Endless jubilees

Endless jubilees
  •  emoticon

It’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this week, or rather the latest manifestation of it. In this country, we’ve already celebrated the anniversary of her ascension (February 6), her real birthday (April 21), and her fake “official” birthday (May 21), so needless to say, this is all starting to get a tad fatiguing. Your Majesty is still alive, I get it.

I’ve written about the monarchy a lot over the years, and with the generous support of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, I’ve been able to make a relatively high-profile media career for myself as one of the country’s leading voices on the issue. It was exactly a decade ago, in fact, during the Queen’s golden jubilee that I appeared on television for the very first time in my life, arguing against the merits of a Vancouver royal visit in a screechy-voiced manner I am not particularly eager to link to. Yet even with a decade of activism on this fringe cause under my belt, I’m finding it difficult to maintain the same levels of motivation going forward.

This is such a ghoulish thing to say, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that until the Queen herself dies, the Canadian republican movement (to say nothing of its British equivalent) will remain more or less stagnant. Elizabeth’s ever-advancing age, coupled with her gender, forms a very powerful emotional appeal that, not unjustly, royalists have been actively utilizing to evoke all manner of highly emotional analogies and affinities. She reminds you of your mother, or your nana, or that nice widow down the street. Little old ladies may, in fact, be the single most distinctly nonthreatening, sympathetic, charming, and guilt-inducing subset of humanity, which is probably why you don’t hear about many successful revolutions against them.

To be effective, any political movement seeking to shift the status quo in some unprecedented direction requires a narrative of conflict to give their campaign momentum and energy. This is why Prince Charles is such a vastly better republican foe than his mother; while the latter has been unbendingly apolitical (even at the expense of her required political duties), passive, cloistered, and mysterious, the Prince has been ideological, proactive, outspoken, and not nearly mysterious enough. When Princess Elizabeth assumed the throne back in 1952, no one knew much of what they were getting; when Charles ascends we’ll know far too much. And all available polling data suggests all that familiarity is breeding a great deal of contempt.

But in the meantime, the Queen’s long reign is a status quo that sometimes seems maddeningly endless. Considering her mother’s genes, I don’t doubt we’ll be celebrating a platinum jubilee in 2022, featuring an even more wizened and sympathetic monarch waving an even more frail hand to a public that will have even more nostalgic affinities. David Mitchell recently wrote a good piece about this state of affairs in the London Guardian; at some point anyone who opposes this poor creature just looks like an awful, impolite boor. I don’t look forward to making distasteful arguments about the Queen being too old or senile or bed-ridden to perform her duties, but that’s very much what the republican future looks to be.

Before any monarchist get too triumphalist at any of this, it’s worth reemphasizing that this malaise has absolutely nothing to due with the strengths of their arguments or the weakness of the good guys’. The principles of god-ordained hereditary kingship are still ridiculous, and the practical merits of a democratically-selected head of state are still superior to the alternative. The royals are winning by default, and since their strongest weapon is the emotional appeal of a frail senior citizen, it’s a very creepy and exploitative default at that.

But it’s a form of short-term victory none the less, and I’m not petty enough to deny it.

Happy anniversary, Your Majesty. You’ve proven a challenging opponent.


  1. A. Apolis

    Oak, apparently. Which is a bit of a step down if you ask me.

    Sometimes in Britain the newspapers say how nice it would be if the succession could skip a generation and it went straight from popular old lady Queen to popular strapping young lad with popular young wife and sob-story dead mum Prince William. I myself am a republican* and broadly could not care less but AP reports what people say and so must I.

    *except I have this thing where whenever I read anyone's opinion on anything it incenses me so much I find myself disagreeing out of spite

  2. Andrew

    I think those newspaper stories are pretty good proof that the monarchy doesn't work. The whole point of monarchy is that the people don't get to pick who they want to be next in the line of succession. Once you start skipping people because they're unpopular, it really ceases to be a true hereditary monarchy.

  3. SES

    Of course, in the early 1980s, the same newspapers were saying how nice it would be if the dowdy middle-aged Queen would just abdicate in favor of her popular young son and his new wife.

  4. Dan

    Is the fourth panel supposed to look funking with the 8-bit text in the middle?

  5. Alex W

    The most interesting thing about this debate is comparing western democracies that have a monarchy and those that do not. If the Democracy Index is anything to go by having an unelected head of state with no real powers looks to have very little effect on the actual running of a country.

  6. ThePsudo

    Yes. It's a visual allusion to a computer's overflow error.

    Remember the original Super Mario Brothers, where you could get enough lives that it would start showing the number as various weird symbols? It's like that.

  7. Amilam

    That's what that was from! Tip of the hat. I'm a bit jealous I didn't spot it immediately. I was thinking missingno, but that's much better.

  8. @Cristiona

    Well, that and various crash screens in old arcade games. JJ made a reference to the PacMan crash screen in his twitter before this went up.

  9. @Andy928766

    Is that a Pac-Man reference?

  10. David Liao

    One expert pointed out that the cost of the monarchy (at least to the United Kingdom) is $1.50 per year, much like how American taxpayers put aside $2 for Presidential election public funding.

    However, there is certainly this romantic clinging to monarchy but also the broader legacy of British hegemony. It is not unlike the Roman Catholic church taking on both the location and name of the Roman Empire as symbols while its own political reach waned as barbarian monarchs carved out every greater swaths of territory during the Middle Ages.

    It can even be said that this residual royalism helps to buffet anti-EU sentiment in the UK, which is a serious political problem. I think JJ is right that seeing Prince Charles at the throne or even his much more modern sons would finally push the debate forward towards even more limits on royalist language.

  11. SES

    I thought of you when I saw the portrait of the Queen that was unveiled today. It has a flag in the middle of the room, a portrait of Queen Victoria lurking in the background, and what looks like a piece of legislation flopped down on the desk.

  12. Zulu

    As an American, I find the thought of having an unelected head of state naturally repulsive. However, if a monarch is not a generally polemic figure and is almost purely symbolic, then I don't see why a country with supposedly cherished historic ties should seek to change their government. It would be a waste of time and resources.

  13. monapublican

    If you the thought of having an unelected head of state naturally repulsive, then shouldn't you think that keeping said head of state no mater how nonpolemic and is purely symbolic this person is on the basis of historic ties is just as repulsive?

  14. Zulu

    As an American it is, since – beyond the Revolutionary War – we don't have further historic ties with the monarchy, and had quite a negative experience with the previously tyrannical British monarchy. However, in the case of Canada, if people are generally either apathetic or supportive of the monarchy (i.e. do not share the revulsion Americans have), and if there are no great political consequences since the Queen has little power anyways, there's little benefit in expending time and money in reform, no matter if the principle of having a monarchy at all is revolting to me.

  15. monapublican

    "quite a negative experience with the previously tyrannical British monarchy. "

    You really don't know politics or history.

  16. @widescreenJohn

    I'm completely avoiding the politics and focusing only on the last panel of the cartoon because that was ridiculously awesome. The 1980s arcade geek in me felt warm and fuzzy seeing that.

  17. drs

    “What about the expenses associated with constantly glorifying, celebrating, commemorating, and entertaining her and her family? People often characterize the monarchy as this quiet, background institution, but our government actually spends a fair bit of time and money on it. ”

    Does Canada spend that much? Seems to be Britain that bears the real expense (offset by tourism benefits.) How much would be spent on an elected head of state? Fewer big parties, more ongoing expense? Though I guess the G-G fills that role.

  18. Kipeci

    How is it offset by tourist benefits? I keep on hearing this over and over cited by royalists, but it seems to me that people go to see the buildings, not the royals themselves. People would still be visiting Buckingham Palace regardless of whether or not the family inside was placed as the head of state, yes?

  19. drs

    “What about the expenses associated with constantly glorifying, celebrating, commemorating, and entertaining her and her family? People often characterize the monarchy as this quiet, background institution, but our government actually spends a fair bit of time and money on it. ”

    Does Canada spend that much? Seems to be Britain that bears the real expense (offset by tourism benefits.) How much would be spent on an elected head of state? Fewer big parties, more ongoing expense? Though I guess the G-G fills that role.

  20. J.J. McCullough

    The more relevant matter is that we spend SOMETHING on it, as opposed to nothing. If we had a department of the government that just lit fifty thousand dollars on fire every year, it would be one of the cheapest federal programs in existence and would cost each Canadian mere pennies. But it would still be wrong.

  21. Nanon

    There are some who argue that having a figurehead enables a democratic government to choose its real politicians more pragmatically, since they get their popularity-contest urges taken care of by the figurehead. I don't know if it's true, but it's a real argument in the Queen's favor.

    You know, there has been some other big news lately, something about a governor in Wisconsin, and perhaps some other elections as well. If you were, you know, starting to lose enthusiasm for such a minor issue as the royalty.

  22. Rabite

    “If we had a department of the government that just lit fifty thousand dollars on fire every year, it would be one of the cheapest federal programs in existence and would cost each Canadian mere pennies. But it would still be wrong. ”

    I would move to Canada if that position ever opened. Seriously.

  23. Dryhad

    Ever since we lost the referendum in 1999 I've said that Charles III will be the last king of Australia, and that presumably applies to Canada too. Elizabeth is very much liked, Charles is not. Let her have her diamond jubilee, let her outreign Victoria, let her outreign the Old Pretender. Let her have her platinum jubilee if it comes to that. The republic can wait until people realise she's not immortal, which will almost certainly be the day she dies.

  24. JP JOhnson

    This very helpful youtube video taught me that the British people make money on the monarchy due to some peculiarities in financing:

    That doesn't change the validity of a Republican or Royalist argument, but it seems to be a bit off to pick the money to be the thing to complain about.

  25. Kipeci

    The thing is, Canada isn't the UK, which means it doesn't see any of that money, even assuming that some of his dodgy tenets (such as the tourist money one) are correct.

  26. ThePsudo

    Technical nitpick: You could link to that same video via youtu.be/bhyYgnhhKFw It's a little shorter.

  27. OldsVistaCruiser

    We taxpayers in the States are given the option of donating $3 (originally $1) to a Federally-administered presidential election campaign fund on their Form 1040 (or its smaller versions, the 1040-A and 1040-EZ) when they file their income taxes. It's not mandatory.

  28. ThePsudo

    I used to think it was a subsidy for incumbents over challengers, but the Federal Election Commission seems to suggest it is more of a subsidy for the big two parties' candidates over third party or independent candidates. It also estimates a fund of $100 million per year (less than half a billion per election). Interesting.

  29. David Liao

    The monarchy subsists on a bit less than that annually if I recall.

  30. OldsVistaCruiser

    I usually refer to Queen Elizabeth II as "Her Most Ancient Majesty." I also bust on the "D.G. Regina" inscription found on Canadian coins, calling her "G/D Vagina" – only as a playful slur on her gender.

  31. Kjorteo

    No, no, the Kill Screen Jubilee only happens on her 256th year.

  32. Gray

    Though it's been echoed a few times above, I do wonder how much a "replacement institution" (and in a parliamentary system, you do tend to need a separate head of state, if for no other reason than unstable minority situations do happen and there may be times when you very much need to delay an election in spite of parliamentary dysfunction…for an example of this, I would point to the situation in the UK in 1940) would actually save, particularly for Canada or any other Commonwealth country (something that is a different debate than the debate for the UK, I would submit).

    Honestly, if you ended up with a popularly elected President (i.e. like France, or slightly indirectly in the case of the US), axing the monarchy might end up costing a good deal as the office assumes a higher profile. If you had an indirectly elected President (i.e. like Germany or Italy), the proposition would probably end up being a break-even one versus an indirect monarchy such as Canada has. The main benefit might be that, at the very least, you could have a person in the post equivalent to the monarch/GG who the PM couldn't remove at will (as you pointed out might happen in Canada in the case of a blowup in the vein of the Liberal/NDP mess a few years ago, and as was a very serious concern during the Whitlam dismissal in Australia) and who would be competent to use their reserve powers if needed in the face of a PM who was "flaunting the rules", so to speak (i.e. facing a hopeless confidence situation and therefore trying to keep Parliament out of session as long as possible to stay in office).

  33. David Roberts

    I'm not really a monarchist but I honestly can't think of a better person to act as Head of State for Canada than the Queen herself. Most republicans can't either.

  34. RJC

    Must admit, as a American I have weird mixed feelings about the whole 'Queen' thing, and since I am not within a country with a Monarchy I usually keep quiet since, well, it's not my issue to fight anymore. I could go on for a long time about this and that, but none of it would affect me, so I don't really feel I need a say in the matter at all.

    My mixed feelings though are pretty much 'Rawr, Monarchy is bad!' 'But she doesn't actually rule, and it's historical!' 'You're just saying that because America doesn't have the historical ties other countries do, so you are nostalgic for something you never had', 'well, yes, but-' /and so on

  35. Wyatt Tessari

    The fact that we might have a 10-15 year hiatus on the monarchy issue shouldn't be an excuse for inaction. If anything it gives us ample time to prepare, grow awareness of & support for the issue so that when the time does come, change can happen quickly.

    As you say, it makes people look evil when they attack an old lady, but it would be perfectly legitimate to say: "We support the queen until the end of her reign, but we want to start a discussion among Canadians about our vision of Canada in the 21st century"

  36. J.J. McCullough

    Which aint a good thing.

  37. Yannick

    The main problem with the monarchy is the continued existence of the Governor-General and the Lieutenant-Governors, which in principle act of their own volition and in practice act solely on the orders of the prime minister.

    This effectively concentrates all powers of the state other than the judiciary in the hands of the Prime Minister and can lead to contentious situations such as when Stephane Dion wanted to become Prime Minister since he had the confidence of the Parliament (and Stephen Harper did not), but the Governor General thought it was her duty to listen to the Prime Minister (even if he did not have the confidence of Parliament). Whichever side of the fence you stand on, you should agree that it's a problem the rules are this ambiguous in our democracy.

    We need, at the very least, to codify the rules for the GG office so that it becomes more like the President of a country like France or Israel and less of a set of extra powers for the Prime Minister. And then we need to elect them.

  38. John Paladin

    As an Australian we have a similar situation.
    I am also vaguely Republican but feel no need for change.
    Why would I care whether a titular head of state that has virtually no power and precious little influence was chosen by one method or another since they have no real impact on my life?
    A change at this point would seem to be little more than symbolic.
    Besides, the current position is only notionally a hereditary monarchy. Succession is governed by Act of Parliament and can be changed (modern practice as I understand it is that the Commonwealth is consulted on such a change) just like they did for William and Mary and then the Hanovers. So, the monarchy is strictly a gift of parliament.
    How does that sit with the notion that the people who put you in your position are also technically your subjects?

  39. Jake_Ackers

    Just wait until you get a King/Queen you don't like or they pull a Grand Duke of Luxembourg. The fact remains the monarchy can do anti-democratic things if they wish. So why even risk it? The monarchy is useless and when it is actually used, it can be a problem.

  40. Burke

    Shouldn't a Republican also be against a Westminster system as well? After all a true Republic is aligned along classical Roman or Venetian like Montesquieu and Madison intended. Westminster only works by replacing the useless monarch with an equally useless Governor General or President and there is not the separation of powers needed to be truly Republican.