There a famous quote by author E.M. Delafield: “Most Englishmen are convinced that God is an Englishman, probably educated at Eton.”
Actually, there is more than a grain of truth in her observation.
As surveys consistently affirm, Great Britain, despite losing its empire after World War II, has vied with the United States, its former colony, as the world’s preeminent soft power.
Soft power is essentially defined as the acquisition of influence through the exercise of more subtle forms of power: network building, communicating compelling narratives, establishing international rules, and drawing on the resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world.
No other country on the planet has contributed more to human civilization out of proportion to its size than Great Britain.
Even today, tiny Britain, which is smaller than the U.S. state of Oregon and whose economy is dwarfed not only by the United States but also by historical continental rival, Germany, still exerts a powerful cultural and even moral footprint in far-flung corners of the world, especially in those corners where its imperial legacy once held sway.
This is perhaps most reflected in its most enduring institution, the monarchy, which remains by far the most successful, admired and stable one on the planet.
I have always been fascinated by how the British monarchy has evolved into separate realms – Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Jamaican, Bahamian, and so forth. That’s always been the British genius: evolving within form, so to speak. For instance, when Elizabeth II sets foot on Canadian soil, she functions solely as the Sovereign of Canada, devoid of any residual ties to Britain. Moreover, when Elizabeth travels from Canada to the United States on official visits, protocol requires that she entertain American officials at the Canadian Embassy. Under these circumstances, she is recognized and toasted solely as the Queen of Canada.
A recent article raised the perennial question about the future of the monarchy following Elizabeth’s passing. A thin line of Canadian monarchists are mapping out a strategy to secure the survival of the institution during what is expected to be a long trek through the wilderness during Charles’ reign.
Even so, many observers of the monarchy seriously doubt that the institution will be abolished in Canada, even under “boring” and “unimportant” Charles. In fact, Canada has a strong incentive for keeping the monarchy, despite a majority of Canadians expressing deep ambivalence about the institution. Throughout its history, Canada has always walked a tightrope between its historical British connections and its strong cultural and economic ties with the United States.
The monarchy, by helping Canada define itself symbolically and culturally against the behemoth to the south, serves a vital national interest.
Interestingly, though, if Canada ever resolves to become the Republic of Canada, ridding itself of the monarchy theoretically would not be that difficult. By tradition, the Governor-General essentially serves as Canada’s stand-in head of state in Elizabeth’s physical absence. The Canadian Parliament merely would have to pass a law eliminating the monarchy and recognizing the Governor-General as the official head of state.
The Governor-General thereafter would be president of Canada, with constitutional duties, largely ceremonial in nature, resembling those of the presidencies of Ireland and Germany.
A similar and rather seamless constitutional transformation could be carried out by the other three former British dominions: Australia and New Zealand and, for that matter, other realms, such as the former colonies of Jamaica, the Bahamas and Barbados.
Queen Elizabeth has stated repeatedly throughout her reign that the question of whether Commonwealth realms remain monarchies or become republics remains solely the concern of these realms
In his book The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, historian Piers Brendon points out that Britain learned a vital lesson from its defeat by the American colonists. It resolved to order its relations with its settler colonies – Canada, Australia and New Zealand – on terms that would enable these dominions, as they were ultimately called, to grow into full-fledged nation-states. Never again would Britain drag recalcitrant colonies kicking and screaming back into the fold.
These nations were so content maintaining their residual ties to their mother country that they arguably did not become fully independent countries until 1931, following the passage of the Statute of Westminster, which freed the dominions of their residual imperial restrictions.
Even then, these three so-called “white dominions” still retained residual constitutional ties with Britain even into the 1980’s.
Even after passage of the Westminster Statute, Canada temporarily ceded to the British Parliament the right to amend the Constitution of Canada, albeit with the assent of the Canadian Government. That was ended with the passage and signing of the Canada Act of 1982, which finally patriated all sovereign powers to Canada.
Likewise, Imperial law technically remained paramount within Australia until 1986, when Queen Elizabeth traveled to Canberra to sign the Australia Act, which not only ended the British Parliament’s right to legislate for the Australian states but also terminated the practice appealing Australian court decisions to the Privy Council in London.
Finally, New Zealand passed the Constitution Act of 1986, which ended the right of the British Parliament to legislate for New Zealand with the consent of New Zealand’s parliament.
As an amateur student of Anglo-American constitutional history, I find these developments not only fascinating but also remarkable, and I know of no other peaceful constitutional evolution occurring over such a vast geographical scale.
This legacy represents the highest achievement of British legal traditions, and I think that it accounts in large measure for Britain’s preeminent soft-power standing.