Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book Notes: Johnson's Battle Royal

"King of Canada. Mummy, must I?"

David Johnson, the author of Battle Royal, a new study of monarchical versus republican ideas in Canada, describes himself as a "pragmatic monarchist," but he writes as a sentimental one too. His book is full of lush descriptions of the pageantry of royal weddings, coronations, and tours. At one point he uses the odious Edward VIII as an example of the "modern, philanthropic monarchy" (he does later acknowledge the Nazi associations). He lavishes chapters on the intricacies of "crown privilege," because the subject can be made to inflate the power and importance of the royalty -- though really crown privilege is just executive privilege, and the issues are essentially the same in republics and monarchies. He argues monarchy is better because the Queen is a bigger celebrity than any governor general -- though on that metric Canadians ought to prefer foreign Olympians over our own, too. He consistently takes monarchical positions seriously while often finding republicans "quick to pounce" with quibbles and objections.

Though his thumb seems to be on the scale at times, Johnson does strive for balance, faithfully following a monarchist interpretation with (a slightly less fervent) analysis of republican ones. The most valuable chapter of the book may be the ninth, "Quests and Quagmires: Republicanism meets Constitutionalism." His argument here is that a Canadian republic is "impossible." The Canadian constitution sets a high threshold for changes to the monarchy: unanimous consent of the Canadian government and all of the provinces. Professor Johnson dismisses suggestions for getting around this requirement, and concludes that since unanimous consent has never been secured for any constitutional amendment since the establishment of the amending formula in 1982, the monarchy is immune to change. George must follow William who will follow Charles who will follow Elizabeth, and so on forever, he concludes. Case closed.

I think Johnson is right about the unanimity rule. It is a high threshold, and it ought to be. Establishing a Canadian republic with a Canadian head of state is an important change, It needs to be treated with appropriate seriousness and the proper constitutional procedures.

But Johnson is wrong, I think, to argue that difficult means impossible. Ending the monarchy in Canada by formal constitutional change is one of those things that will only be impossible until it becomes inevitable. Johnson acknowledges that polling in Canada generally runs republican, and has for quite a while. As that sense becomes consensus, there may simultaneously be an erosion of the belief that popular, specific changes to the constitution can always legitimately be held hostage by premiers with local concerns about fish or employment services.

Johnson's chapter shows how little attention Canadian thinkers and scholars have yet paid to the details and issues of the republican transition. Searching for republican "positions" on constitutional matters, Johnson is reduced to quoting the press releases of Citizens for a Canadian Republic. Now I admire the efforts of CCR and have at times been consulted by them. But CCR is essentially a handful of well-meaning citizens, hardly equipped to be presented as the authoritative research institute on the constitutional aspects of republicanism. 

What Johnson presents most clearly in Battle Royal is how much work remains to be done on the ways and means of creating a situation in which the Canadian state has a Canadian head of state and no longer needs to borrow a foreign one. The republican option requires research papers, conferences, publications, and discussions, to flesh out the widespread Canadian doubt about a foreign and monarchical head of state with realistic, pragmatic, practical paths to change. Canadian monarchists have clearly been better organized, better funded, and more calculating in these matters.

If that work were being done, then we might have something resembling a battle royal. The evidence from Johnson's study is that it has hardly started yet.

From the Literary Review of Canada, some previous thought in this area.
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