There are words and phrases you don't hear often any more.

"Subbing a running story on galley proofs in the caseroom while an overseer grumbles at your elbow" contains a few of them. But then, on the night in question the story in question contained another idea we thought we'd never hear of again.

On a night in February 1981 the return of state fascism to western Europe seemed like a very real possibility. Even at a distance, the death of Francisco Franco and the tentative beginnings of democracy in Spain in 1975 had been like the end of a bad dream and the start of a new day. When a bunch of trigger-happy coppers burst into the Cortes in '81, issuing the usual demands, it was as though the Caudillo had risen from the grave. So we had a front page to fill.

For a few days, nothing was clear. There was this young king, Juan Carlos, who had "legalised" the Socialist and Communist parties of Spain. He had made all the right democratic moves and noises. But wasn't this character Franco's puppet, the Bourbon princeling groomed to rule from the age of 10 by the old fascist? Why would he be averse to what was, patently, an attempted coup by people who didn't care for elections?

My own view, cynical no doubt, is that Juan Carlos of Spain regarded constitutional monarchy as the better career move. This is not to question his courage in facing down the military. As those campaigning for the independence of Catalonia know even today, the country's armed forces contain people capable of threats, menaces and worse. Juan Carlos refused their blandishments, took them on, and - for this is certainly true - saved a fledgling democracy.

But he also preserved a very decent living for himself and his heirs. Had Juan Carlos aligned himself with the coup he would probably have won a few brief, Ruritanian years before Spain's monarchy joined those of Greece, Albania and others on the scrapheap. Instead, the young king voted - so to speak - for the modern version of royalty. Yet now, as he abdicates, "his" people take to the streets and demand a referendum on the hereditary principle.

There is a lot of abdicating going on. In Belgium and the Netherlands, as now in Spain, monarchy seems less like a sacred trust than a kind of family job-share. We have even seen a pope, the unlamented Benedict, perform the theologically tricky act of early retirement. Dying in post has fallen out of fashion. Getting out while the going is good is all the rage. It, too, is the modern thing for a go-ahead figurehead to do should a tarnished brand need a little repositioning.

We - the rest of "we" are assured swiftly - don't do that kind of thing. Britain's royal house might share a talent for scandal with its relations in Belgium or Spain. There might be the same demands to allow relative youth its turn as are heard sometimes in Sweden or Denmark. But here, with our modern constitutional monarchy, only the aged Queen will decide whether the aged Queen is fit to go on doing the job of head of state. This is the 21st century, after all.

For a republican, this ought to be comical. For that comedy to work, though, it would have to compete with the fact that a majority in her United Kingdom are better than content with the idea that whatever the Queen decides is fine by them. This, seemingly, is how it should and must be. While Juan Carlos acknowledges unpopularity, or hands on the job in an attempt to sway November's Catalan referendum, our monarch is unfettered in her choices.

You could call this an oddity of the British. But then you would have to overlook the fact that the convener of the Scottish National Party seems as keen on royalty as any Whitehall mandarin booking his ermine. While its continental counterparts treat modern reigning as a job from which one can take a well-earned rest, the United Kingdom's monarchy retreats deeper into the invented mysticism we call our own.

Elizabeth has been "consecrated". To her, the duty of dying on the throne is "sacrosanct". Put aside the fact that no-one pauses to ask what is truly meant by these weighty words. The essence is, first, that we give people the head-of-state job according to genetic lottery (Edward VIII and other bits of trouble aside), then grant, secondly, the absolute right to decide how the post is managed. Then, third and last, we settle back and applaud the ancient wisdom inherent in all of this. For such is what it means to be British.

Nevertheless, the monarchists have a point. The majority of people on these islands like to have their state arranged in this way. The signs are that they would have it no other way. The only trick missed is the free annual issue of doffing caps.

This might be because the status of royalty in constitutionally fragile countries such as Spain or Belgium has never been above question. Those royal houses have long felt a bit fake. But it might also be because we decline to recognise fakery in our own state of affairs. When Alex Salmond talks, for example, of Elizabeth as "Queen of Scots", a couple of dozen words fail. This is government by magical realism.

Juan Carlos prevented a fascist coup. If the protests on the streets fail and all the Bourbon decadence is forgotten, that fact will endure for a generation or so. Spain's king took up his duties as a head of state, a job involving big arguments in most democracies, and refused to cede one democracy when Falangists issued their demands. All the mistresses in the world could not tarnish the fact.

We, in contrast, persist with the pretence that the monarch has "no power", or "must not interfere". At its best, our royal house is celebrated as an enduring nullity. In reality, our head of state allows the executive of the day to get on with any project it has in my mind. Has Elizabeth ever protected the constitution against the excesses of government? Not, for one example, where Scotland is concerned. Has she ever used her office to preserve her people from an illegal war? That would be one of those rhetorical questions.

Juan Carlos has done well from his guile and his genetic luck; the House of Windsor has done better. The petty monarchs of Europe are worth bearing in mind, nevertheless, when a monarchist next argues that royals are better than squalid presidents with their democratic mandates.

Even by their own lights, kings and queens should be judged by how the job is done. There should be more to it, if you must have royals, than shaking lots of hands and refusing to die. The head of state is, or ought to be, the guardian of the essence of the state, not the head of a family public relations operation. Being elected by your people never hurts. But then, republic is another of those words you don't hear often enough these days.