The monarchy paradox: If it’s so great, why do we all hate it?

Elizabeth II, the queen most Canadians don't want

The fact that a certain policy or proposal polls badly is not necessarily an indication that it lacks wisdom. Many perfectly good ideas generate unreasonably high levels of derision for a variety of ignorant reasons, and it can take a long time for public opinion to swing in a more enlightened direction. Mere controversy is not a sufficient case for outright rejection.

The monarchy is kind of a different matter, though. A monarchy claims, as one of its justifications for existence, to already be universally popular, since universal popularity is deemed a highly desirable quality that only a monarch can possess. Politicians, the monarchist argument goes, are divisive figures. They are chosen through messy elections which polarize public opinion and form lasting legacies of partisan distrust. A monarch, by contrast, holds office by birthright, and is thus “above” the divisive nature of the party system. She can be — nay, is — beloved by all citizens equally as a result.

The problem with this argument is that it’s so incredibly easy to disprove. According to a recent Ipsos-Reid poll, a full 58% of Canadians believe Canada should end its ties to the British monarchy and have a Canadian citizen as the country’s head of state, rather than the Queen. The high negative numbers are hardly earth-shattering; pretty much every public survey of at least the last decade has generated similar results.

Again, by citing this statistic I am not necessarily making the point that monarchy is a good or bad form of government — simply that monarchy is not doing what it claims to do. It’s a performance review argument much more than a utilitarian argument, though the two are of course closely interrelated. If the monarchy’s usefulness can only be justified by making a number of obviously false statements about its popularity and past performance, then the system deserves a failing grade on those grounds alone. Which is good news for Canada’s republican majority, since obviously false statements seem to be the only weapon in the monarchist arsenal.

Since I am on the Government of Canada’s propaganda mailing list, I get various brochures and pamphlets delivered to my house from time to time. A recent one, obviously crafted in anticipation of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the country this week, is a trite little booklet entitled A Crown of Maples: Constitutional Monarchy in Canada. The point of the publication is to celebrate Canada’s monarchical traditions, which, in the great paradox of Canadian monarchism, can only be done by aggressively reminding Canadians that they have monarchical traditions in the first place.

The most striking thing about monarchist propaganda in this country is how gleefully indifferent it is to any sort of measurable truth. The monarchy “is central to our uniquely Canadian identity,” says Prime Minister Harper in the brochure’s opening letter. At the risk of sounding snarky: no, it’s not. A truly fantastic poll released in 2002 revealed that only 5% of all Canadians could even correctly identify Queen Elizabeth as Canada’s head of state in the first place (69% believed it to be the prime minister) — a pretty lame showing for something “central” to our self-conscious existence. But no bother. Her Majesty “unites all Canadians in allegiance and gives a collective sense of belonging to the country,” says page 30.

You can go through the entire laundry list of royalist justifications and it’s all the same. Always a very defensive tone, always bizarrely argued fluff statements that seem oddly detached and disinterested towards the highly controversial nature of the subject in question. You’d think an institution with a 58% disapproval rating would deserve a defense a bit more robust than “The Queen and her family take a very personal and sustained interest in Canada” (page 39).

Even the historical arguments are fairly dubious. “No part of this country has ever been a  republic or part of a republic,” a quote from the late Senator Forsey smugly states on page 12, implying that it is somehow ahistoric to question the Crown. Yet on Appendix IV we find a cute little chart of the “Sovereigns of Canada,” somewhat charitably dating from 1485 to present. From 1649 to 1660 it is acknowledged that the sovereign of Canada was Oliver Cromwell, a man who would probably be rather hesitant to classify his regime as monarchical. And even if we want to be a bit more contemporary, Canada’s third-biggest province, British Columbia, was under partial republican control from 1818 to 1846, during its years as the “Oregon Territory,” an Anglo-American colony jointly managed by the United States and Britain. Republican sentiment was likewise hugely influential in the Canadian rebellions of the mid 19th Century, and it was envy of the republican institutions of America, more than any affinity for the Crown, that inspired the reformers to establish our modern system of responsible governance. The republican legacy of Canada cannot be ignored just because it hurts your side of the argument. Such history could certainly be undermined or denounced, but it speaks to the intellectual laziness of the monarchist side that they would rather just declare it nonexistent.

I could go on, but why bother? Does any Canadian genuinely believe, for example, that “the Crown remains an important democratic institution in Canada and serves as the vigilant guardian of our system of government during times of constant change”? Vigilance, in this usage, evidently refers to unquestioningly obeying every edict of the prime minister, while guardianship of our democratic system is apparently a duty we feel perfectly comfortable outsourcing to someone whose previous job literally entailed telling us what television show was on next.

The monarchy is the last great issue on which the state feels comfortable openly lying to its people. Any government-issued statement about the Crown’s popularity, usefulness, or cultural importance can never be taken at face value, because such statements are always born from a position of pushy hucksterism, rather than any honest attempt to communicate the facts. On any other issue dividing public opinion worse than 50-50, like, say abortion, or the death penalty, one can hardly imagine the government of Canada going out of its way to proselytize the status quo. If a brochure was released that unflinchingly declared something like, “the fundamentally just and popular GST is a tax which unites all Canadians in support and pride,” the agency responsible would be appropriately condemned for wasting money on such absurd reality-denying propaganda. Unbridled monarchist evangelism gets a pass from the public only because most people don’t care about the issue, but the magnitude of unabashed boosterism from government quarters is still somewhat breathtaking.

Not unlike their unwavering affinity for bilingualism, or the Ministry of Amateur Sport, Canada’s ruling elite over-imagines the importance of the Crown simply because they’re exposed to it a lot more. The Canadian government (and for that matter, legal system) is awash in elaborately pious rituals of squinching before the monarch, and in time the participants begin to imagine their fidelity represents some fundamental core of nationalism, in the same way CBC employees tend to believe there is no expression of patriotism higher than watching public television. It’s a “professional deformity,” as the French used to say, and the poor quality of monarchist arguments from the very highest level of our government displays the sort of scrambled rhetoric members of the political class produce when unexpectedly forced to make an intellectual argument for something that lacks any appeal beyond the emotional.

I think this, more than anything else, is the reason why Canada has not yet had a substantial national debate on the monarchy. Canadian opinion may be polarized, just not in the right places.

You can download a PDF version of A Crown of Maples on the website of the Government of Canada.