one on George VI. When the whole series is completed, it will provide the most comprehensive coverage ever of our crowned heads (plus Oliver Cromwell).

Of course, it can rightly be argued that during the twentieth century, monarchy has not been exactly a growth industry: the great empires of China, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany lost their crowned heads, the Balkan monarchies disappeared, and the Kings of Egypt and Iraq, along with the Emperor of Abyssinia and the Shah of Iran, were overthrown. Set against such a right royal landslide, the (not wholly happy) revival of the Spanish monarchy is very much the exception that proves the rule.

Nowadays, monarchies huddle on the peripheries of the continents that once they dominated. In Europe they are confined to the Iberian peninsular, the Low Countries, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom; in Asia to Japan, Thailand and Brunei; in the Middle East to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco; and in Africa largely to the Asante, Swaziland and Lesotho.

Yet little more than one hundred years ago, during the first decade of the twentieth century, monarchy was the conventional means by which most societies and nations and empires were organised. Of course, there were republican regimes in Latin America, but many of them were hopelessly unstable, oscillating between revolution and dictatorship, and in any case, for much of the nineteenth century, Brazil was ruled by an Emperor descended from the Portuguese royal family.

To be sure, there was the great republic of the United States north of the Rio Grande: but for most of the years after 1776, and as the Civil War made abundantly plain, it was far from clear that such a polity would (in Abraham Lincoln's words) "long endure". Nearer to home, it was not until 1870 that the French finally settled for a president rather than a king or an emperor; but until its sad demise in 1940, the resulting Third Republic was a byword for incompetence and instability.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, then, most of the world was still organised around nations and empires that were royal; and few would have predicted that the next hundred years would see the end of so many crowns and empires. Indeed, for a nostalgic and romantic like Winston Churchill, the chief reason for what he called the "woe and ruin" of the twentieth century was the demise of the great monarchies of central Europe, which had left much of the continent devoid of traditional structures of authority and legitimacy, and as a result, it was all too easy for Fascism and Communism to flourish, with disastrous consequences.

This was, no doubt, an over-simplified version and explanation of events: the Russian, German and Habsburg Emperors disappeared because they were not up to the job of ruling, and because their regimes could not survive disastrous military defeat. (The same was also true of the Japanese monarchy at the end of the Second World War; but it carried on largely because the Americans wanted to keep it as a way of stabilising the country, which they hoped to build up as a bulwark against the Communist regimes in Russia and China.)

All this is but another way of saying that in Europe (and, since 1945, in Japan) the most successful monarchies have been those that, with varying degrees of resistance, awareness and resignation, have given up the active task of ruling and have settled for the less demanding role of reigning instead. Or, to put it in terms first devised by Walter Bagehot, they have ceased to be part of what he termed the "efficient" part of the constitution, and now spend their time being "dignified".

Meanwhile, the widespread demise of monarchies and of the (mostly) royal European empires during the twentieth century means that nation states that are republics are now the norm rather than the exceptions that they still were little more than one hundred years ago. Some of them are, indeed, democracies; but many of them are not. And if the current discontents in Britain, France and the United States are any guide, then "government of the people, by the people, for the people" does not seem to be doing very well at present.

Taking a long historical perspective, nation states that are both democracies and also republics have been relatively rare in human history, and the current notion, that they are the ideal form of government, to which all polities and people should aspire, is in fact a very recent development. But that should make us cherish it more, not less. As Churchill once observed, democracy is not a very good form of government; but all the alternatives are distinctly worse.

Penguin has commissioned leading historians to cast a new light on 45 British monarchs, including David Cannadine's 'George V: The Unexpected King' (£10.99)