A few thoughts on the monarchy

With all the focus on the AV referendum in the UK and the general election here in Canada, I’ve not had a chance to write anything about another event that’s in the news quite a bit. Of course I am referring to the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29.

I freely admit that I am a monarchist. I recognize that there is nothing rational in being a monarchist, but as Alex Massie points out “[M]onarchy may not satisfy a keen rationalist but abandoning something that works simply because it doesn’t “make sense” doesn’t make much sense either.”

I don’t really intend to write about the wedding itself. I am more interested in a couple of other issues surrounding the monarchy these days. First up are the proposals to change royal succession rules, as recently put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The current rule, set out in the 1701 Act of Settlement, specifies that a royal couple’s eldest male child automatically becomes monarch — unless, as was the case when Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father, King George VI, there is no male heir in the family — which many see as rather discriminatory and out of touch with a society that values gender equality, among other things. What some may not know is that the UK alone cannot change these rules. Any change would have to be agreed to by all the countries which recognize the Queen as monarch, including, of course, Canada.

Because Canada adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1931, these constitutional laws as they apply to Canada now lie within the full control of the Canadian parliament. Canada agreed not to change its rules of succession without the unanimous consent of, and a parallel change of succession in, the other realms, unless explicitly leaving the shared monarchy relationship; a situation that applies symmetrically in all the other realms and has been likened to a treaty amongst these countries. Thus, Canada’s line of succession remains identical to that of the United Kingdom. However, there is no provision in Canadian law requiring that the king or queen of Canada must be the same person as the king or queen of the United Kingdom; if the UK were to breach the convention set out in the preamble to the Statute of Westminster and unilaterally change the line of succession to the British throne, the alteration would have no effect on the reigning sovereign of Canada or his or her heirs and successors. As such, the rules for succession are not fixed, but may be changed by a constitutional amendment.

Canada’s Prime Minister, when asked about the matter, dismissed it as being a non-issue for most Canadians:

“The successor to the throne [Prince Charles] is a man,” said Mr. Harper. “The next successor to the throne [Prince William] is a man. I don’t think Canadians want to open a debate on the monarchy or constitutional matters at this time. That’s our position, and I just don’t see that as a priority for Canadians right now at all.”

I don’t think many Canadians would have a problem with changing the rule to allow the female offspring of royal couples to succeed to the throne, even if they have younger male siblings. This would bring the monarchy in line with Canada’s own commitment to gender equality. Rather, I think the larger issue that might arise is the question of whether Canada should retain the monarchy full stop.

Recent polls in Canada show that many Canadians favour moving to an elected head of state once Queen Elizabeth II passes away. The Queen still remains quite popular and respected in Canada, but Canadians are decidedly less enthusiastic about Prince Charles. That same poll, however, shows that Prince William is almost as popular as the Queen. The unpopularity of Charles and the popularity of his eldest son isn’t unique to Canada, and this reality might actually lead to a bigger issue than that of male vs. female heirs ascending to the thrown, namely, a crisis of succession.

Recently, the Globe and Mail printed a lengthy article suggesting that the Palace itself acknowledges that there is a crisis of succession:

On the day William and Kate announced their engagement last year, 64 per cent of Britons told pollsters they wanted William to succeed Elizabeth, skipping a generation; fewer than 20 per cent said they wanted Charles to be the next king. Those numbers have narrowed only slightly, with 59 per cent telling The Daily Telegraph’s pollsters last week they wanted the monarchy to “skip a generation.” The wedding could well make this view even more popular.

Such a move wouldn’t be simple. It too would require the cooperation and agreement of all of the Commonwealth Realms, including Canada.

To shuffle Charles out of the deck would be a difficult operation: It is a decision that could be made only by the parliaments of the countries where he would be king. And if they were willing to change the monarchy from one of hereditary succession to one of parliamentarily chosen succession, how far would that be from an elected head of state?

The House of Windsor is gambling that parliaments will see it this way, and will endure Charles if the more stable and appealing William seems hard on his heels.

Friday’s wedding is a crucial volley in this campaign, but it does not obscure the fact that Charles could alienate large parts of the realm. Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has already said she would support having her country become a republic after the Queen’s death.

An embarrassing or unlikeable monarch could quickly disillusion Canadians as well, and if public opinion could be transformed in monarchy-loving Canada, then anything, anywhere in the Commonwealth, might be possible (although such structural change would be dauntingly complex).

How much will Canadians endure Charles now that the more appealing promise of William has been so tantalizingly dangled? We may start to learn the answer this summer, when it will be William’s turn to visit Canada, this time with his photogenic bride.

If he sets foot on the shores of Newfoundland and attracts an audience not in the dozens but in the thousands, will that be read as a vote against his father? Or it could be a vote, as his grandmother may well hope, for a historic bait and switch: an era during which a prince is in our hearts and a king, otherwise ignored, is on our money.

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