Researching and defending the Crown

Andrew Cohen’s Ottawa Citizen column on “Canada’s misguided monarchists” caught my attention yesterday. I was particularly struck my Cohen’s assertion that interest in the monarchy is a “sophomoric and sycophantic obsession with royalty by boys with a mommy complex” (Hi, Mom!) While I didn’t realize that Cohen had moved from being a pop historian to a Freudian analyst, his comment brought to mind questions I often get about my work on the Crown.

Specifically, I’m often asked: Why did I start researching the Crown? Why do I keep researching it? And why do I tend to defend it?

Here are the answers I give.

I began researching the Crown via a project on Canadian civil-military relations. This work involved an examination of Parliament’s role in national defence and machinery of government related to military affairs. It eventually resulted in the publication of this IRPP Study. What I discovered as part of this research was that the Crown was crucial to understanding relations between the armed forces and the political executive (i.e. Cabinet), as well as Parliament’s relatively minor functions in the national defence arena. Despite all the talk of the Crown being a mere symbol, the powers it conferred on ministers and the structure it imposed on relations between civilians and the military were quite significant and meaningful.

Once I had finished that project, I was curious to see how the Crown influenced Canadian governance writ large. What I discovered was that the Crown matters. A lot. Over the next three years, I read nearly everything I could about the evolution of the institution, its relationship with Parliament and the judiciary, its role in government in the Westminster tradition, and its legal nature and role. During that time, I learned how and why the Crown operates as our concept of the state; why it matters for the independence of bureaucratic officials and security forces; the role that it has played in Canadian federalism; how the divisibility of the Crown allowed Canada to become fully sovereign and independent from the United Kingdom; how the power of the executive over the legislature, and the Prime Minister’s dominance in government, can only be fully understood with reference to the Crown; and, how the Crown still informs the day-to-day operations of government, from policy-making authority to appointments to foreign affairs.

Having collected all this information and data, I chose to do additional work on the Crown and the military. With that project wrapping up this summer, I’ve decided to focus on the Crown and the Canadian state, and the monarchy’s place in the ideological battles over our national identity. To my mind, these are two areas that merit further attention in the literature on the Canadian constitution and Canadian politics. The on-going debates over Canada’s approach to the royal succession and the Queen’s place in our citizenship oath reinforce the need for additional academic research on these topics.

Now, as those who read my Twitter feed and op-eds will attest, I tend to defend the Crown quite a bit. Why do I do that? It boils down to three reasons, really.

First, having seen how much the Crown matters in the Canadian government and constitution, I get frustrated when I read simplistic analyses of the monarchy in Canada. Not only do most of these commentaries show the same level of depth as the media’s coverage of the royal baby, they’re often snide and contradictory. I can’t help but protest when I see a complex concept treated in a facile manner.

Next, I actually think the Westminster system has served Canada well. Insofar as the Crown is a central component of this system, I feel the need to stand up for the benefits of having a constitutional monarchy. I’m also a fan of an energetic executive. From my perspective, the only thing worse than a dominant executive is a submissive one. Because the Crown is the source of the executive’s power and discretion in the Canadian constitution, I’m compelled to stand up for it.

Finally, while studying political science at Carleton, I had the chance to read Michael Oakeshott in preparation for my comprehensive exam in political theory. As an incorrigible pessimist and skeptic, I was drawn to Oakeshott’s observations about the limits of rationalism in politics and the risks inherent in thinking that abstract models offer a viable alternative to modes of social and political organization that have evolved over centuries. When I bring this perspective to bear on the debate over the monarchy’s place in Canada, it leads me to question most of the proposals for a Canadian republic that I see. Often, these proposals focus on one aspect of the Crown, the head of state function. The other aspects of the Crown’s role in the constitution and government are either glossed over or ignored. Suffice to say, I’d like to see something more substantive. Before we debate the relative merits of constitutional monarchy or republicanism, it would be nice for advocates of a republic to offer a comprehensive plan for replacing the various facets of the Crown. Otherwise, we’re simply talking about half-measures or constitutional reform on the fly, with little to no consideration of second or third order consequences.

Will any of this convince Cohen that my interest in the Crown isn’t tied to the royals? Probably not. But maybe, just maybe, it’ll encourage him to read up a bit on topic he feels so strongly about.

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