With Sweden's royal wedding year now upon us, writer and commoner Allan Burnett hoists the flag for an influential group catering for the anti-monarchy needs of a large and flabbergasted minority.
There is surely at least one hermit living somewhere in Sweden who knows nothing of upcoming royal weddings. He or she is unaware that Crown Princess Victoria is getting hitched to a commoner, Mr Daniel Westling, in Stockholm's Storkyrkan on June 19th. Nor has he or she heard that the Swedish capital will frame the event by lavishing a fortune on a two-week festival called Love Stockholm 2010, beginning on the national day of June 6th.
Such a state of blissful ignorance is one that some city-dwelling Swedes dearly wish they could inhabit. Instead, these poor folk are accosted on all sides of their local kiosk by breathless tabloid headlines about royal wedding dresses, make-up and honeymoon plans. Not to mention the “fierce rivalry” between Victoria and her younger sister Princess Madeleine, who is also tying the knot this year. As if one royal wedding were not enough.
The poor souls I'm talking about are Swedish republicans. Swedes of republican, meaning anti-monarchy, sympathies are a significant voice in Swedish politics. Indeed Birgitta Ohlsson, former chair of Republikanska Föreningen (RF), the leading republican association in Sweden, has recently been appointed Sweden's new EU minister. RF is a cross-party alliance that would love to do away with royalty and royal weddings altogether. They argue that Sweden would be more progressive and more democratic without the outdated and elitist institution of monarchy.
But are Swedish republicans just killjoys? What's so wrong with fairytale royal weddings, anyway? And how about a bit of compromise - isn't that what democracy is all about?
The Local spoke to Magnus Simonsson, RF's International Secretary and a founder member of the association. He strongly disagrees with the view that royal weddings are just a bit of harmless pageantry.
“The royals are not harmless since the monarchy is a serious restriction on Swedish democracy,” says Simonsson. “Such an important position as the head of state should be appointed in accordance with democratic proceedings and be based on qualifications. By making statements on political questions, the royals influence the debate through their unique position without having to take political responsibility.”
To the old hands who support RF, which was set up about ten years ago to build on a republican tradition going back to the 1950s, the upcoming weddings are an unpleasant reminder of the last major royal betrothal they tried in vain to prevent. That saga started in 1974, with the establishment of the modern Swedish constitution. The constitution was considered a superbly democratic document except for one glaring error. It should have abolished the undemocratic, hereditary office of monarch. Instead, Sweden's political establishment baulked. The monarch's powers were merely curtailed and that was considered enough.
And so it came to pass that, two years later, there was an event that set the new constitution in the minds of the nation. Hard-nosed republicans turned away from their TV sets in disgust at the marriage celebration of Crown Princess Victoria's parents. Or perhaps it was the saccharine sound of Abba's Dancing Queen, performed for the occasion, that put them off. Needless to say, more than thirty years on, veteran republicans are unlikely to tune in to TV4 when it broadcasts Victoria's nuptials, either.
Critics say republicans should lighten up. The constitution ensures that the Swedish royal family is a harmless national symbol, devoid of any real political power. Victoria is marrying a commoner, which is progressive and democratic in itself, and should be welcomed. Compared with other monarchies, the UK's, for example, the Swedish royals don't cost very much to maintain, either. Victoria's wedding will be a huge boost for tourism and the Swedish economy. It's going to be the cleanest, greenest and most ethical royal wedding in history. So stop whingeing. The country is trying to climb out of a recession, after all.
And what of the tourists who are expected to flock for Love Stockholm 2010. Surely events like this prove the royals are good for Sweden's international image? Again, Simonsson disagrees. “A democratically elected head of state would give a better picture of Sweden abroad as a democratic country,” he says. “A head of state that was elected by competence and merit would promote our country better.”
Should I require further convincing, Simonsson points me towards RF's website. A recent splash on its homepage draws attention to the cutting edge of academic thought about the rights and wrongs of the royal wedding. In fact, it is a promotion for a recently published book by the political scientist Cecilia Åse of Stockholm University. Entitled The Power of Monarchy, it examines the contradiction in Swedish society between its progressive democracy on one hand, and its conservative royalism on the other. In so doing, it contains plenty to upset those looking forward to lining the streets on June 19th.
Let's take the progressive side first. This holds unmarried couples, gay relationships, immigration, multi-racial families, and a truly classless society to be essential elements in a healthy, forward-thinking nation. But the conservative side is a reminder that many Swedish people still think of their collective identity in somewhat mediaeval terms. Deep down they want to see heterosexual, Nordic, blue-eyed, blue-blooded princesses getting married to equally 'acceptable' princes, and then having children to start the cycle again when the parents ascend to the throne. This matters to people because, consciously or unconsciously, they think of the nation itself is a kind of biological 'super-family'. The royals are the parents; we, the subjects, are their children.
Åse points out that some moderate republicans, including the late Prime Minister Olof Palme, accepted the constitution of 1974 because it seemed to pave the way for a full republic to emerge later. But Åse argues that what the constitution actually did was strengthen the monarchy by giving King Carl Gustav an unimpeachable ceremonial role as head of state, thereby appearing to remove the monarchy from political decision-making and taking the sting out of republican arguments. Åse does not lean heavily towards one side of the debate, but she does provide ammunition for those who consider the royals to be flag-wavers for a backward, conservative nationalism that has no place in 21st-century Sweden.
The historian Helena Tolvhed of Malmo University has argued that the marketing of Love Stockholm 2010 as an inclusive, eco-friendly, modern festival for the people is a facade. Moreover, those who view royal celebrations as harmless, innocent anachronisms are naive. The fact that Victoria's fiance is a commoner only serves to underline the elitism of the institution into which he has been groomed for entry. Tolvhed contends that the royal wedding reinforces the reactionary, nationalist thinking that has taken the far-right Swedish Democrats beyond the four per-cent level of support that could see them enter Sweden's parliament, the Riksdag, at the forthcoming election.
If royalist fervour does cause right-wing extremism to gain ground at the election, some republicans believe the Swedish media will have to shoulder the blame. “One of the causes for the monarchy's popularity is the positive image shown in the media,” says Simonsson. “The media does not really question the fact that the basis for the monarchy is an undemocratic tradition. Most people do not reflect over this at all. If the discussion about the monarchy as a restriction of the Swedish democracy were stronger, I'm sure a larger part of the people would support the republican cause.”
Republicans do tend to argue that by doing away with monarchy and its trappings, Sweden will automatically be a better place. There is abundant evidence to suggest this is a simplistic, even misguided philosophy. Republics and their presidents can often be more undemocratic, elitist and frighteningly nationalistic than some constitutional monarchies have ever been. And that's even without the obvious examples of Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin.
With the appointment of Ohlsson to her new post, the republican voice in government just got louder. Only time will tell whether her views are diluted by the compromises required of high political office. What remains certain is that convinced Swedish republicans are never going to be persuaded of the merits of the forthcoming royal wedding. They can only hope that, in time and with persuasion, the Swedish people will be weaned off princes and princesses. After all, as Westling's background attests, the royals are becoming more like us anyway.
Being special and yet 'normal' is, as Tolvhed points out, a balancing act. If it goes wrong it can require royal couples to deal very publicly with their domestic disasters. This could lead to severe upset among Swedish traditionalists if either one of these forthcoming royal marriages doesn't work out. On the other hand, recent history does suggest that Victoria can expect to be a royal for a long time to come. As those of us from the UK know all too well, heirs to the throne have an amazing capacity to bounce back no matter how much of a personal pickle they get themselves into. Just ask Charles and Camilla.