By Andrew Irvine, December 21, 2022
A constitutional monarch reigns but does not rule. The reign of Elizabeth II was both extraordinary and consequential. As she noted in her 1964 address to Quebec’s National Assembly, the purpose of a constitutional monarchy “is to personify the democratic state, to sanction legitimate authority, to assure the legality of means, and guarantee the execution of the public will.” As Canada’s longest reigning monarch, she was served by no fewer than 12 of Canada’s 23 prime ministers.
As Queen of Canada during Canada’s 1967 centennial year, she reminded Parliament of “the imagination and daring” it took to create a new country. It is a country, she said, “that has grown and prospered in an atmosphere of freedom” and in which problems have been successfully solved “through discussion and through an effort of tolerance, goodwill and understanding.”
In 1982, she oversaw the final, peaceful patriation of the Canadian constitution. In her speech a decade later, aware that the Meech Lake Accord had been defeated and constitutional issues were still being debated, she was quick to emphasize her continued commitment to Canada: “I am not a fair-weather friend of this country. I’m not just here in the good times. I’m here in all times.”
She played a similar role as Queen of the United Kingdom. During her reign, she oversaw the granting of greater degrees of self-government to the parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted in his Humble Address to the House of Commons in 2022:
Since the Palace of Westminster was founded more than 1,000 years ago, it has seen war and peace, plague and plenty, the rise and fall of empires, and all kinds of revolutions – scientific, industrial, political, ecumenical, stylistic – and almost 50 monarchs… But in our history no monarch has ever served this country so long as this one, with the first Platinum Jubilee ever. Far more importantly, no monarch has ever served it so well.
The Queen oversaw the final dissolution of the British Empire, observing that the new Commonwealth of Nations “bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace.” It was in this capacity that she also became a major “behind-the-scenes force” in ending apartheid in South Africa. When meeting Nelson Mandela for the first time, the new South African president became the only non-family member to whom she is reported to have said, “Call me Elizabeth.”
In response to the 9/11 attacks, she asked her ambassador to convey her condolences to the American people, noting that “nothing that can be said can begin to take away the anguish and the pain of these moments. Grief is the price we pay for love.”
In Johnson’s words, she was quite simply, “Elizabeth the Great.”
Separate from the person of the monarch is the institution of the Crown. In Canada, the Crown plays a constitutional role, a legislative role, an executive role, and a ceremonial role. Constitutionally, it is the monarch and her representatives who safeguard the law and maintain the stability of responsible, democratic government.
The monarch does so not only through her traditional right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn, but also through the exercising of reserve or prerogative powers. Legislatively, it is the monarch and her representatives who give Royal Assent to bills so they may become laws. It is also the monarch and her representatives who function as the formal head of the executive, and in whose name criminal prosecutions are undertaken.
Ceremonially, the institution of the Crown separates the head of state from the head of government. As columnist George Will has suggested, it is this separation that saves a monarch’s subjects from a form of “infantilism” that seems peculiar to the American republic, namely the “cult of the presidency.” Who wouldn’t prefer to be represented internationally by a head of state who speaks on behalf of a nation as a whole, rather than with the support of only a single political constituency? Who among us wouldn’t prefer to have our national fount of honour someone who is apolitical, rather than someone who almost inevitably turns out to be politically divisive?
It was in this capacity that the Queen reminded her Toronto audience in 1973 that “It is as Queen of Canada that I am here – Queen of all Canadians, not just of one or two ancestral strains. I would like to be seen as a symbol of national sovereignty, a link between Canadian citizens of every national origin.”
Having such powers vested in the Crown also serves to remind us that political power – the power to rule rather than reign – is something that is granted to each government for only a limited period of time. It serves to remind us that such power must be exercised on behalf of, and in the interest of, the people of Canada.
Without a reigning monarch, the powers of the Crown would need to be re-assigned to other branches of government. Royal Assent would need to be granted by some other office holder, perhaps a Chief Justice, someone who then would find himself in a conflict of interest, should a law later be legally challenged. The appointment or removal of a first minister would necessarily fall to some other, usually more partisan, branch of government, as happens with impeachment and trial in the US Congress.
Republican sentiments are nothing new. Yet when such sentiments were raised during Canada’s period of national mourning, they were voiced with all the courtesy of a neighbour who interrupts your wedding to borrow your lawnmower. For the republican-minded, monarchy appears to be a symbol of two things only: past colonial rule and an aversion to inherited privilege. In both cases, republicanism overlooks the value of being connected to a country’s past.
In the case of colonial rule, monarchy reminds us of those who have come before us, nation-builders and ne’er-do-wells alike. It is the monarchy that personifies both the successes and failures of a nation. The idea of a dramatic, revolutionary break with a colonial past has fuelled American textbooks for generations. To have accomplished this same transition in countries such as Canada and Australia without the bloodshed of war is no small thing. To think that a sundering of its historical ties is something that is necessary for a nation to reach full maturity is, at the very least, churlish.
Republicanism also overlooks the benefits of being reminded of the ubiquity of inherited privilege. Inherited privilege is ever-present, among rich and poor alike. Every time we take advantage of our society’s storehouse of medical knowledge or engineering capacity or political experience, we benefit from centuries of past practical and theoretical work. Being reminded of such privileges, in turn, reminds us of our inherited duty to future generations. An inherited monarchy serves to remind us, not just of how much we owe to those who have come before us, but of the duty we all have to pay this debt forward.
Every monarch requires the loyalty of her people. Within a modern constitutional monarchy, this is something that cannot be achieved through force or intimidation. It can only be earned. Over Elizabeth II’s many decades of service, the loyalty of her people was something that was earned more from her sense of inherited duty than from any other source.
As the young Princess Elizabeth famously promised in 1947 at the time of her 21st birthday, “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” It was a promise well kept.
For today’s Canadians, it has been one of our great and many privileges to have lived during the Second Elizabethan Age. Under a new King, this is a privilege that is certain to continue.
The Queen is dead. Long live the King.
Andrew Irvine teaches at the University of British Columbia. He is a Fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada / Membre de l’Institut d’études sur la Couronne au Canada.