Review: Not 1952

Many Canadians recall when a portrait of Her Majesty was displayed in every post office and hockey rink and a thumping rendition of God Save The Queen was a staple of service club luncheons. Much has changed since a monarch last ascended to the throne in “an age of deference,” as David Johnson puts it.

“We are coming to the end of an era,” Johnston writes in Battle Royal. “Elizabeth II, a seemingly near permanent feature of life for so many people, is in her twilight years. At any point in the next decade or so the Queen will die and her son Charles, Prince of Wales, will become king. Monarchists will rejoice at this succession, following the ancient protocols of English common law, but republicans will grimace.”

Battle Royal is a crisp examination of where Canadians stand or fall on the relevance of the monarchy. Even die-hard republicans can’t bother with the tedious chore of changing the Constitution Act to replace the new king with a Canadian head of state, but this is not the point, notes the author. “This we know: The monarchy will continue to exist in Canada once Elizabeth II is gone, and the Canadian vice-regents will carry on their work as they always have,” writes Johnson of Cape Breton University. “There is a world of difference, however, between existing and thriving.”

At the last succession in 1952 the relevance of English monarchs to the World War II generation was unquestioned. Elizabeth remains the only queen who knows how to fix a carburetor, as a 1945 mechanic in the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

The House of Windsor was celebrated as tangible proof of English superiority. Canadians in 1952 still recalled the gruesome fate of lesser royal houses. Seven foreign kings were assassinated from 1900 to 1934 like Alexander I of Serbia, “a flabby young man with pince-nez who had a taste for clumsy experiments in absolutism,” wrote journalist Rebecca West in 1941. Alexander’s killers found him cringing in a secret closet of his Belgrade palace, shot and stabbed him and his Queen Draga and tossed their naked corpses off a balcony. Not very British.

But this is now. Professor Johnson captures the moment perfectly. Deference is gone and Canadian monarchists have no new ideas to make the institution fresh or relevant. As Battle Royal explains, “The country needs a head of state; the head of state has always been a monarch; therefore the country needs a monarch as head of state. While this logic is completely illogical to a republican, it satisfies the monarchists’ reverence for the past and their need for a sense of order.”

“The monarchist defence presented here is far from new,” Johnson writes. “In 1915 Spanish Princess Eulalia wondered how the British people would be any better off if they abolished the royal family. ‘They would gain as little,’ she said, ‘as if by a popular uprising, the citizens of London killed the lions in their zoo. There may have been a time when lions were dangerous in England, but the sight of them in their cages can now only give a pleasurable holiday shudder of awe – of which the nation will not willingly deprive itself.’”

Battle Royal is thoughtful and smartly written, and so unvarnished in its treatment of Canada’s head of state it could never have been published in 1952.

By Holly Doan

Battle Royal: Monarchists vs Republicans and the Crown of Canada, by David Johnson; Dundurn; 288 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-40136; $26.99

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