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A fairy tale with a rotten core

The Canadian media (especially its more gossipy venues) have made much of this weekend’s marriage of Peter Phillips, Queen Elizabeth’s eldest grandson and Autumn Kelly, a Canadian girl from a working-class Montreal family. On some level, of course, the wedding had all the elements of your traditional magical fairy tale romance—colonial girl of humble roots gets swept away by handsome prince and marries into royalty at Windsor Castle. On another level, however, the story has a number of awkward and unpleasant aspects that highlight just how decidedly un-magical the British Royal Family can often be.

For starters, it’s worth noting that Mr. Phillips, despite his royal blood, is not a prince, nor will his bride be a princess. According to the oddly sexist rules of royal titles, only the grandchildren of the monarch’s male offspring receive titles. So, being the son of Princess Anne, the Queen’s daughter, Peter gets nothing, even though he’s the eldest grandchild in the entire royal family. The various children of the Queen’s sons, by contrast, are all automatically entitled to become princess or princess and be called “Your Royal Highness.”

Secondly, in order to make herself fit to wed this non-prince, Ms. Kelly was forced to convert from Catholicism, the religion she was baptized and raised under, to Anglicanism, the official church of the Royal Family. This conversion was necessary for the sake of Mr. Philip’s royal career; if he married a heathen Catholic he would forgo his place in the grand order of succession to the British throne (currently number 11), according to the terms of the 1701 act of succession. As is so often the case, Ms. Kelly’s individual sovereignty was quickly compromised for the sake of the firm.

As children, we are raised with the idea of royalty as a sort of magical, wonderful thing, with pretty princess and palaces and all the rest (the Barbie people have certainly been milking this perception for decades). But monarchy has a dark side, as well, with institutional racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and absurd superstition, not to mention a hearty dose of politics and bureaucracy.

The marriage of Peter and Autumn is a jolly enough episode as a personal event in two people’s lives, but as a symbolic event with larger relevance to the Canadian nation, it’s only a sad reminder of all the weirdness that rules the institution of monarchy.


Another dumb lawsuit

Another eccentric oddball republican has stumbled into the media spotlight this week, and with him comes more bad press for Canada’s legitimate republicans.

I distinguish between the “legitimate” and “illegitimate” on the following basis. The legitimate republican is one who seeks to get rid of the Queen because he understands constitutional monarchy to be a poor and ineffective system of government, and desires something better for his nation and its people. An illegitimate republican, by contrast, pursues the goal soley to satisfy his own narrow obsessions and hang-ups. He hates the monarchy because he feels personally slighted in some way by it, and he fights a republican crusade that is entirely about himself.

Charles Roach is an idividual of the latter category. A black man from Trinidad and Tobago, Roach immigrated to Canada way back in 1955, and has lived in the country continually since then, under permanent resident status. Roach does not want to become a citizen of Canada because that entails taking an oath to Elizabeth II, something Mr. Roach, with his outspoken black-nationalist anti-imperial credentials is not willing to tolerate.

In a snarky editorialon the matter, Mark Steyn quotes Mr. Roach as declaring:

[we blacks] were colonized as a people by the British throne, and we were enslaved as a people by the British throne and, to me, taking an oath to the monarch of Great Britain, without any disrespect to the Queen herself as a person, is like asking a Holocaust survivor to take an oath to a descendant of Hitler.

So he never did take the oath, and has recently tried to lawsuit his way out of it, suing the government of Canada on the basis that their oath violates his Charter right to freedom of conscience. The case was thrown out by a Federal Court in 1994, but Mr. Roach evidently tried again many years later, and yesterday his case was heard and accepted by the Court of Appeals of Ontario (I don’t quite understand the exact legal process Mr. Roach has gone through to get to this point. Media stories have glossed over the details, and the Court of Appeals has not yet published their judgement). The government of Canada fought vigorously to have the hearing dismissed, but with yesterday’s ruling Mr. Roach’s Charter challenge will now be heard. The hope is that the court will proceed to rule the oath invalid, presumably setting the stage to allow Mr. Roach to become a citizen through some other less-offensive formality.

I guess I am somewhat sympathetic to the main thrust of Mr. Roach’s argument, namely that the monarchy is a symbolically ugly institution to a lot of people, possessing unpleasant history and baggage that transcends Canada’s fresh new world identity. And the sneering opposition that Mr. Roach has faced from monarchists continues to show just how nativist and ethnocentric the other side can be.

But the fact remains that this case is really about Roach himself, and Mr. Roach is not an ordinary guy. The National Post summarizes:

Represented by his lawyer and daughter Kikelola Roach, Mr. Roach, 74, is an unusual plaintiff, and not just because he is a lawyer himself. A prominent black activist and founder of Toronto’s Caribana festival, he has in the past sued police for false arrest and won $512 in damages. He sued a local politician and NOW Magazine, a free Toronto weekly, for libelling him as anti-Semitic. He successfully defended his friend and fellow activist Dudley Laws on a sexual-assault charge and led the campaign to label former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae a racist for bringing the Barnes Exhibit to Toronto in 1994, because Dr. Albert Barnes’ significant collection of African art was not included in the popular show. [ed note- the Post has since printed a retraction claiming the bit about seeking to label Mr. Rae a racist was untrue.]

So he’s clearly something of a professional activist-type. And ultrasensitive to boot. The man has motivations and agendas which are clearly all his own, and his latest venture seems to be more of the same. The monarchy is bad because I don’t like it, and I am the most important person in this story.

Citizens for a Canadian Republic, an organization I hold titular office in, often frustrates me for its willingness to embrace republicans of Mr. Roach’s stripe rather unquestioningly. Every dude to emerge from the woodwork who is willing to sue the Queen one some ridiculous charge or another gets his moment in the sun, and is held up as the movement’s new poster boy de jure.

It’s entirely understandable on the one hand. Canadian republicanism is still searching for its “breakthrough” moment after all, and affixing oneself to a high-profile personality can be a great boon to the cause. But riding coattails has its downside as well. If the individual in question is a kook of whatever sort, then the entire republican movement becomes tainted by association. We cease to become a legitimate movement to establish a republic for all the right reasons, and instead transform into a mere soapbox for various loud individuals to stand upon when they need to add some official gloss to their largely one-man crusades.

Monarchist pundits, like Mr. Steyn, are then able to hold up these men as case studies and legitimately ask if the overzealous, attention-seeking antics of folks like Mr. Roach represent the sort of principles that Canadians really want to see in their constitution. It plays into the age old cliche of nutty republicans versus sensible, dignified royalists.

Republicanism is already the option favored by most Canadians, few of whom are motivated by agendas or rhetoric as extreme as Mr. Roach’s, or Captain Mac Giolla Chainnigh, whom I blogged about earlier. A republican movement will only be successful when it is able to present itself as the most moderate, common-sense alternative, not when it tries to out-crazy the crazies.

Was Pakistan better under the Queen?

In the aftermath of the tragic murder of Benazir Bhutto, I, like no doubt countless others, have been spending considerable time trying to learn more about Pakistan, and how exactly the country has fallen to its present desperate lows. Of course, the more you read about Pakistan the more you realize it hasn’t really “fallen” at all; it’s always pretty much been a mess.

An interesting and now largely forgotten quirk of Pakistani history—that brings us back to the subject matter of this blog—is the fact that for its first eight and-a-half years of independence Pakistan was actually a constitutional monarchy. When Pakistan became a sovereign nation in 1947, separating from the British Indian Empire, King George VI remained as head of state, as did his daughter Elizabeth II, who was styled “Queen of Pakistan” (among many other titles) upon her coronation.

In a recent blog post, The Commonwealth Monarchist makes the case that Pakistan “would be more stable under a Crown” and should have thought twice about ditching the Queen. He offers the following cynical summary of the country’s post-monarchical history:

In March 1956, the monarchy was abolished and a republic proclaimed. Two years later, a military coup overthrew the president. Military rule remained in place until 1971, but was again in force from 1978-88 and, under Gen. Musharraf, from 2001 until the present. That means that, out of 52 years as a republic, 30 – over half – have been under military rule. The longest-serving civilian president, F. I. Chaudhry of the PPP – Bhutto’s party – lasted only five years in the office before being replaced by military rule.

All of this is true, but the problem is the way the author sees correlation as causation. Pakistan’s constitutional regime did breakdown after the monarchy was abolished, but this had little to do with the form of government the country was taking at the time, and instead had everything to do with political trends that had already emerged during the monarchy period.

Indeed, as far as the republic-versus-monarchy debate goes, Pakistan is actually quite a fascinating case study because it so clearly demonstrates the complete and utter non-correlation between constitutional monarchy, democracy, and political stability.

The Kingdom of Pakistan

Pakistan became an independent country in 1947, after the British government controversially agreed to split their former Indian Empire into two sovereign nations, one Hindu (India proper) one Muslim (Pakistan). Constitutionally, both new countries became Commonwealth “dominions” in the style of Canada or Australia, that is to say parliamentary democracies with the British monarch as head of state, represented by a locally-appointed Governor General.

Pakistan’s first post-independence Governor General was Muhammed Ali Jinnah, a enormously important man who had served as the leading advocate of Muslim self-determination within British India. Revered in his own time as the “father of Pakistan,” he remains a symbolic hero figure to this day, and his 1947 appointment as governor general marked the closing cap of a long political career. A man of considerable ego, Jinnah insisted upon becoming Governor General rather than Prime Minister (as his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru had done) as only the highest office in the land would satisfy his ambition.

In many respects Pakistan simply had a bad start. Compared to India, which generally retained all of the Raj’s best and brightest, Pakistan’s ruling class talent pool was small and shallow, and the new country’s organs of government were weak and underdeveloped. Lacking a strong civil society, the elite consensus at the time believed that more than anything else, the Dominion of Pakistan would require strong executive leadership in order to survive its first shaky years of independence. Governor General Jinnah was an authoritarian character who during his career in colonial politics had greatly entrenched himself as sole leader of the Muslim peoples. Upon independence, he thus believed, and was encouraged by his followers, that he had a right to fully exploit the powers of his new position to continue his tradition of leadership.

Jinnah thus spent his time in office governing more as an executive president than a viceroy. Or perhaps more as a dictator than either, as he actively meddled in the legislative process (making himself speaker of parliament), bossed around cabinet (which he always chaired), fired premiers of state governments that passed laws which displeased him, and built up a personality cult that fostered blind deference for his decrees.

In 1948, a mere year after taking office, Ali Jinnah died and his subservient prime minister Mohammad Ayub Khan appointed Khwaja Nazimuddin, the premier of East Pakistan, as the new Governor General. Unlike Jinnah, Nazimuddin was happy to just be a figurehead, and allowed Prime Minister Khan to exercise all real power without much meddling.

There was a window of opportunity that Pakistan would now evolve into a proper parliamentary democracy, but it didn’t last long. Prime Minister Khan was shot on October 16, 1951 and Governor General Nazimuddin was in turn promoted (demoted?) by Cabinet to replace him as PM. The national finance minister, Ghulam Mohammad, was appointed as the new Governor General. This was basically a step backwards to the old status quo. Nazimuddin was a weak personality, as mentioned, but Ghulam Mohammad was an authoritarian in the model of Jinnah. Distrustful of parliamentary democracy, he thus sought to re-exert the Crown’s executive power.

In those days, the big hot-button issue in Pakistan was the creation of a new constitution to replace the cobbled-together mess of British acts and decrees that the country was currently governed by. Much of the ensuing debate centered around the issue of federalism—remember that at the time Pakistan was still divided into an “east” and “west” with India in-between. The easterners, who were in the majority and overwhelmingly Bengali in ethnicity, wanted, rather logically, to have a government that would enshrine their rights to a majority of seats in the parliament, rather than merely give them equal status, or worse, keep them in the minority as they were at present.

In 1953 the parliament (which doubled as a constitutional assembly) recommended a model of government that would do just that, but Governor General Mohammad decided to veto the decision, dissolving the legislature. A westerner from the Punjab tribe, like many politicians in his clan he was very defensive about retaining the political dominance of his people. He proceeded to fire Prime Minister Nazimuddin a few weeks later for no real reason other than he thought he was bad at his job, and installed Mohammad Ali Bogra, Pakistan’s larglely unknown Ambassador to the United States, in his place. Nazimuddin actually appealed his firing to Queen Elizabeth, who ignored him, with her handlers quoting the common mantra that “Buckingham Palace will not meddle in the affairs of sovereign nations”—an argument that made little sense considering that Elizabeth was supposedly “Queen of Pakistan” now, and thus capable of acting independently from her role as Queen of England.

The legislature met for another constitutional assembly in 1954, and they made more or less the same recommendations as they had last time, as well as additionally suggesting that perhaps the Governor General’s office should have a few less powers. Now convinced that the sinister Bengalis were trying to take over the country, Governor General Mohammad once again dissolved the assembly, this time declaring a state of emergency as well. In the words of Tariq Ali, for the next few months Pakistan was “ruled by a semi-insane Governor General” who crushed press freedom and gave the army a free hand to round up dissidents.

In 1955 a new constitution was finally approved. As part of this process, the monarchy was abolished for largely symbolic reasons; there was no desire to have a white, protestant woman as head of what was supposed to be an explicitly Muslim state. Politically, however, the new President of Pakistan occupied an office that was largely the same as that of the Governor General. The movement to weaken the executive had faltered, and the new presidency would retain all the same “reserve powers” of dissolution, appointment, and veto usually associated with a constitutional monarch. Unfortunately, Pakistan had already grown used to authoritarian Governor Generals exploiting their constitutional powers to the full extent, so it was unsurprising that the man who became the first President of Pakistan following Mohammad’s 1956 resignation, General Iskander Mirza, chose to conduct himself in a similarly aggressive manner.

President Mirza continued to rule under a state of emergency, till 1958, when he was quietly deposed by General Mohammad Ayub Khan, his ambitious defense minister. As President, Khan eventually ditched the 1956 constitution altogether and wrote his own, formally entrenching an authrotarian system of “managed democracy” that would last until his resignation in 1969, at which point the country descended further into internal breakdown and civil war.

Does the system even matter?

Pakistan has been an effective dictatorship, or failed state, for virtually all of its 60 troubled years as an independent nation. The fact that this was obviously the case even during the 1947-1956 period when the country was a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown seems to suggest some inherent flaws in the monarchist argument that constitutional monarchy breeds greater political stability and democracy than alternative systems.

So did the monarchical system of government fail Pakistan? Or did Pakistan fail the monarchy? Neither, I believe. The model of government that Pakistan used is largely irrelevant to our understanding of why Pakistan went through what it did in the 1950’s, or why it is going through the events of the present, for that matter.

Jinnah and Mohammad can be easily criticized as just being bad governor generals, and a monarchist might argue (as many Brits did at the time) that their actions in office simply made a farce of the Westminster principles that their positions are supposed to respect and honor. What their regins ultimately demonstrate, however, is that a governor general (or monarch) is only as politically useful as he or she choses to be. An office of government is not in itself benign; it can only be begin if the individual who occupies it believes in the value of being so.

Jinnah and Mohammad were men with grand ambitions and authoritarian personalities who inherited a brand-new country without any sort of democratic traditions. That they helped bring their countries down the road to dictatorship is thus more an indictment of their own political priorities, style of leadership, and lack faith in the parliamentary process than any sort of grander thesis about monarchies or republics. As a counter-example, we need look no farther than next-door India, a country that went through virtually the same constitutional evolution as Pakistan—briefly a monarchy, then a republic—yet has enjoyed a nearly unbroken record of liberal democratic government since 1947. The difference was that India’s governor generals (and presidents) were willing to act as subservient figureheads, and its prime ministers were content to govern through the proper parliamentary process. Had India been led by a different caliber of men in those first shaky years, things could have turned out much different.

Wiser people than me continue to debate whether or not Pakistan was doomed from the get-go, and whether Jinnah’s dream of a multi-ethnic, secular Muslim state was ever really feasible. Certainly dictatorship arises more often than not from circumstances of social unrest and political tension—which invariably breed demands for “strong leaders” to fix everything—and such has been the status quo in Pakistan more often than not.

We can pray that Canada (or Australia or Britain or wherever) never collapses into a state of ruin and turmoil, and that our populace and politicians never begin to cry for dictatorship. But if they ever do, you can be sure that the Crown will not save us from ourselves.

The Obscure Debate thrives online

One of the reasons why I like republicanism is because I like being part of a polarized debate. You can call the issue esoteric or irrelevant, but there’s no denying that a great many people do consider this monarchy-versus-republic business to be serious stuff; a quick glimpse at some of my recent “comments” should make that clear.

However, outside of Australia—which has already held a referendum on separation from the British Crown—I would argue that the monarchy debate in the Commonwealth is also rather undeveloped at present. It’s simply not an issue that one hears discussed much in the mainstream media or partisan discourse, and when it is, it’s frequently only in the most superficial way. Again, one could argue this is because the issue itself is fringe and irrelevant, but I believe a more genuine explanation comes from the fact that the need for a republic has simply not yet had reason to register on the national priority scale.

It will eventually, however. Indeed, the clock is ticking faster every day and it’s now just a matter of time before some spark triggers an explosion of interest in the future of the Crown, be it the Queen’s death, a re-opening of the constitution, an unprecedented political move by an agent of the monarchy, or some high-profile scandal or controversy within the House of Windsor. Until that time comes, it’s worthwhile to anticipate this inevitability through discussions that remain, admittedly, largely academic at the present time.

One enjoyable by-product of this status quo is the large role that the internet has come to play in helping raise the profile of the intellectual side of monarchy debate. As I’ve mentioned before, my friend Lewis Holden, a New Zealander who heads his country’s official republican movement has created a wonderful blog called the Holden Republicin which he regularly addresses all manner of republican and monarchy related issues—both national and international in scope—from a Kiwi perspective.

Then there’s The Monarchist, an equally engaging pro-monarchy blog written by a handful of writers in Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. Though I hardly ever agree with its postings, it is a well-written and insightful blog which offers a good window into the intellectual mindset of “the other side.” Unlike formal, capital-M monarchist organizations in the Commonwealth, which tend to be mushy-mouthed political spin groups of the worst sort, The Monarchist is unapologetically brash, brazen, and aggressive in its defense of the Crown. Its writers speak unabashedly from what I believe is the true root of most passionate monarchist sentiment—a love for Britain, Empire, and all the accompanying trinkets and baubles.

I joined the fray with this blog last month, hoping to offer a Canadian perspective into the milieu, and contribute something to the greater Commonwealth discourse. And now I see there’s another new blog in town, A Commonwealth Monarchist, written by a British guy who, unlike The Monarchist, seems to hate republicans more than he loves the Queen.

Though his arguments are quite wrong (he in particular seems to honestly believe that a monarchical system of government prevents tyranny, when there are countless examples to the contrary) he is a decent writer and seems as keen as I to become part of this great, obscure debate. And for that, I give him kudos.

Any successful political movement requires multiple wings, including partisan allies in the legislature, a strong interest / lobby group, and an effective media presence. But such movements also require a strong intellectual foundation, composed of men and women who spend time studying their cause in great detail, and formulating a clear ideological case for why their position is the right one.

Republicans and monarchists are no different in this regard, and I’m continually impressed to see the way the net has already become the dominant forum for what will doubtlessly be one of the most interesting political battles of the 21st Century Commonwealth.


My name is J.J. Among other things, I am now the Vancouver head of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, a Canadian movement which champions the novel idea that Canada should be a republic with an elected Canadian serving as our country’s head of state, rather than a monarchy with the British Queen as head of state, as we are at present.

I have a lot to say about the topic of republicanism in Canada, yet I’ve lacked a good forum in which to do it. I don’t want to clog my other site with it, because I know the issue can get tiresome for the disinterested. Taking inspiration from my good pal Lewis, who leads the republican movement in his country of New Zealand, I thus decided to create this, a new blog in which I can comment on contemporary issues involving crown and country as they relate to Canada.