Constitutional monarchy serves us well — but its figureheads have a serious image problem
The system works, even if that golden throne is a bit much
There was some tittering on the Internet last week when Prince Charles, opening a new session of the British Parliament on behalf of his ailing mother, relayed the government's commitment to helping "ease the cost of living for families" while sitting upon a golden throne.
In fairness to Charles, he was only doing his job. For that matter, a case can be made that the event at the Palace of Westminster — what's called the Queen's Speech in the United Kingdom and the Speech from the Throne in Canada — was actually less ridiculous than the self-aggrandizing and airy State of the Union address the American president delivers each year.
But Charles is not treated with the respectful deference that Queen Elizabeth II has earned over the last 70 years. And golden thrones are objectively kind of silly, if not offensive to democratic and egalitarian principles.
And that's the challenge facing the monarchy – a challenge that seems newly acute as Prince Charles visits Canada and questions are asked about Canada's future as a constitutional monarchy. Even if there is much to commend in the system it underpins, the trappings of royalty complicate any defence of the institution itself.
Canadians aren't keen on their future king
Recent surveys suggest that a significant number of Canadians don't like — or at least don't value — Canada's constitutional monarchy.
Just 26 per cent of respondents to an Angus Reid Institute survey in April said they were okay with the idea of Canada being a constitutional monarchy for "generations to come." In a poll conducted by Research Co. in February, 49 per cent of respondents said they would rather have an elected head of state, while 21 per cent said a monarch would be preferable.
At least some of this anti-monarchist sentiment might be traceable to a generally dim view of the man who will be king. The Angus Reid Institute found just 29 per cent of Canadians hold a favourable view of Prince Charles, compared to 54 per cent who have an unfavourable view. Research Co.'s findings were only slightly better: 35 per cent favourable, 49 per cent unfavourable.
But even a well-liked king would still have to carry the immense amount of baggage that comes with the crown — the history and incongruities of a famous family and a centuries-old institution.
Kings and queens are typically the stuff of Disney movies and fairy tales. The real and rumoured dramas, tragedies and conflicts of this Royal Family, meanwhile, are fodder for tabloids, prestige television and movies – from the divorce of Charles and Diana to the self-imposed exile of Prince Harry and Meghan.
As an institution, the British Crown carries the burden of Great Britain's history of colonialism. The very idea of an unelected, hereditary monarch presiding as head of state seems archaic and antithetical to the principles of democracy — the sort of thing no self-respecting nation would tolerate.
And yet, a constitutional monarchy may still be preferable to any of the alternatives.
The case for constitutional monarchy
Of the top 20 countries in the Economist's annual measure of democratic health, 10 are constitutional monarchies: Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, Luxembourg, Japan and the United Kingdom. Those ten countries, plus Belgium, also placed among the top 21 countries in the last edition of the UN human development index.
Correlation is not causation. But if you were looking for a group of ten countries to align yourself with, you could do much worse than those ten. And it's possible that constitutional monarchy has attributes that contribute meaningfully to a country's success.
An apolitical head of state with no electoral mandate can act as a broadly unifying figure and a voice for shared principles while being counted on to stay out of the political fray. While deferring to the democratically elected legislature — maintaining clear lines of political accountability and avoiding gridlock — they can still act as a neutral safeguard for democracy, ensuring the continuance and orderly transition of government.
More intangibly, the Crown in Canada is an anchor for history and convention and it imposes a small measure of restraint and humility on even the most powerful prime minister.
Justin Trudeau does not seem like an ardent monarchist, but he held up the institutional argument during his remarks at the welcoming ceremony for Prince Charles and Camilla on Tuesday in Newfoundland.
"So much of the endurance and stability of our democracy is woven into our Westminster parliamentary system, our constitutional monarchy and the Crown," Trudeau said. "In this period of uncertainty and trouble in the world, Canada is well served by our institutions."
Constitutional monarchy could mean more — or less
Is it possible an acceptable middle ground could be found between Canada's constitutional monarchy and something like the American presidency? Maybe. Ireland's president is essentially an elected governor general. But any structural change could lead to unforeseen consequences. And it's not obvious that Canada's system is actually broken.
But even if abandoning constitutional monarchy would be more trouble than it's worth, the institution might still need to change.
In an essay published in 2020 as part of a collection on "Canada's Monarchy in the age of disruption," Cape Breton University professor David Johnson (not to be confused with former governor general David Johnston) argued that "more" was the answer for an institution that could be regarded as an irrelevant bauble.
The future King, his family and his official representatives must do more if the monarchy is to be relevant to Canadians, Johnson wrote — they must be more present, through royal tours and the work of the governor general, and more active in charitable efforts through things like the Prince's Trust.
"If it is to be relevant to Canadians, the monarchy has to earn their respect, and it must do this by being a bigger part of their lives and the lives of their communities, their provinces, and their country," Johnson wrote.
There also might be an argument for "less."
In another essay from 2020, Carleton University professor Philippe Lagasse noted that while republicans — those who would like an elected head of state — might have little hope of rallying enough support for a constitutional amendment, they could target the "soft underbelly of monarchical symbolism."
That would include things like the Queen's face on our money, the fact that new citizens swear an oath to her, or the display of her portrait in government buildings.
Even monarchists might be advised to accept that such stuff is worth leaving in the past. They might have to accept that the country does not need to be awash in jubilee medals every ten years.
Because what the monarchy might need is more humanity and humility, less pomp and circumstance — and less familial drama. If the emphasis is on service, not status, the institution might seem less out of step with the ideals of modern society.
Constitutional monarchy can stand on the fact that the system works. But for the sake of preserving a useful system, the golden throne and other extravagances might be better off in a museum.