There were laugh on the internet last week, when Prince Charles, opening a new session of Britain’s Parliament on behalf of his ailing mother, relayed the government’s commitment to help ‘ease the cost of living for families’ while sitting on a golden throne.
To be fair to Charles, he was just doing his job. Besides, it’s safe to say that the event at the Palace of Westminster — what’s known as the Queen’s Speech in the UK and the Speech from the Throne in Canada — was actually less ridiculous than the self-aggrandizing state and airy of the Labor Speech that the American President delivers each year.
But Charles is not treated with the respectful deference that Queen Elizabeth II has earned over the past 70 years. And golden thrones are objectively a bit silly, even offensive to democratic and egalitarian principles.
And that’s the challenge facing the monarchy – a challenge that seems newly acute as Prince Charles visits Canada and questions are raised about Canada’s future as a constitutional monarchy. While there is much to be praised in the system it underpins, the trappings of royalty complicate any defense of the institution itself.
Canadians don’t like their future king
Recent polls suggest that a significant number of Canadians dislike — or at least dislike — Canada’s constitutional monarchy.
Only 26% of respondents to a Angus Reid Institute poll in April said they agreed with the idea of Canada being a constitutional monarchy for “generations to come”. In a survey conducted by Research Co. in February49% of those polled said they would prefer to have an elected head of state, while 21% said a monarch would be preferable.
At least some of this anti-monarchist sentiment might be attributable to a generally gloomy view of the man who will be king. The Angus Reid Institute found that only 29% of Canadians have a favorable opinion of Prince Charles, compared to 54% who have an unfavorable opinion. Research Co.’s findings were only marginally better: 35% favorable, 49% unfavorable.
But even a beloved king would still have to carry the immense baggage that comes with the crown – the history and incongruities of a famous family and an age-old institution.
Kings and queens are usually a part of Disney movies and fairy tales. The real and supposed dramas, tragedies and conflicts of this royal family, meanwhile, fuel the tabloids, prestige television and films – from the Charles and Diana’s divorce to voluntary exile of Prince Harry and Meghan.
As an institution, the British Crown bears the burden of The history of colonialism in Britain. The very idea of an unelected hereditary monarch presiding as head of state seems archaic and contrary to the principles of democracy – the kind of thing that no self-respecting nation would tolerate.
And yet, a constitutional monarchy can still be preferable to one of the alternatives.
The case of constitutional monarchy
Among the top 20 countries in the Annual measure of an economist’s democratic health, 10 are constitutional monarchies: Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, Netherlands, Canada, Luxembourg, Japan and the United Kingdom. These ten countries, plus Belgium, also ranked among the top 21 countries in the last edition of the United Nations Human Development Index.
Correlation is not causation. But if you were looking to align yourself with a group of ten countries, you could do much worse than those ten countries. And it is possible that the constitutional monarchy has attributes that contribute significantly to the success of a country.
An apolitical head of state without an electoral mandate can act as a largely unifying figure and a voice for shared principles while being counted to stay out of the political fray. While deferring to the democratically elected legislature – maintaining clear lines of political accountability and avoiding gridlock – they can still act as a neutral guarantee for democracyensuring the continuance and orderly transition of government.
More immaterially, the Crown in Canada is an anchor for history and convention and imposes a small measure of restraint and humility on even the most powerful Prime Minister.
Justin Trudeau doesn’t sound like an ardent monarchist, but he made the institutional argument in his remarks at Prince Charles and Camilla’s welcoming ceremony in Newfoundland on Tuesday.
“Much of the endurance and stability of our democracy is tied to our Westminster parliamentary system, our constitutional monarchy and the Crown,” Trudeau said. “In this time of uncertainty and turmoil in the world, Canada is well served by our institutions.”
Constitutional monarchy could mean more or less
Is it possible to find an acceptable middle ground between the constitutional monarchy of Canada and something like the American presidency? Perhaps. The Irish President is essentially an elected Governor General. But any structural change could lead to unintended consequences. And it is not clear that the Canadian system is really failing.
But even if abandoning the constitutional monarchy would be more trouble than it’s worth, the institution might still have to change.
In an essay published in 2020 under the title part of a collection on “The Canadian Monarchy in an Age of Upheaval”, Cape Breton University professor David Johnson (not to be confused with former Governor General David Johnston) argued that “more” was the answer for an institution that could be seen as an irrelevant bauble.
The future king, his family and his officials must do more if the monarchy is to be relevant to Canadians, Johnson wrote – they must be more present, through royal tours and the work of the governor general, and more active in charitable efforts through things like the Prince’s Trust.
“If it is to be relevant to Canadians, the monarchy must earn their respect, and it must do so by being a greater part of their lives and the lives of their communities, their provinces and their country,” wrote Johnson.
There could also be an argument for “less”.
In another try as of 2020, Philippe Lagasse, a professor at Carleton University, noted that while Republicans — those who would want an elected head of state — might have little hope of rallying enough support for a constitutional amendment, they might target the “soft underbelly of monarchical symbolism”.
This would include things like the Queen’s face on our money, having new citizens swear an oath to her, or displaying her portrait in government buildings.
Even monarchists might be wise to accept that such things are worth leaving in the past. They may have to accept that the country does not need to be flooded with jubilee medals every ten years.
Because what the monarchy might need is more humanity and humility, less pomp and circumstance – and less family drama. If the emphasis is on service and not status, the institution may seem less out of step with the ideals of modern society.
Constitutional monarchy can rely on the fact that the system works. But in the interest of preserving a useful system, the Golden Throne and other extravaganzas might be better off in a museum.