It was King Willem-Alexander’s first King’s Speech, when he read out the yearly government statement in the historic Knight’s Hall of Dutch Parliament on September 17th. And what a first it was. Though he read it well, King Willem-Alexander was not to be envied. A Kings’ Speech about another 6 billion Euro to be collected from his subjects by the present government, led by Prime Minister Rutte, will never be a winner. The King lent his voice to a widely resented move by a government that – according to many polls – has lost almost complete confidence from the populace.
So why does the King read it out? Well, because traditionally and constitutionally the King (or Queen) is supposed to do so, for whatever government or whatever Prime Minister, whether he likes it or not. Ceremonially, it’s the highlight of the year for the Head of State, speaking to the combined chambers of parliament. Content wise he is the hostage of the acting government. The King reads out whatever he gets from the Prime Minister of the day.
The point is of course that everybody knows he reads out the Prime Minister’s words, but this first time the King made a mistake. A sympathetic one, but still a mistake. He started out with a personal note, saying thank you to his mother for her hard work and thank you to the nation for a great coronation ceremony earlier this year, among other things. There is nothing wrong with that, except that by doing so he mixed his personal feelings with the Prime Minister’s political message in one speech, thus making the whole event a bit more personal.
Being the instrument of politics contains a certain political risk for a King, especially when he is still in the early stages of his reign and the acting government has lost credibility. And suppose the government falls and is replaced by the opposition, can a King credibly read a following year’s Speech of completely different nature? The common thinking is he can, because he is the King! So is that what monarchy is all about, the King being an instrument of politics and blowing with any winds? Should not a King stand above political matters instead?
But there are more pressing questions. Why do Dutch governments hide from the public by having the King read out their upcoming policies and measures? Why does a Prime Minister not take his responsibility and does that himself?
Interestingly, the King has the constitutional right to refuse to read the Speech, if he disagrees or if he falls ill. In that case he will be replaced by the Prime Minister. So why not create a new tradition and let the King be permanently replaced by the Prime Minister?
Things can and do change once in a while. Queen Beatrix, in her final years as head of State, saw her right of initiative to start talks to form a government after elections taken away from her. A loss of influence that must have hurt her, but it has made Dutch politics, which basically still play by the rules of the 1848 Constitution, a bit more democratic.
The momentum for more change is there. King Willem-Alexander, Beatrix’s son, does not oppose a more ceremonial role for himself and he would not mind making a further retreat from political matters. In fact he would be happy to oblige, he has said in a rare interview. He might probably even feel relieved.
Reading the King’s Speech is a political highlight of the year and a great tradition, which will be very hard to abolish. There is a military parade, music and the King travels from his Palace to the Knight’s Hall in the Golden Coach. It’s a grand show, a fairy tale. Plenty of people will want that to continue. So let’s not phase out that tradition, but adapt it a little.
Why not have the King formally invite His Majesty’s government and parliament to listen to the Prime Minister. Let him do the talking and publicly address the King, parliament and us, the people, about his intentions for the coming year. The King presides over the session and invites the Prime Minister to read his statements. Afterwards, without entering in debate or commenting, the King thanks him for his views, wishes everybody all the best and closes the session. Wouldn’t that be a grand role for a King?