Thursday, August 1, 2002
Royally speaking - THE COMMENTARY
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER -- Her Majesty, Elizabeth II is celebrating her Golden Jubilee this year. Fifty years ago, George VI died making her sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories (like this country Canada), Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
I grew up ambivalent of the monarchy. I never paid much notice, though one noticed stuff about the Queen’s particular annus horribilis in 1992. That year, parts of Windsor Castle went up in flames, whilst three of her children saw their marriages go to splitsville. The Prince and Princess of Wales saw their marriage disintegrate, as did that of the Princess Royal and Captain Mark Phillips. The Duke of York too, saw his marriage with the former Sarah Ferguson unravel. Toe sucking had something to do with that.
Though the Royals’ press during my formative years was a tad unflattering, I didn’t care. I thought like Hollywood’s latest stars, they existed merely as fodder for tabloids and the mainstream press. Then one gets cynical and thinks if they’re just there for the benefit of tab readers, then why not do away with an institution that’s practically useless. Realising the absurdity in figuring out what it is to be Canadian (something we’ve done since 1867), I thought like many, that Canadians should do away with the monarchy so as to develop something distinctly Canadian. However it is clear that being Canadian is being a complete mystery, not only to others, but to ourselves.
Canadians have struggled a long time with the notion of being Canadian. Read Richard Gwyn’s tome, Nationalism Without Walls, and you’ll realise it is hard to define the experiment that is Canada. Read John Ralston Saul’s Reflections of A Siamese Twin and realise that this bickering and challenging of the national psyche is done in vain. Our identity as Canadians is that mere battle of trying to figure out who we are, says the great Canadian philosopher His Excellency Himself. If we were to adopt an American style of governance, then we’d pay our allegiance to one President Jean Chrétien. The proverbial ‘friendly dictatorship’ certainly wouldn’t be proverbial, rather reality and least of all ‘friendly.’ And were we to keep the Governor General’s office as titular head of state, it would make many heave at the thought of paying any more allegiance and respect to Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul.
I am of the firm belief that the institution of royalty in Britain has worked for centuries, and there’s nothing egregiously wrong with keeping the Queen’s mug on our stamps and coins, and her name on our laws and court documents. The monarchy is our history, and to do away with it would be dangerous. If we’d be empowered to take our destiny in our own hands, then perhaps we can embark on the harrowing discussion of replacing the crown.
The monarchy is costly sure, but the expense is a pittance considering the value of separating a country’s head of state from its government. Consider Elizabeth II’s own record. In the last 50 years she’s been on the throne, 10 Prime Minister’s have taken up residence at 10 Downing Street. Whether Conservative or Labour governments, Her Majesty has remained in the service of her nation. That continuity affords the symbolism of a state separate from its day-to-day governance. From Churchill to Wilson, to Thatcher to Blair, the British people have seen their governments change, but the identity of the British people, that which resides in the crown, has not changed at all.
Though, the monarchy is often irresponsible and unchanging, it is the only thing we’ve got working for us. The missteps of Prince Harry or the sheer stinginess of the late Queen Mother to not leave any of her wealth to the many charities she’s patronised, makes for bad PR. The recent public displays of the thawing of rigid royal protocol -- the appearance of Ozzy Osbourne and Dame Edna at her jubilee celebrations or the appearance of Camilla Parker-Bowles on the same rostrum as the Queen -- is proof that public sentiment can bend the coldness of the House of Windsor. Remember when Diana, the Princess of Wales died? Her Majesty, though perceived to be uncaring, was doing the duty invested centuries ago in the House of Windsor. And remember that after much public pressure (pressure I might add that was highly unwarranted) the Queen herself, relented (albeit grudgingly) to make public statements complimenting the late Princess of Wales.
Now, what would happen after the demise of Elizabeth II, whether by death or abdication? This is a question that royal watchers and constitutional experts are grappling with. The implications towards Canada (not to mention Great Britain itself) would be tremendous. Would we assume that Charles would succeed his mother? Would he be accepted by the Church of England itself, as he seems to be inching towards marrying Mrs. Parker-Bowles? Some smarter folk have suggested that Canada’s own line of regal head of state, should end with Elizabeth II. That’s a good place to sever the link between Canada and crown, but whatever would take its place is the eternal question.
I guess I’d be categorised as a monarchist. But were there to be an institution to replace our reliance on Britain’s crown as our head of state, then I’d be open to seeing a discussion on Canada’s great institutional reform. However, until some possible and plausible reforms are suggested, I’m content in letting Elizabeth II “reign over us.” And long may she reign indeed.
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