The royal engagement: do we still care?

Indeed, we do. After years of indifference to the Crown, Canada is enjoying a true royal moment

Do we still care?

Harper, unlike recent predecessors, followed the Queen and Prince Philip almost everywhere on their recent trip. That famous pirouette: Trudeau did it behind the Queen’s back. | John Stillwell/Getty Images; Doug Ball/CP

So the inevitable is now official. The announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton—the actual proposal came last month when the two were in Kenya—has set off the predictable cascade of nutty media inanity in Britain, a chorus of “so whats” from anti-monarchists here and there, and deep satisfaction from royalists.

In Canada, the news that the second in line to the throne had done the deed and asked for the hand of the girlfriend of almost eight years standing—minus some time off to check out the field and also contemplate all the constraints that crowd his absurdly scrutinized life—was taken the way much royal news is taken in Canada these days: with a tolerant shrug. It also comes when the issue of the Crown in Canada is probably more assured than it has been in years.

The engagement itself was sealed, apparently, when William offered a ring of his mother’s to Kate, thus putting the metaphorical seal of approval of Diana, princess of Wales, to a future marriage all monarchists in Queen Elizabeth II’s 16 realms fervently pray will end up better than hers with Prince Charles. William and Kate do not need to have a “fairy-tale” marriage. They just need one that works.

If ever a couple was required to go into a deeper relationship of commitment with both eyes wide open, it is this pair. If they are lucky, they will discover that all great relationships are built on trial and error and compromise as much as on love and physical longing. That, and a pact of friendship to protect them from all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that they are also heir to, might help them to fight the odds that are not good for young people so exposed to public and media scrutiny.

Does it really matter? It really does. In Canada, where the role of the Crown has been so trivialized and misunderstood for so long, it is hard for many people to take it seriously. Yet, the future of the Crown is very much tied up in William and Kate. Their marriage, scheduled for spring or summer next year, will precede Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and the two-year combination of renewal and hope in the young couple and gratitude for the constancy of the 84-year-old Queen will bring an outpouring of affection not seen for years.

In Canada, a hint of what is to come came from the visit last summer by the Queen and Prince Philip, when unprecedented crowds turned out on Parliament Hill to see the Queen at the centre of the Canada Day celebrations. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said things about the role of the monarchy in Canada that have not been heard here for two generations. Almost everywhere the royal couple travelled, there the ubiquitous PM was—almost like Waldo in the children’s picture book—to show the government’s support for the institution. There hasn’t been a politician clinging so much to the coattails of monarchy since prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King virtually stalked King George VI and Queen Elizabeth from one end of the country to the other during the famous 1939 royal visit.

All this came about despite years of downgrading the role of the Crown in the governance of Canada by successive administrations and by the institutions of the federal government that hold sway over the office of governor general, the Queen’s official representative in Canada. Lip service was paid, but bit by bit, the whole notion of Canada under the Crown came in for studied indifference or even outright hostility.

It wasn’t just Pierre Trudeau’s pirouette behind the Queen at the 1977 dinner at Buckingham Palace to honour G7 summit leaders. It wasn’t just the removal, for years, of pictures of the Queen from many government institutions. It wasn’t just the downgrading of the role of the Crown in school materials. It wasn’t just the removal of royal symbols and the erosion of royal events and royal visits. It was all of these things and the encouraged notion that somehow the Crown was a vestige and symbol of colonial subservience.

A really low point came in 2002, when John Manley, then the Liberal government’s deputy prime minister, was also assigned to accompany the Queen on her tour of the country after openly calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Another was when Prince Charles, the heir to the Crown in Canada, was told—repeatedly—that visits to the country were “inappropriate” or “untimely.”

Canadian Heritage, the department charged with honouring and preserving our heritage, is a big culprit here. For a number of years, it has managed with perfect aplomb the Orwellian feat of promoting the exact opposite of its mandate. “Unheritage Canada” not only consigned the Crown to a strictly “heritage” role, rather than as the living embodiment of our system of government, it also made sure that it was safely contained in often innocuous activities and tours.

The plight of Prince Charles as heir to the Crown of Canada is emblematic. He is a warm-hearted, decent and thoughtful man who has espoused causes that are dear to many Canadians’ hearts and did so long before they were popular, particularly on the ecological and climate change fronts, but also with his concerns for the quality of life for ordinary people. Even on the infrequent (and usually really brain-dead) visits we have allowed him, he has been a hit with nearly everyone he was allowed to meet.

It is true that Canadians do not generally think of themselves as living under a “monarchy.” It doesn’t sound right. On the other hand, neither do they think of themselves as living under a “republic.” That sounds just as wrong. If pushed to come up with a definition, they seem to be comfortable with the idea that they live in a federation of frisky provinces with attitude issues, united by a cold climate and by parliamentary institutions under a politically disinterested Crown.

None of the reports of young William and his Kate suggest that he is overly endowed with intellectual prowess. But it does seem that he understands his duty. The couple seem like a lot of nice young people who have a lot of material advantages. But William has also been in training, through family tradition and through service in the armed forces. It will be years before he becomes King William V and the gauntlet of media dissection will only increase. That may be his biggest challenge, although there are signs that the media madness may be backfiring at long last.

Just the other week, for example, the head that wears the crown in Sweden, King Carl XVI Gustaf, gave a hilarious and impromptu press conference in the midst of the woods during a hunting expedition, about the media frenzy over an exposed affair he had years before. He more or less told the press to get off his back because, a) it was old news, b) he and Queen Sylvia had had it out, and, c) he had important duties to perform as the head of state. A few days later, a public opinion poll said that 80 per cent of Swedes felt the “lurid details” had not changed their view of the king and 50 per cent said the media should butt out of the private lives of the royal family.

This is bad news for Rupert Murdoch and all his newspapers, but good news for William and Kate as they head down the aisle and into a life together that will be neither easy nor magical, but quite possibly more realistic and tenable than any royal couple has experienced for decades.