Michael Ignatieff on the Monarchy

Michael Ignatieff, after the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales, wrote an article published in the Montreal Gazette on December 12th, 1992:

LONDON – We are being told to sympathize with the private grief of the tragic couple. We are being asked to believe that the horrid tabloids are to blame. Buckingham Palace and No. 10 Downing Street smoothly assure us that the couple’s private misery need have no constitutional implications.

Enough of this nonsense. The Royal Family is not doing its job. And what pray is that? It is to represent and to guarantee the institutional continuity of the British state.

The separation announcement effectively declared that the monarchy had placed its dynastic succession on hold until the unhappy couple sort themselves out. The monarchy has suspended normal service and has no idea when it will be resumed.

We swear allegiance to the Queen and her heirs and successors. As of Thursday’s announcement we no longer know who they actually will be. Will it be Charles? Or Prince William? Will Diana be Queen?

In constitutional theory, prime ministers and politicians come and go but the Queen and her heirs go on forever.

On Thursday, the proper constitutional order was stood on its head. The prime minister was on his feet in the Commons acting as the source of constitutional continuity, struggling to make it appear in his usual unconvincing way, that nothing was really amiss.

Both the prime minister and the palace must dwell in a realm of deep unreality not to have anticipated the gasp of disbelief in the Commons chamber at their blithe contention that Britain will accept the prospect of being ruled by a miserably separated couple.

In reality, as both MPs and the public appear to have realized, we are heading into constitutional No Man’s Land. The problem is not that the monarchy is failing to live up to some rosy family ideal. The British royal family never has and in any case that is not its job. Along with the dutiful diligent and much-loved Queen, we have had madmen, philanderers and incompetents on the throne.

Listening to the separation announcement, I found myself wondering exactly why this shambles was so magically preferable to an elected presidency. Dignity, authority and respect – all the qualities peeling away from the monarchy by the hour – are there to behold in the distinguished figure of Richard von Weizsacker, Germany’s president. He has even used his office to speak for the German liberal conscience. Could someone tell me why the current Speaker of the British House of Commons could not do just as well? At least she has no family we would have to endure.

I will be told that republicanism is alien to British traditions. This is monarchist cant. Britain is the home of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. From the English revolution of 1640 to the Reform Act of 1832, the British people taught continental Europe how to bend a monarchy to the popular will.

The rights of free-born Englishmen, the sovereignty of Parliament and the independence of the judiciary were all won in essentially republican struggles against monarchical power.

The result is a unique form of government in which “We, the people” consent to be ruled by a hereditary monarch. We think of ourselves as subjects rather than citizens, but the reality is that the monarchy is a creature, even a prisoner, of public opinion.

It is this unstable combination of republican sovereignty, clothed in the trappings of monarchy, which is slowly coming apart. The British now have to decide whether to admit how republican their history actually is or whether to continue with the fantasy that they are ruled by kings and queens.

The tabloid press faithfully reflects the rabid and schizophrenic attitude of the public. One minute the tabloid hounds are licking the royal hand, the next they are biting it off. One day they bay for the Queen to pay taxes “like the rest of us.” The next they are weeping tears over the end of the royal fairy tale.

What is depressing is not the cynical opportunism but the corruption of an authentically British republican tradition into a rabid kind of porno-populism. The royal family is now being torn apart by a uniquely British combination of raging envy and fawning deference. This schizophrenia perfectly expresses the conflict between republican and monarchical principles at the heart of the constitution.

What happens now depends not on what the palace wishes, but on what the public comes to believe is right. My fervent wish is that it will regretfully but firmly decide enough is enough.

The future looks decidedly bleak for the institution. The tabloids will ferret out the royal mistresses and consorts soon enough. Separation will be followed by divorce. What then? We seem to be headed, slowly but surely, towards a humble Scandinavian monarchy, which bicycles to work, busies itself in inoffensive good works and tries desperately to make itself so boring that the tabloids will give up the chase.

But a Scandinavian-style monarchy is acceptable only if the British public finally admits that Britain’s days as a great power are over. For greatness is what monarchy once implied, and the greatness is irrevocably gone.

If so, why retreat further? Why not turn retreat into an opportunity for reform? Now is the time for the republican tradition in Britain to find its voice again.

Such respect for the monarchy as I have makes me believe they deserve a more honorable opponent than rabid porno-populism.

For the choice the British face is between clinging to an institution which has had its day or affirming what their history has always taught, which is that “We, the people” and not the crown are the source of all power and authority in this island.

Comments

comments

  • Bec

    Rather rich coming from someone that eventually would permit himself to become, 'anointed'….?

  • http://twitter.com/ChromeSushi ChromeSushi

    Sounds good to me!

  • David

    Good god. Who can read this drivel.

    I don't thik anybody quite frankly, gives a whack what Iggy thinks of the monarchy or anything else for that matter.

  • http://canadiansense.blogspot.com/ Canadiansense

    “The British now have to decide whether to admit how republican their history actually is or whether to continue with the fantasy that they are ruled by kings and queens.”

    A bit rich from a person who never won a democratic contest against a Liberal, believes the Liberal Party built Canada and believes he would have been elected as PM in January 2009 if he had the courage to pull the plug.

  • Leasa

    Okay, unless I'm not understanding this, Iffy is speaking as a republican. Thought he was 'always a liberal' through and through?

    “Now is the time for the republican tradition in Britain to find its voice again.”

    Add to that the many times he has backed republican policy in the U.S. and the FACT he had to take out a liberal membership in order to run here for the job of MP..seems to me we've been lied to and seriously so. He is a chameleon and goes through changes that his audience of the day seem to want here in Canada.

  • http://www.stephentaylor.ca Stephen Taylor

    “republican” as an adjective means one who supports a republic model of state, rather than say a monarchistic one. “Republican” as a proper noun is the name of a political party in the US which has the same views on “republicanism” as the “Democrat” party.

  • http://twitter.com/hatrockscave hatrock

    This coming from a guy so enamored with his own Russian regal heritage.

  • NovaDog

    I thought Ignatieff wanted a united Canada. Posting something like this in Quebec certainly does not help the cause.

  • Switchyard O'Taylor

    It's not fair to actually hold him to his opinions. We don't expect that of any other leader (Harper on IncomeTrusts, Chretien on GST, Obama on Change), why would we expect it of the 2nd choice of the Liberal B team?

  • simon

    Ah Iggy…The avant-garde philosopher…citizen of the world…the be all of all things cerebral….the one to tell us just what is ailing us.

    Ist Britian…then the U. S. , and now us Canadians.

    Yes Iggy the vaccuous intellect…a member of the disingenuous class who have neither the fortitude or the energy of conviction to follow through with any of those grand thoughts to the point of implementation.

    Yes Mr Ignatieff…our saviour …if we'll only give him our adoration… onlythen will he consent to annoint our unwashed minds and to enlighten us!

  • eric84

    This seems like a sensible article….what is the Tory position on the monarchy and what about those bolded bits does Stephen T have a problem with?

  • David

    Fair point , I suppose.

    But make no mistake. Even though Iggy wrote this I guarantee that he won't tell us if this is his position today or if this is the current position of the LPC.

  • Cat

    You've scored another touchdown Stephen!
    What's their to say about Iggys' drivel this time except it's turning out to be more of the same.

  • Leasa

    What does RT mean?

  • Leasa

    So, it’s safe to say that Iffy is a republican republican, eh?

  • johnburton

    I am absolutely incredulous that this individual was a professor at an esteemed US university. How any one who is supposedly so intellegent can write this kind of clap-trap boggles my mind.

    John of Smiths Falls

  • Bruce

    Is this Iggy's old job being posted here?………………………… Maybe they don't want him back?

    After all he's turned out to be a worse train wreck than even the hapless Dion.

    Requisition Number 37059
    Title Executive Director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
    School / Unit JFK School of Government
    Department Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
    Location Cambridge
    Full Or Part Time Full-Time
    Salary Grade 059
    Date Posted 07/10/2009

    http://jobs.harvard.edu/jobs/summ_req?in_post_i

  • Brent

    “We the people”…Is that the ‘American’ we, the ‘British’ we, the ‘Russian’ we, or, God forbid, the ‘Canadian’ we?

  • J Peterson

    Wow. As if we needed another reason not to let this guy become PM.

  • ripples

    Isn’t it amazing that if someone speaks of Harper’s ast writings while a tthe NCC they say it’s old stuff and he’s matured but Iggy can’t have changed becasue he’s a liberal. You people are sad sacks.

  • VinceClortho

    I dont find much to disagree with in this, it is kind of politics 101. The crown is the creature of public opinion…..ulm duh. has been for a long time and the crown understadns that, they know that they ormally rely on those slippery creatures called politicians to defend them, as they dont defend themselves. But their ultimate redoubt is in public opinion. Consent of the governed etc etc

    So iggy is really a republican, fine. he will find many a taker in this country. Except that he will also learn that changing it, or even bringing the conversation up is a painful and unrewarding experience. The crown may not be loved in this country but it isnt hated, and for the moment it has more support than other specific option. It will only be changed when the grand bargain is struck that includes Quebec signing the constitution, senate reform and few other goodies. It will all be done at the same time. I doubt I will live to see the day….

  • Shawn

    Let’s not forget that the Prime Minister is actually the ‘chief advisor’ to the Queen on issues relating to the country (in this case, Canada). Does no one else find it completely ironic, hypocritical, and stupendous that he is now campaigning to be the PM (or chief advisor) to the Queen (in which he does not believe) regarding the issues of Canada (where he really hasn’t lived for 35 years and still does not actually live in the riding he represents)? Why would anyone vote for this guy with this kind of flagrant hypocrisy and self-serving rhetoric?

  • jamesbowie

    What a well referenced, thoughtful, insightful column about an important issue. Not only is this Ignatieff fellow a talented writer and researcher, but I think he's come to the issue in a way that will appeal to monarchists like myself as well as critics.

    Thanks for posting this excellent work by a celebrated Canadian expat who, like me, spent a few years in the UK.

  • AEK

    Ignatieff calls the monarchy a “royal fairy tale” and concludes that “My fervent wish is that it (the British public) will regretfully but firmly decide enough is enough.”

    (Ouch! I hope this doesn’t come up in conversation when Prince Charles meets Ignatieff later this month.)

    When Peter Donolo crafts the least damaging response for Ignatieff to repeat should he be asked about his previous opinions, Donolo might also consider what Ignatieff told Rachel Cooke of The Observer in the Sept 27, 2009 edition ( http://tinyurl.com/ybkgom2 ):

    “Your question implies that I’ve suddenly had to tie myself in knots. No, I don’t have to tie myself in knots, and I don’t have to cease being who I am. But I have to watch what I say because the public has no other way to judge me than by what they read. I can’t walk around saying: ‘I keep saying these dreadful things, but I’m actually a nice fellow!’ Why should they believe that?”

    Agreed. You can’t keep saying such “dreadful things” and expect people to believe you’re a “nice fellow”. Now that you are the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, you have to be diplomatic when you’re ripping the British Monarchy to shreds.

    Ignatieff went on to say: “Politics is like getting a really bad review: a stinker that you know all your friends are reading.”

    It’s amazing how much Mr. Ignatieff and I agree on his performance review.

  • Soccermom

    Normally the monarchy doesn't bother me too much. But when that dork Charles opens his yap and talks climate change, I say to him “Shut the hell up!” He's an idiot, and an embarrassment to his mother.

  • AEK

    Prince Charles has swallowed the man-made-CO2-induced climate-change kool-aid, and is now regurgitating that intoxicant apparently without further thought to science. His misguided activism is good reason to ponder why he, or any other 'royal' should be Canada's Head of State.

    (Memo to Prince Charles: Best update your talking points since your messiah Al Gore has conveniently shifted 60% of the 'blame' for ‘man-made climate change’ from plant food (CO2) to vegetation decomposition and gas-passing (methane) and soot since his previous Nobel Prize winning 'the science is settled' argument became unsettled. http://tinyurl.com/ykxckgf )

    Regardless of how misguided the socialist activist Prince Charles is, the way to evolve the constitution of Britain and by extension, countries like Canada that recognize the Queen or King of England as our Head of State is not to ridicule the monarchy as an obsolete “royal fairy tale”.

    I can hardly wait for the news reports when Prince Charles meets Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition later this month to see how the Iggster's new handler tries to finesse Iggy's way around his previous words.

  • Morden

    Well he's got a majority of Canadians behind him on this one, whether the crusty, spoon-collecting would-be colonials in the 'League' like it or not.

  • Steve

    You realize Stephen Harper was a parachute candidate too, right?

  • http://canadiansense.blogspot.com/ Canadiansense

    I am not sure if he is a Republican or a Democrat. He may have made speeches in support for the War in Iraq, the Bush Doctrine, but I think he is an opportunist who believes in Empire Lite. The American Worldview bringing democracy to the world, protecting the vulnerable etc with a robust peace making to stop the Rwanda's.

  • http://canadiansense.blogspot.com/ Canadiansense

    I am not sure if he is a Republican or a Democrat. He may have made speeches in support for the War in Iraq, the Bush Doctrine, but I think he is an opportunist who believes in Empire Lite. The American Worldview bringing democracy to the world, protecting the vulnerable etc with a robust peace making to stop the Rwanda's.