Monarchy

Long May They Reign: The Case for Keeping Canada’s Monarchy

Jamie C. Weir
May 11, 2023
The coronation of King Charles III led many Canadians to ask, once again, a simple question: Why should an old man in a land across the sea be our head of state, simply because his ancestors were? It’s a good question, and the case against the monarchy seems powerful. Jamie C. Weir takes on the key arguments and explains why an antiquated and undemocratic institution remains the centrepiece of Canada’s unique political culture, provides a profound and even magical link to our past, and serves as an essential bulwark against the two political death-traps of anarchy and tyranny.
Monarchy

Long May They Reign: The Case for Keeping Canada’s Monarchy

Jamie C. Weir
May 11, 2023
The coronation of King Charles III led many Canadians to ask, once again, a simple question: Why should an old man in a land across the sea be our head of state, simply because his ancestors were? It’s a good question, and the case against the monarchy seems powerful. Jamie C. Weir takes on the key arguments and explains why an antiquated and undemocratic institution remains the centrepiece of Canada’s unique political culture, provides a profound and even magical link to our past, and serves as an essential bulwark against the two political death-traps of anarchy and tyranny.
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On the 6th of May, within the vaulting walls of Westminster Abbey, Charles III finally took his seat on the Coronation Chair. Fashioned at the end of the 13th century, the drab, scratched piece of carpentry looked almost out of place amidst the gold and ermine and jewels. Anointed with holy oil – as every monarch before him has been for a thousand years – the crown of St. Edward placed on his head, the man known for decades as Prince Charles was proclaimed, to the sound of choirs, King not only of the United Kingdom but of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and 11 other realms. He will reign as sovereign over 7½ million square miles and 150 million people. There can be few clearer indications of the startlingly disproportionate influence that a few small, damp islands off the coast of Europe have had over the course of world affairs.

It is natural that the passing away of an old monarch and the accession of a new one should prompt some reflection on the institution itself. For those critical of the idea of monarchy, it provides a focus for public interest and an occasion for advancing the case against it. Particularly now, as the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II recedes into the past and we have a new and untested monarch in place, that debate becomes increasingly appropriate. Even for firm monarchists, it cannot be enough to rely on inertia to maintain the institution. And those who wish to see Britain and the other realms become republics surely have something to say. As our nations evolve, the case for a modern monarchy must be continually made and understood.

A King of many nations: On May 6th in Westminster Abbey, Charles III was proclaimed King not only of the United Kingdom but of Canada, Australia and a dozen other realms. (Source of photos: The Canadian Press/Press Association)

In Canada it is even less surprising that the monarchy’s continued existence should be periodically re-evaluated. We can distill the classic arguments against the monarchy into four main strands: that it is (i) undemocratic, (ii) unrepresentative, (iii) antiquated or regressive, and (iv) plain useless. There are also uniquely Canadian critiques: although mounted RCMP officers in traditional red serge rode at the head of the King’s procession back to Buckingham Palace on Coronation Day, it is surely bizarre that a wealthy, advanced, modern country should have a foreign and non-resident head of state. Canada is the only G7 member with such an arrangement.

Although these criticisms are powerful, the world seldom conforms to our abstract conceptions of how it ought to function. The great paradox of monarchy is that, in practice even if not in theory, its most obvious flaws are also its greatest strengths. Monarchy as practised in and by Great Britain has had the opposite effects to those its critics claim: it has facilitated democratic development, fostered good and responsible government, and smoothed the path into the modern world. Its antiquity anchors it in our history; it reaches back into our past and connects us to the story of how we got here. The monarchy is woven into the history of Canada, as it is to dozens of countries around the world. It has evolved incrementally, moulded by the crises and upheavals of human experience, to become a guarantor of the peaceful, free and orderly political culture we have inherited.

From Empire to Commonwealth

One could make the case that ever since American independence, Canada has been on its own irresistible road to complete autonomy. In the wake of the armed uprisings of 1837-38 in Upper and Lower Canada – coming as they did after the disastrous loss of the Thirteen Colonies – the British government dispatched the Earl of Durham to ascertain the state and cause of the discontent. In his report of 1839, Lord Durham made radical, sweeping recommendations for the introduction of “responsible government” in the remaining North American colonies. By this he meant increasingly autonomous, representative local government in the Westminster tradition of parliamentary accountability. The implications of the Durham Report were not lost on other British possessions such as Australia, New Zealand and even India, which would themselves later evolve into self-governing dominions (although not without serious strife and bloodshed in the case of India).

The British Empire, then, is perhaps unique in not only envisioning its own demise, but actively planning for it. Amid the pomp and seeming self-confidence of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in the summer of 1897, when British power seemed unassailable, even Rudyard Kipling, a champion of the empire, cautioned that it would go the way of all others:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

  On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

  Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

—Recessional, 1897

After armed uprisings in the Canadian colonies in 1837-1838, Lord John Lambton, the Earl of Durham (left), was sent to British North America to investigate; his report recommended “responsible government” in the Westminster tradition of parliamentary accountability.

Anticipating that day, the British Empire adopted a model of gradual transformation in its colonies such that they would ultimately become fully independent progeny states, moulded in Britannia’s image. For Canada, this trajectory was cemented in the Statute of Westminster (1931) and in the final patriation of legislative sovereignty in the Canada Act of 1982. In light of this history it is tempting to view the rejection of the “British” Royal Family as the necessary culmination of this long road to self-determination. Indeed, opinion polling can show marked decreases in support for the monarchy in Canada when the public are asked about the “British monarchy” or “British Royal Family” having a role in the nation’s political life, rather than simply “the monarchy.”

This perception of the monarchy as a meddling foreign imposition is misplaced – historically backwards, in fact. The monarchy preceded the establishment of Canada itself, and while Canada and the other former colonies were at first clearly subordinate, this is no longer the case. Today, Charles III is King of Canada just as much as he is King of the United Kingdom. This relationship was formally established in the Balfour Declaration of the 1926 Imperial Conference, which read, in part: “[The Dominions and Great Britain] are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

Polls show declining support for the monarchy in Canada and it’s tempting to see rejection of the Royal Family as the culmination of the long road to complete self-determination. (Source of graph: Angus Reid Institute)

Independent, but bonded by familial ties, shared sacrifice in war, and common values – a collective inheritance symbolized by unity under the same Crown. Note how the Balfour Declaration reflected a clear shift in the role of the Crown, even a century ago, to become less of an active force in politics and more an embodiment of who the peoples of the realm are and what they value, sitting above (presiding over) government. The persistence of the monarchy was meant to aid rather than impinge upon the development and growth of responsible government.

Such was the vision fashioned for the British Empire in the early part of the last century. It was a remarkably progressive one that guided the transition to the Commonwealth. A key feature of this arrangement is that the monarchy is an independent part of each realm: Britain could abolish the monarchy tomorrow and Charles III would remain King of Canada.

As Canadian as Hockey and Maple Syrup

Appreciating this historical perspective is important because nations are organic things: living products of time and place. Although the monarchy has been passed onto Canada from Britain as a result of the two countries’ interwoven history, it is wrong to think of it as anything but a deeply Canadian institution. The character of Canada, its Constitution, its government, are all steeped in monarchy. The symbols of royal authority remain almost everywhere, even though some were deliberately expunged by governments along the way (Canada Post, for example, used to be called the Royal Mail – Canada. In Britain, the now-privatized postal service remains the Royal Mail).

Deeply Canadian: The character of Canada, its Constitution and government are steeped in monarchy, and symbols of royal authority remain almost everywhere. Pictured: (left) the Royal Window in the foyer of Rideau Hall, Ottawa; (bottom middle) the monarch’s and consort’s thrones in the Senate of Canada; (top right) collector’s licence plate honouring the 1984 royal visit. (Sources of photos: (left) Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; (top middle) Pixabay; (bottom middle) Public Domain; (top right) Collection of the Canadian Automotive Museum)

The Crown is as much a part of Canada as it is of Great Britain, though clearly less visible. In a speech in Toronto at the end of her visit to Canada in 2010, the Late Queen Elizabeth II made this clear: “Tomorrow afternoon, I shall address the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York as the Sovereign of sixteen member states and Head of the Commonwealth. Just as in 1957, when I last visited the UN, I shall be travelling from this Northern Realm as Queen of Canada.”

The monarchy becomes even more pronounced as a distinguishing characteristic when Canada is compared with her great republican neighbour. Proximity to a superpower cannot help but influence a country, and the cultural presence of the United States throughout Canada is almost pervasive. But it is Canada’s system of responsible government – of a Westminster-style parliamentary constitutional monarchy – that makes the country distinct.

Set beside one another, Canada and the United States are like historical counterfactuals; a steady, conservative process of slow constitutional evolution sharply juxtaposed against noisy, radical upheaval and innovation. Advocates for a republic might well ask themselves whether Canada is somehow really less democratic than its neighbour by virtue of having a monarch. At the same time they might consider that republics found in, say, South America often present less appealing objects of emulation.

Who Better Wears the Crown

Rather than being a derivative property of a foreign power, better consigned to history, the King and the Crown are parts of the bespoke blend that makes the political culture of Canada unique. Still, how can we justify clinging to an institution so patently at odds with modern values of democracy and equality? Connected with the idea that the monarchy is undemocratic is the perception that it is also unrepresentative of the diverse community that is modern Canada.

The organization Citizens for a Canadian Republic puts it very well: “Inherited rights in government, symbolic or otherwise, is a concept incompatible with Canadian values of egalitarianism.” This criticism would have been familiar to U.S. revolutionary Thomas Paine, who opined that the idea of a hereditary ruler was as “as absurd as an hereditary mathematician…and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureat (sic).”

It is of course true that the hereditary principle is not egalitarian. But what we must ask ourselves is whether we wish not only policy but the very structure of government to be slave to perfect, abstract reason or whether we can accept something a bit unsystematic, a bit imperfect, even a bit silly, because it is real and it works, not only for today but for centuries? Something inimitably human.

Apotheosis of abolition: For U.S. revolutionary Thomas Paine, the idea of a hereditary monarch was “as absurd as an hereditary mathematician…and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureat (sic).”

It is not enough to say we desire “egalitarianism” or “equality.” What does that mean in practice? How does it look laid out upon the stage of a country? Certainly, the King could be got rid of and replaced with a symbolic appointed president or even an elected (but still non-executive) governor-general. Many countries have gone this route, from the former monarchy-cum-dictatorship Germany to newly formed republics like Israel.

Canadians too could then bask in self-congratulation that there were no more bows and curtsies, no more “Your Majesty” and “Royal-this” and “Royal-that.” And instead we’d have yet another of that most noble, respectable breed – a politician. Puffed up on self-importance, red carpets and banquets with dignitaries, even an elected head of state might be forgiven for harbouring illusions that they are just a little bit better than everyone else. In converting to a republic, Canada would risk ending up not with the best but the worst of both systems, remaining plagued by the pomp (and pomposity) of quasi-monarchy while having discarded the monarchy’s single most important benefit: its demonstrably stabilizing effect on a country’s politics.

Keeping politicians (by definition, people who seek authority and influence) away from the trappings of power inherent in the role of head of state is no bad thing. In a republic, it is typically the president who stands before the parades of tanks, soaking up the applause. In such a situation, at the pinnacle of the state’s structure with nothing but sky above, they could be forgiven for letting it go to their head. History is littered with presidents turned dictators, somewhat less so with prime ministers turned autocrats in constitutional monarchies. Even where the office of head of state is elected but non-executive, the inevitable politicization of the role can introduce dangerous conflicts of interest with the executive branch of government. By contrast, the unattainable and untouchable monarchy sits above all that, a firm ceiling to over-ambitious politicians.

George Orwell (left) saw the monarchy as providing “inoculation” against fascism, saying it was best for people to tie their leader-worship to figures with little power, whereas history is littered with republics turning into dictatorships. Pictured are examples: Fidel Castro of Cuba (middle) and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines (right). (Source of left photo: Cassowary Colorizations, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

George Orwell saw this function of monarchy as an “inoculation” against fascism, an “escape-valve for dangerous emotions.” In an article in Partisan Review in 1944, Orwell wrote, “[It’s better that people] tie their leader-worship onto some figure who has no real power. In a dictatorship the power and the glory belong to the same person. In England the real power belongs to unprepossessing men in bowler hats: the creature who rides in a gilded coach behind soldiers in steel breast-plates is really a waxwork.”

Pure Democracy is Anything but Perfect

The British Crown’s salutary role in guarding against dictatorship is complemented by its stabilizing effects, a function of its long continuity and reservoir of public respect. History since the days of Ancient Greece has shown that in times of fear and crisis, democracies can degenerate into mob rule and anarchy. When chaos stalks the land, as has happened countless times, people often seek the strong hand of tyranny to restore order. Pure democracy by itself cannot guarantee liberty, the rule of law, or even its own survival.

A primal link to the past: The monarchy’s antiquity and the Coronation’s medieval rituals are elements of its “irrational magic”; monarchs come and go but the Crown endures. Depicted: (top) coronation of Henry IV in 1399; (bottom) coronation of King George IV in 1821. (Source of bottom photo: westminster-abbey.org)

That this fatal weakness is all-but unmentionable today stems from our tendency to gather together under the banner of “democracy” all manner of Western liberal society’s virtues. Democracy, liberty, the rule of law and equality under the law are not ironclad guarantees of one another. It is possible for a very democratic society to be very unfree, and for a very unfair system to form a bulwark against tyranny. The English, for example, enjoyed many fundamental liberties long before the evolution of what we today consider democracy.

Many approaches have been tried; very few work over the long term. The Westminster tradition has proved itself durable, stable and, crucially, adaptable. Its constitutional tension between monarch and parliament, managed by a strong executive and built on a historically contingent tradition of liberty – Lord Durham’s “responsible government” – is the triumph of an effective solution over a logical one, of pragmatism over idealism.

Even the Founding Fathers of the United States recognized the British constitution’s remarkable effectiveness and sought to emulate it as far as possible. James Madison in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 recalled that Alexander Hamilton thought that “the British Government was the best in the world: and that he doubted much whether any thing short of it would do in America.”

U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (left) regarded the British model of government as the world’s best and “doubted much whether any thing short of it would do in America.” Shown on right, the signing of the Constitution of the United States during the Federal Convention of 1787, by Howard Chandler Christy.

Throughout its history, Canada has benefited from the inheritance of Britain’s constitution, and from the modern, slowly evolved monarchical system. The Commonwealth countries have, through incremental legislation, succeeded at separating the glittering trappings of power from the execution of (and accountability for) that power – the crucial division Orwell identified.

The English, British and Canadian constitutions are therefore best described more as evolved than designed systems. Through lacking a single, clearly written document, they appear illogical, opaque and antiquated. But these very traits give the constitutions their adaptability. (Canada’s more explicit, and recent, Charter of Rights and Freedoms jars somewhat against this gradualist, common-law tradition.)

We should not allow ourselves to be seduced by the beauty and neatness of codified constitutions. They naturally appeal to intellectuals, for whom convention is irritatingly nebulous, but for all their clean lines and grand sentiments they are not necessarily persistent, or honest. America is the prominent exception in being a major country with a long-lived written constitution. Globally the average lifespan is a mere 17 years before the document is overhauled or torn up by new governments, social upheaval or political crises. France has had no fewer than 17 of them since its Revolution of 1789.

Formal, explicit constitutions seem to be brittle things, perhaps because it is hubristic to imagine we can dream up something as flexible as an effective instrument of government that will function for some future society, centuries from now. Human life is too intricate for that, and only an iterative process of tinkering over hundreds of years – of moulding and shaping to the temper of the people – can produce something stable. And without a single written document to embody and symbolize the state and the people, a nation needs something else.

The Irrational Magic of the Monarchy

Allowing for a long, gradual process of constitutional evolution is one of the great advantages of the British Crown, its ancient roots supporting a mighty trunk. Of course, the monarchy is tightly bound up with Canada’s British history. For some, this very narrow connection may be odious; why should an old man in a land across the sea hold the office of head of state, and simply because his forefathers did?

That distance can itself be an advantage. In Britain people are necessarily more in thrall to the personalities behind the ermine and jewels, and ravenously consume gossip columns detailing lurid scandals about members of the Royal Family. This has blurred the lines between the King and the Crown, between the Royal Family and the monarchy as institution. Removed from constant contact with the personages of the monarch and his family, Canadians are in a better position. The monarch’s constitutional power is exercised and lies behind many aspects of public life, but is largely abstracted. The legal force and symbolic value remain, but at a suitable distance from the person.

“Emotional power”: The monarchy’s constancy and sense of heritage speaks to people on a profound level. Shown are British monarchs who reigned since Canada’s founding in 1867, starting from top left, clockwise: Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901), King Edward VII (1901-1910), King George V (1910-1936), King Edward VIII (1936), King George VI (1936-1952), Queen Elizabeth II (1952-2022). (Sources of photos: (top left, bottom middle and bottom right) Public Domain; (top middle) Encyclopedia Britannica; (top right) Camera Press/Globe Photos; (bottom left) BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives)

The very antiquity of Canada’s monarchy – amply on display in the recent Coronation’s medieval religious rituals – could easily condemn it as ludicrously outdated. And that is perhaps the most cutting critique: it is all rather absurd. Those for whom progress is an endless good may dismiss the monarchy out of hand with a single assertion: “We don’t need princes and princesses anymore, this isn’t the Middle Ages.”

“Modern” alternatives could certainly be devised: a pure republic with an elected and executive head of state, a parliamentary system with an elective or appointed ceremonial head of state or, least radically, a constitutional monarchy with royals stripped of palaces, crowns and costumes. That is all possible. But still there is something about the idea of a king that speaks to us, on a deeply irrational though profound level. The Crown Jewels, the robes, the thrones…They do belong to our past, and because of that they root us in it.

The magic of monarchy is its stretching back deep into time, connecting us with our ancestors. In a world of change it seems not to belong, and that constancy and simplicity and sense of heritage lends it the better part of its emotional power. Here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians can only dream of evoking such instinctive respect – even awe. A monarchy brings warmth and humanity to the cold marble of the office of head of state. It becomes a thing of flesh and blood; one life, like ours, but played out on a grand stage. This makes it something we can appreciate at a deep, primitive level.

During the Nazi German occupation of Denmark in the Second World War, Denmark’s then-king Christian X would take daily rides through the streets of Copenhagen. He had chosen to risk staying rather than fleeing into exile. In making such defiant gestures as he could, he served as a symbol of Danish sovereignty in those dark times. His cypher became an emblem of resistance to tyranny. Christian X could do this because he was the personification of the nation.

A paradox of power: Though fundamentally undemocratic, the monarchy can support the functioning and maintenance of a healthy democracy – something those who wish it gone forget at everyone’s peril. Shown on left, the Buckingham Palace official Coronation portrait of King Charles III; on right, protesters gathering in Trafalgar Square ahead of the Coronation, May 6, 2023. (Sources of photos: (left) Hugo Burnand/Avalon via ZUMA Press; (right) Gareth Fuller/Pool Photo via AP)

Monarchs come and go, but the Crown endures. In this purportedly egalitarian age, defending hereditary titles seems anathema. But pointing and crying “unfair” is a child’s response. The world is more complicated than that. The King carries with him ancient symbolic power, and denies that power to those who would improperly seek it. Convention ties his hands; he can make no laws and declare no conflicts. But it is no bad thing for the country that he can check an ambitious politician’s pride, that they must bow before him, and explain themselves. At Charles III’s Coronation, many politicians accustomed to being the most important person in the room found themselves without even front-row seats. As Orwell and others recognized, the monarchy is not democratic but can be an aid to the functioning and maintenance of a healthy democracy – and an obstacle to tyranny.

That is the paradox of constitutional monarchy. Unelected, yet free. Unrepresentative, yet unifying. Illogical, yet effective. And that the “British” monarchy is deeply Canadian. It is the root of Canadian history. Canada chose loyalty to the Crown, where the Thirteen Colonies rejected it. Let us hope that, for the peoples of all the Commonwealth Realms, the Crown continues to remind us of all that we have achieved together. That in this uncertain age, the monarchy remains an embodiment of our shared inheritance. An inheritance we would sweep away at our peril.

Jamie Weir is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, with interests in constitutional history. His writing is archived at https://jamiecweir.substack.com/

Source of main image: David Niviere/abacapress.com.

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