Holland is proof that the less power a monarch has the more we seem to love them

When nations fall into crisis, their populations cry out for the saviour figure

Share

The phrase jumped out. “This is a message to the kafir female devil and self-proclaimed Queen Elizabeth and her accursed jubilee,” the Islamist would-be terrorists from Birmingham declared this week, “fooling a nation of blind sheep…”

Elsewhere we’ve heard about drunken, high-camp celebrations in Amsterdam, with thousands of Dutch people in orange wigs and fake ermine ironically proclaiming their loyalty to their new king, Willem Alexander.

These two very different nuggets from the zeitgeist bear the same message: hate it or love it, anathematise or ironise it, monarchy still matters. Nor is this a phenomenon confined to northern Europe. Italy abolished its monarchy in a referendum after the Second World War (there are dark rumours that it was rigged), and even today it pleases Italians to refer sneeringly to the British as “subjects”, rather than free citizens of a republic like themselves. Yet it is remarkable how, with the established parties in free-fall and the political system crumbling, the only person able to hold the show together was President Napolitano. The graver the crisis grew, the greater the powers this aged grandee of the old Italian Communist Party assumed, until, quite unable to sort out the problems themselves, the political leaders went to him cap in hand – subject-like – and implored him to serve another seven-year term, by which point he will be 94: Re Giorgio I in all but name.

Republics, like the euro, are fine for the good times, it would seem, but the dark political valleys demand something more than the sharp political skills, the agility and ventriloquism that democracy teaches. When a nation cries out for a saviour, it is in the mystical form of a monarch. After the flight of the Taliban from Kabul in 2001, in that hectic moment of hope and fear and confusion, I went from one Afghan to another asking, what do you want now? In almost every case the answer came back: give us our king. So insistent was the demand that Mohammed Zahir Shah was indeed brought back from retirement in Rome. Far too old to be of any use, he should, of course, have refused.

Because when people ask for monarchy, at the back of their minds they know they are asking for something impossible – for a superhuman to sort out all their woes. The genius of Britain’s Glorious Revolution was to go to vast lengths and huge expense to preserve monarchy’s mystique, while taking a brutally sharp knife to its powers.

All the world’s other successful monarchies have followed the same path, clinging to the ermine and the heraldry as their discretionary powers are slashed back to nothing. If they are sensitive and self-disciplined enough, they can come to embody the nations of which they are symbols. Beatrice and her son Willem-Alexander personify Holland’s informality and secularism. Japan’s Hirohito, the god-emperor, was brought brutally down to earth by General MacArthur, and, ever since, the imperial family has captured something fragile at the heart of the Japanese industrial machine.

In that sense, Crown Princess Masako, the former commoner married to the heir to the throne who has been suffering from stress-related depression for more than a decade, fits the bill perfectly.

So whatever happened to the qualities that traditionally defined a monarch – the power to wage war, amass great fortunes, commit entire populations to servitude on a whim? In one of the weirdest ironies of our age, most of the contemporary figures who behave like real monarchs turn out to be Marxists: not only Pyongyang’s Kims, but also Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Jyoti Basu who ruled West Bengal with an iron fist for decades, Ceausescu of Romania, Enver Hoxha of Albania. Worshipped and adored, hated and feared, true to the old kingly ideal. Prince Charles occasionally shows signs of wanting to set off down that road. One hopes he will not be given the opportunity.

Now Cecile knows what she’s up against

Italy took a great step forward this week with the appointment to the new cabinet of the first black person ever to serve as a minister. Cecile Kyenge, who was born in the Congo and now lives in Modena with her native Italian husband, will be Minister for Integration in Enrico Letta’s government.

The country then took an equally large step backwards when her appointment was greeted by cries of “bonga bonga” from the Northern League, and warnings that she would try to “impose tribal traditions” in Italy.

This was depressing but not surprising: with the arrival of immigrants in large numbers in the past few years, Italy’s grand traditions of liberality and generosity have gone up in smoke. When Kyenge announced that she wanted to make it easier for the children of immigrants who were born in Italy to obtain Italian citizenship, the Northern League went on to denounce her as a “symbol of a hypocritical and do-gooding left that wants to cancel out the crime of illegal immigration”.

Football star Mario Balotelli rushed to her defence and may be a useful source of advice: the abuse he has had to brush off in Italy includes the banner displayed during one match which declared simply, “Black Italians don’t exist.”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible