God save the constitutional Monarchy

Colby Cosh on why he will take his chances with the Royal Baby as head of state
Prince Harry (L), Prince William (R) and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the Trooping the Colour ceremony in central London June 15, 2013. Trooping the Colour is a ceremony to honour the sovereign’s official birthday. REUTERS/Paul Hackett (BRITAIN - Tags: ANNIVERSARY ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY ROYALS) - RTX10OPM
(John Stillwell ,Getty Images)
(John Stillwell ,Getty Images)

Of course, of course, you’re obviously quite right: all the hubbub around the Royal Baby is silly. We all go harmlessly mad over a natural event that happens a million times every three days on this planet, and single out one ordinary infant for the imagined unfolding of a bizarre destiny that may in a zillion different ways go awry. And for what? What the hell do we Canadians gain by it?

The question is asked a lot, usually by people whose ancestors could just as easily have been Americans if they had wanted to be. Cranky republicans in the United Kingdom, one supposes, have the right to complain that they might have arranged things otherwise. They are stuck with the constitutional arrangements that prevail in their indigenous home, assuming that is where they wish to remain. But Canada was largely peopled by those who consciously preferred to live under British monarchical institutions, including the silly ones. Even the Québécois, who have poured generations of footloose francophones across the southern border, and the First Nations, who have (alas, increasingly theoretical) legal rights to ignore that border, have been sorted by time in this way.

So: if you don’t like the show, why are you still here? Too lazy to fix your ancestors’ collective mistake, eh? It’s a big world and there are plenty of republics, far more of them than monarchies. I hear parts of Laos are lovely.

I kid. But if you came from the dark side of the moon tomorrow and had no a priori reason to prefer either the “choose a head of state by some ostensibly rational method” system or the “get all het up over a basically random baby” system, surely you would find it at least a little odd that the second system produces such nice places to live, from New Zealand all the way around to the Netherlands. What is it about those damned babies exactly?


Well, you have probably noticed that dynastic thinking isn’t limited to monarchies: you can ask the Kims of North Korea or the Kennedys of Hyannis Port. The secret of constitutional monarchies is not that they indulge the dynastic impulse, but that they have found a means of circumscribing it without losing the advantages. Chief amongst these, I think, is a sense of historical continuity: we still so clearly remember the new prince’s gin- and horse-loving great-great-grandmother, born in the reign of Victoria, and now comes R.B. himself, unlikely to warm the chair of St. Edward until even the youngest of you reading this are pensioners (if you’re lucky, and if “pensions” are still a thing). It provides a natural, almost enforced occasion for a species of “long now” panoramic, intergenerational thinking that various nerds and hucksters like to profit from.

It’s true that a domestic Canadian dynasty would do that job about as well, and this is the source for much of the odium in which our system is held by republicans. Dammit, Royal Baby isn’t even Canadian Royal Baby! Barring the overthrow of our Constitution, we are never likely to have a “Canadian” head of state who has grown up entirely amongst us. When you are finished having a cry about that, I would suggest reflecting upon the possible benefits: an indigenous Canadian head of state would have to be some particular person, wedded to one of our regions and official languages and political tribes and social classes and, indeed, component nations. Surely there is some merit in having ultimate last-resort legitimacy—an important plus of monarchy, as the Second World War taught—vested in an outsider. Maybe every country should have a king or queen from somewhere else, someone extremely intimate with its constitutional traditions and language but otherwise neutral; rooted, for safety, in other soil.

Or maybe that is the dumbest idea you’ve ever heard. But republicans do need to take the “particularity” factor into account in weighing their long-term chances. Until the debate over the fundamental Constitution gets serious, the choice is “imaginary elected president from my personal fantasies, perhaps a genetic cross between Barack Obama and Justin Timberlake” versus “actual living family that has had various difficulties and embarrassments.” This is inherently good ground for anti-monarchists to fight on, but only when there is no actual fight.

If we had an Australian-style referendum on the monarchy, the republicans would not only have to present an actual alternative system for criticism — which is what befouled the hopes of Australian republicans — undecideds would also be obliged to start imagining a world in which the personal fountainhead of political legitimacy might end up being Don Cherry or Rob Ford or George Stroumboulopoulos. I personally will take my chances with little R.B. God save the Queen.