Amid all the hoopla of the royal wedding, there’s been another quietly important monarchy story in the news lately, though you can be excused for having missed it.
Since rising to the office of deputy prime minister in Britain’s present Conservative-Liberal coalition government, Liberal Democratic Party leader Nicholas Clegg has been pushing for a number of progressive reforms to the United Kingdom’s well-aged system of government. Chief amongst these will be a referendum next week on changing the British electoral system from it’s current “first-past-the-post” model to a rank-based system, like what they use in Australia — which looks doomed to fail — and a proposed reform to the British monarchy’s 300-year-old Act of Succession. The latter looks doomed to fail as well, though in this case it’s no fault of the Brits.
The proposed changes are innocuous enough. Under the terms of the current Succession Act, daughters of the monarch, regardless of age, cannot ascend to the throne unless they have no brothers. This is part of the reason queens tend to be much rarer than kings in the UK; the rules are purposely structured to make this an incredibly difficult outcome. Elizabeth only became queen, for instance, because her parents only had a comparatively small royal offspring of two children, both girls. Victoria, similarly, was an only child. Clegg’s reforms would bring the British monarchy in line with the standards of most other European royal families, and allow the oldest child, period, of any royal couple to be first-in-line to the throne, regardless of gender.
Seeing as how a change at this point wouldn’t affect the pecking order of any current royals — heirs to the throne number one and two, Prince Charles and Prince William, are both eldest children — one would expect a sensible 21st Century reform like this to sail through. But alas, nothing with the monarchy is ever simple.
Under the terms of the Westminster Statute of 1931, which guaranteed the practical legislative independence of the former British “dominions” from the UK parliament, any changes to the institution of the British monarchy must “require the assent […] of the Parliaments of all the Dominions as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.” Though we no longer use the term today, Canada remains one of the dominions in question, and can thus unilaterally veto any reforms to the monarchy we feel like. Which is exactly what Prime Minister Harper is evidently willing to do, in this instance.
Though no one can doubt his country’s progressive commitment to gender equality, the prime minister of Canada has evidently decided that putting any monarchy-related issue to the floor of the House of Commons is simply not worth the broader debate on the usefulness of the institution that would inevitably follow. Said Harper, “I don’t think Canadians want to open a debate on the monarchy or constitutional matters at this time. That’s our position. I just don’t see that as a priority for Canadians right now at all.”
The monarchy is not popular in Canada. Every poll take on the issue, no matter how phrased, confirms this. The monarchy is not even terribly popular in the Conservative Party or the Harper cabinet, despite much official mythology that argues otherwise. Yet the extreme cowardice of the Canadian political class guarantees that the Canadian people will never be permitted to even debate the merits of the Crown, presumably for no reason other than such a debate might be unwieldy, and thus hard for the Ottawa set to control. This is the same reason we don’t debate a whole host of other serious issues in this country, like health care, abortion, or the death penalty: not because the entire collective Canadian populace unanimously agrees on one position (though this is sometimes absurdly declared), but simply because it’s a lot easier for our rulers if we just operate on the assumption that we do.
So Canada looks incredibly reactionary in the eyes of Britain, and William and Kate are guaranteed that if they have a first-born daughter, she has a very good chance of being shunned out of the royal sweepstakes. This is the sort of damage Canada is willing to inflict simply to avoid publicly discussing something we’ve all long ago started discussing anyway.