We're all in the royal family

COYNE: Perhaps we've grown out of our insecurities—and growing into the monarchy

We're all in the royal family

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Even before Prince William and his bride Kate had arrived in Canada—before they had visited their first cancer patient, or listened to their first war vet, before they had thrilled hundreds of thousands in Ottawa or talked with street kids in Quebec or surveyed the efforts to rebuild Slave Lake, Alta.—the nation’s newspaper columnists were sounding the alarm at the invasion. When, they sighed, would Canada grow up? Wasn’t it time to slough off these last vestiges of colonial rule? Of all the irrational, outmoded ideas: to choose a head of state on the basis of heredity.

As the trip wore on—as the prince greeted crowds in English and French and Dene and Inuvialuktun, visited the cradle of Confederation in Charlottetown, played road hockey in Yellowknife—the pundits’ mood only seemed to grow sourer. These hicks waving happily at the couple as they passed: was it not obvious they were simply in the thrall of celebrity? Could they not see the prince and his glamorous consort for the foreigners they are?

Nothing new here. The same party-poopers write the same diatribes every time royalty comes to town. But they have seldom seemed quite so out of step with the times, so…dated. In truth it is not the monarchy that is outmoded, it is the critics, invariably of a certain age, who seem unable to escape a time when asserting the country’s identity meant rejecting not only monarchy, but a long list of things that were supposedly holding us back. Perhaps what we are discovering on this tour is that the country has grown out of such adolescent insecurities. Perhaps we’re growing into the monarchy.

Yes, they’re an attractive couple, and yes, they’re famous. But no ordinary celebrity inspires this kind of popular affection, or works so hard to deserve it. They’ve been compared to rock stars, but the cheers this kind young couple have elicited are not the kind you hear at a rock concert, but at a wedding reception: softer, warmer, more spontaneous. They may be newlyweds, but most of all, they’re family.

Heredity is not incidental to that. It has everything to do with it. A great part of the mystique of royalty is bound up in the idea of fate, the accidents of chance to whose remorseless rule we are all of us, high or low, subject. The prince, after all, had no choice in the matter. He did not seek to become prince, was not appointed to the job, or elected. He simply is. It is his fate, and as such his duty, which he performs, uncomplainingly.

Heredity may not be the appropriate means, in a democracy, for apportioning power or wealth, but to deny its symbolic role is foolish. The whole of society is organized around the family, whose express purpose is inheritance, genetic or otherwise. What is a nation but an extension of that: though not, in a liberal state, connected by blood ties, it can yet trace a kind of genealogy in its history, the collective inheritance that is the sum of many generations’ work.

Monarchy, then, is the symbolic representation of that idea, the passing of the generations in the house of Windsor mirroring the passing of the generations at large, back and back into antiquity. When we consider that it is our Crown, we are reminded that we are not, in fact, a young country at all. We are an ancient kingdom: first French, then British, now Canadian.

It’s quite delightfully homely, when you think of it: here you have this whole constitutional order, with all its laws and institutions, and at the very apex sits not a god or an ideology but…a family. Again, the symbolism is important. Our system may be based on many fine ideas, but all are subordinate to the imperative of humanism, that systems and ideas must always be judged by how they affect people’s lives, and not the other way around. If it is easier to be loyal to a person than a thing, it is perhaps because it is humanity that is thus being affirmed.

I could cite monarchy’s other symbolic roles: as a reminder, in its constrained, constitutional form, of the hard-won victory of democracy over absolutism; as a means of constraining, in its turn, the pretensions of elected politicians, who in bowing to the Queen (as it has been said) bow to us; as the personification of the state, embodying both the rule of law and popular sovereignty. But I think its particular function as the locus of loyalty is crucial.

Think of what goes on when the prince stops to chat with an elderly war vet. All of that history, all of that mystique, all of the cheers of the crowd, all of the hoopla that goes with royalty are at that moment channelled through him onto the object of his attention. All of the love and loyalty that is directed at him is now reflected back: the smile that lights up the vet’s face is the receipt of that exchange. I confess I cannot see anything wrong with this.