Islands of stability

UnknownThe Twentieth Century was especially convulsive with wars more devastating and governments more oppressive than any that had been seen before. Throughout those turbulent years there are only seven countries that remained reasonably free and democratic: the US, Canada, the UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand.

None of these countries is perfect, or ever was. In terms of democracy, only New Zealand had universal female suffrage before the Twentieth Century began. Switzerland did not achieve that until the 1970s. The US had forced racial segregation in some areas and well-documented (and often successful) policies to disenfranchise minorities which persisted into the second half of the century. Britain does not elect its (almost powerless) upper chamber of parliament. But these seven countries have long had clear and transparent, if imperfect, processes, for holding their rulers accountable. All seven are governed by the rule of law.

What, exactly, do these countries have in common? What are the factors that have made them successful and others not?

Five of the seven are reasonably isolated from potential enemies, which has plainly helped them from being overrun, though during the Nazi terror Sweden and Switzerland were surrounded, and Switzerland is landlocked.

Five of the seven are largely English-speaking. Actually, as anyone who has visited Switzerland and Sweden will tell you, all seven are English-speaking. Switzerland has four native languages, so English may even be the most widely spoken language in the country. 

Five of the seven – all except the US and Switzerland – are monarchies. Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share the same Queen. Sweden has its own royal family. 

To Americans, this may seem the strangest common factor. Though sharing the same British cultural and legal and linguistic traditions as the Commonwealth Realms, the US was founded on a firm rejection of monarchy. To a modern reader, the Declaration of Independence seems almost unhinged on the subject. Why on Earth would Jefferson be blaming the King for the policies of the Prime Minister? By 1776, the powers of the British monarchy were already more theoretical than real. No bill becomes law without royal assent, but Jefferson would have known that this had not been withheld in generations. The last monarch to do so, Queen Anne, was also the last regularly to chair cabinet meetings. Her successor, George I, was German and did not speak English, so played no role in politics.

But by 1776, George I was long dead and his great-grandson, George III was on the throne. He was born and educated in Britain and spoke English as his first language. He believed, even in his lucid moments (and he suffered periodic bouts of insanity) that his great grandfather had ceded too much royal power and was determined to reassert it. With the advantage of a couple of centuries, this looks like the death rattle of absolute monarchy, but in 1780 the House of Commons passed a resolution declaring that “the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”. Jefferson was part of the same Whig tradition as John Dutton, who proposed this motion. They did not know that the king would fail and that his successors would be ornamental figureheads. 

But language and monarchs aside, these countries have an unbroken tradition and culture of law which has proved incredibly resilient.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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