Graham Steele: The politics of a royal visit

As Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall prepare to touch down in Nova Scotia Sunday, Graham Steele refelcts on the politics of royal visits.
Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall enjoy a walk-about during a visit to China Town in central London Nov. 1, 2007. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

As Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall prepare to touch down in Nova Scotia on Sunday, I’ve been reflecting on the politics of royal visits.

And yes, there are plenty of politics.

My first inkling of the political link with royal visits came long ago. In 1982 I was a university student in Winnipeg. An invitation arrived in the mail to attend a reception with the visiting Princess Anne. I wasn’t sure why I’d received it, but I went.

When I got there, I thought at first it was a Liberal Party convention. Everybody who was anybody in the party was there. 

The penny dropped. 

I was active with the Young Liberals (yes, I was both young and a Liberal once). The Liberal Party, which at the time formed the federal government, had used invitations to the royal reception as a reward for party members.

My next close encounter with royalty had to wait until 2010, when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came to Nova Scotia. I was a minister in the provincial government, and this time I saw the politics up close.

Royal visits are rare enough. The Queen was last here in 1994, and before that in 1976. They're special enough to many constituents, that there is plenty of jostling among politicians for that perfect photo and that’s the least of the politics.

During her 2010 visit, the Queen was scheduled to attend the International Tattoo. It is, after all, the “Royal” Nova Scotia International Tattoo. 

Her protocol staff indicated the Queen does not merely attend and observe events, there must be some opportunity for interaction with the performers.

Tattoo organizers took the view that a set of stairs on the stage were too steep for Her Majesty. The royal protocol staff insisted that she would be fine. Neither side budged, and in the end, the visit to the Tattoo was cancelled.

The British press, who revel in the revelation of every royal peccadillo, are also fiercely protective of the Royal Family on their foreign tours. The Daily Mirror called it an insult to the Queen. Tattoo organizers blamed the provincial government, who were merely bemused bystanders.

(Later in the visit, Her Majesty had no difficulty negotiating a steep ladder on board one of the naval ships that were in town to mark the centenary of the Royal Canadian Navy).

Some things never change

Another incident: As part of the naval celebrations, there was a private lunch event at the Stadacona naval base, which Her Majesty attended. 

I was there on behalf of the provincial government. When I exchanged greetings with my tablemates, I discovered they were all good Tories. In fact, the room was full of loyal Conservatives, invited under the auspices of federal minister Peter MacKay.

Some things never change.

Although the great majority of Nova Scotians are favourable to the Royal Family, a politician also has to be mindful that not everyone is a fan. The recent spat about the “Royal” prefix at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton is a reminder that old feelings can run deep. 

There are also plenty of people who resent every nickel spent on a royal visit. So a host government is well-advised to watch its budget. Hospitality, yes, but nothing splashy.

There will be politics around Charles’ and Camilla’s visit, but they are likely to be relatively restrained. 

The royal couple is in Nova Scotia for less than 24 hours, and — let’s be frank — they do not have the cachet of the Queen.  

There probably were some politics around the choice of certain items on the itinerary, and there may be a private reception whose guest list is suspiciously heavy with government supporters. This is mild stuff, and not likely to put noses out of joint.

But if Will and Kate ever come for a visit, the jostling among politicians will be like a Montreal–Boston playoff series — elbows out, sticks up, and plenty of bruises afterwards.