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The monarchy gives Sweden political innocence

"The king gained national status and legitimacy when he lost his formal political power", writes Cecilia Åse, PhD in political science.

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As the royal engagement of crown princess Victoria was announced on February 24, it was met with unanimous congratulations from both the media and many Swedish politicians. The Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt declared that the royal engagement was a beacon of light in the dark times of economic crises and the leader of the opposition Social democratic party, Mona Sahlin, communicated her good wishes together with a bunch of red roses delivered to the palace.

The young couple’s upcoming marriage is clearly not their own affair. The constitutional monarchy is dependent on the royal family to successfully produce legitimate offspring. In Sweden the succession is tied exclusively to the descendants of Carl XVI Gustaf, so the great public interest displayed for royal marriages and childbirth is not surprising.

It was perhaps more the force of emotions that accompanied the engagement and how they were expressed in Swedish media and society that was unexpected. The event was depicted as one of national importance. Major newspapers ran extensive features of the young couple’s love story with headlines of intertwined gold rings, red hearts and Swedish flags. At the well attended and televised press conference the couple was told to give the public clear view of the engagement ring and asked if the descent and background of the fiancé was a problem, given the fact that he is a “man of the people” and not “blue blooded”.

It is easy to believe that this kind of royalist and nationalistic statements and sentiments is at odds with the common view of the Swedish national identity as low keyed, unobtrusive and characterized by a strong commitment to class and gender equality, modernity and rationality. On the contrary, monarchy, with its clear and obvious connections to hierarchy and class inequalities, as well as to conventional gender and family norms, appears to fit surprisingly well with “Swedish-ness”.

The question is: How can the general Swedish view that it is up to the individual to decide over sexual preferences and marriage or not marriage, correspond with the overall joyous participation in the royal engagement?

The answer to this question, I would say, is to consider how the constitution actually positions the Swedish head of state. The constitution was reformed in the mid 1970s. A two-chamber system, and a division of power between the parliament and the king, was replaced by a clear cut parliamentary system with a one-chamber parliament. The king lost practically all his formal powers. After these constitutional reforms the king no longer signs government bills, appoints prime minister, or acts as commander in chief. In the words of Olof Palme, the reforms reduced the monarchy to essentially a feather in the hat, a plume. Sweden could nice and easily, he declared, be turned into a republic.

However, despite Olof Palme’s provocative words, at the time nobody wanted a heated political discussion on the issue of monarchy versus republic. Political unity and agreement on the major constitutional issues were considered to be very important. The principles that guided these changes were a will to retain the monarchy and at the same time reduce the formal powers of the monarch to essentially nothing.

By ripping the king of political power and constitutional tasks a strong and powerful national symbol was created.  My view is that the king actually gained national status and legitimacy when he lost his formal political power.

It is a central element of contemporary nationalism to place the nation and the national symbols, such as the royal family, “above” politics.  It is precisely by not having anything to do with politics, or with political and democratic institutions, that the king and his family so naturally, and thereby also so forcefully, can symbolize and embody the Swedish nation.

And it is precisely because the Swedish monarchy is not regarded as political that the royal engagement can give rise to these expressions of strong nationalist emotions. The monarchy lends Swedish nationalism a sort of political innocence, making questions that ask from which social ideals and norms that these emotions originate easy to put aside. Swedish national identity can continue to be bound to modernity and to social and gender equality, notwithstanding the fact that this is clearly at odds with conceptions of royal exclusivity, beautiful blue blooded princesses and ordinary men “of the people”.

The monarchy may be reduced to a plume, but it is apparently a plume with strong influence over Swedish society and media. And this is something that many of us will become acutely aware of the months leading up to royal wedding on 19th June 2010.

Cecilia Åse,
PhD in political science at Stockholm University
Author of "Monarkins makt. Nationell gemenskap i svensk demokrati" (The power of the Monarchy)

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Last Updated (Wednesday, 18 November 2009 08:32)

 

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