The arrival of the year 1900 was in general welcomed as the start of a bright new century in which the culture of modernity would be marked by peace, progress and a flowering of the arts. All around the world, modernity seemed to offer a more rational, better-planned world. The last anachronisms would be soon be cleared away, or turned into mere museum pieces.
Among these remnants were three ancient edifices inhabited by relics of the pre-modern world. In Rome, inside the Vatican, Pope Leo XIII commanded the faithful of Roman Catholicism, locked in a struggle with liberalism, and refusing to even set foot outside his palace in protest against the end of his Papal State. In the thin air of Lhasa, where only a handful of Europeans had ever visited, the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Ghatso resisted Manchu rule and ruled absolutely over hundreds of feudal estates where serfs supported lamas amounting to a third of Tibet’s male population. And in Windsor Castle, the Widow of Windsor contemplated the end of her long reign and looked forward to reuniting with her beloved Prince Albert in the next life.
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The default assumptions of modernism were atheism and republicanism. Constitutional monarchies and mainstream denominations were tolerated as interim concessions to the lingering irrationality of the masses, permitted so long as they understood their place and behaved themselves, but ultimately destined to die out in the full light of reason. The British monarchy was among the tolerated; the Papacy was only marginally so, and Tibetan Buddhism was so weird and exotic that it was beyond the margins of discussion entirely.
Yet the path to the bright future turned out to be a Via Dolorosa that led to two blood-drenched and unprecedentedly destructive world wars and three enormous and hideous tyrannies. The modernism that emerged from the ruins of these tragedies in 1945, and more completely in 1991, still pretended to radiance, but it had in truth lost its self-confidence, and was easy prey to what came after. The quest for answers and confident assurance became itself discredited, and what took the place of modernism was so chaotic and self-doubting that it only described itself by what it was not—“postmodernism”.
Where modernism valued research, reason and reductive structures and ideology—above all “scientific planning” or “social engineering” of human affairs—postmodernism values feelings, appearances, intentions and self-promotion. In this climate, many well-planned and carefully engineered institutions faded, lost their bearings, or dissolved altogether. What survived and prospered was an unpredictable mix of the archaic, the remnants of the modern, and the chaotic spew of postmodernism.
Yet the archaic did not survive exactly as their former selves; rather in surviving they transformed themselves and adapted. So Queen Victoria in her day was renowned, but as the not-entirely-ceremonial head of one of the world’s greatest powers, different in degree of authority but not essence from the various kaisers or tsars of her time. Her great-granddaughter Elizabeth reigned over a medium-sized power and a number of smaller although still respectable realms, not an empire. But she was throughout her reign one of the most recognisable, celebrated and scrutinised figures on Earth, and most importantly, not just a super-celebrity in her own realms, but to the entire world, and to an extent far beyond any other hereditary monarch of her day. When in global media the words “The Queen” appeared with no qualifiers or identifiers, it was almost always Elizabeth II to whom they were referring.
Just as a series of astute monarchs, including George VI and especially his daughter Elizabeth, adapted and transformed the British monarchy from a European court to a global figure (aided also by the astute instincts of Diana, Princess of Wales) so did a series of bold transformative Popes, who, starting with John XXIII, through John Paul II and Benedict XVI, cumulatively transformed the Papacy from a figure thought of primarily as the head of the Catholic Church, and whose opinions would be of interest primarily to Catholics, to a global figure to be noticed and studied, if not necessarily followed, in far wider circles. Even more surprising was the elevation of the Dalai Lama, the highest practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, into a global figure whose opinions on issues of ethics and morality are widely sought, if not always complied with. The current fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was largely responsible for this transformation, having been forced into exile in India at a young age and consequentially becoming both familiar with the customs of the wider world and quite fluent in English.
Having thus largely ensured its survival into the postmodern era, the question now before the Windsor monarchy is of what larger purpose can the institution and its head serve in the world. The performative functions of the monarchy in the British political system, and in the daily life of the United Kingdom, are straightforward, if time-consuming. The answer may lie in another generally overlooked feature of that monarchy, hiding in plain sight. That feature is the fact that the monarch of the United Kingdom is also the monarch of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as a number of small Caribbean and Pacific island nations; fifteen nations altogether. Collectively, they are known as the Crown Realms, or the Crown Commonwealth. The latter is not to be confused with the larger Commonwealth of Nations, composed of the United Kingdom and almost all its former colonies, most of which are now republics.
The Crown Commonwealth is the subject of the book under review. I congratulate the authors of The Enduring Crown Commonwealth on a rare accomplishment—examining the “dignified element” (as defined by Bagehot) of the Crown Realm constitutions as a factor in the living relationship between the realms. In particular, the focus of the book is on the relationships between the four major developed economies of the Crown Realms, which have come to be known as the CANZUK lands. (This acronym, derived from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, began as diplomatic shorthand, referring to the fact that the four nations tended to vote alike in the United Nations and other fora.)
This leads Michael J. Smith and Stephen Klimczuk-Massion into a discussion of the real prospects for intra-CANZUK connections in the current world situation. They usefully summarise the history of the CANZUK relationship and the arc of development of the original British Commonwealth through its abandonment of the monarchical principle and its renaming as “Commonwealth of Nations” through to the present day. It also traces the arc of development of popular sentiment regarding the monarchy over the longer period of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, which mirrored the premodern-modern-postmodern arc described in previous paragraphs. In doing so they bring a useful perspective that has been absent from almost all discussion of the monarchy and its role in the four CANZUK lands.
It has been customary to write the story of monarchy from the premodern-to-modern point of view, one of a fading affection and growing irrelevance as populations develop a more mature and modern perspective, which will lead naturally to republicanism, first in the dominions, then in Scotland and Wales as they become independent, and finally in England itself. Smith and Klimczuk-Massion bring a welcome corrective to this narrative, showing instead a picture of republicanism more as a status marker among political and intellectual elites, and as with several other ideological status markers, not actually widely shared in the general population. The Australian republican referendum was marked by widespread disdain for “chardonnay republicans”, and the New Zealand flag referendum—not technically a republican question, but usually aligned in its advocates and opponents—with similar disdain. Rather than a growing wave of inevitable sentiment, republicanism is seen more as a fad that failed to achieve permanence.
Canada, with its complex system of speed bumps to constitutional change, has not even attempted a referendum, but it is noteworthy that the last Tory government undid a step away from monarchy taken by previous governments, by restoring the Royal titles for the Air Force and Navy, which had been the subject of an unloved experiment in armed forces unification into a bland “Canadian Forces”, throwing away the fame and traditions of the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy—an unwonted act of vandalism.
The authors discuss the question of how to exploit the ties that are naturally created by this common heritage and these common institutions. To share the “dignified” aspect of government among four substantial, prosperous and democratic nations is a non-trivial asset, and one that is effectively unique in today’s world. Lest anybody should think this is a trivial matter, they need only look at the European Union, which struggles, with only modest success, to create a dignified element to its institutions. The result is so bland and boring that the flag is seldom seen or flown by ordinary individuals on their own initiative; its anthem, despite being based on a genuinely great piece of music, is seldom sung spontaneously, and its currency is decorated not by any of the great people its nations have produced, but by imaginary architectural details. The CANZUK lands, in contrast, all feature the same monarch on their currency.
At the end of the day, however, sharing the dignified side of government is all well and good, but the question arises, what else can be gained from this circumstance? Turning to what Bagehot termed (perhaps over-optimistically) the “efficient” side of government, how do the authors propose to capitalise on the CANZUK connection?
Basically, there are four practical demands of the CANZUK movement. The two that have received the most public attention have been the idea of a CANZUK multilateral free-trade relationship, and a pan-CANZUK free-movement agreement, somewhat like the EU’s Schengen system. Additional discussion has been on areas of educational, scientific and technological co-operation, such as an easier pan-CANZUK recognition of educational credentials, or joint space exploration activities. Finally, and deserving of special attention, has been the idea of pan-CANZUK defence co-operation, such as easier movement of individuals between national armed forces, joint weapons development programs, and joint operations in times of crisis, both within and separate from other treaty systems and partners. All of these are potentially beneficial areas for CANZUK co-operation.
This book is a welcome and thoughtful addition to the debate on the future of all four lands. It is, however, just the start of a debate. The book has not been published in a vacuum. Particularly since Brexit, the question of deeper trade relations between the CANZUK lands, and freer movement of peoples, has been on the negotiating table of most of the CANZUK governments. In general, this has not been on an all-CANZUK multilateral basis, but between various pairs of states. Nevertheless, the issues raised by these proposals will also be raised in multilateral fora, and the balance of forces for and against the multilateral proposals will largely be the same as those raised in bilateral negotiations.
For example, since Brexit, free trade negotiations have been held between the United Kingdom and each of the other three CANZUK nations. That with Canada merely replicated the terms of the prior EU-Canada trade agreement and thus broke no new ground. In particular, the negotiations did not touch on historical sore points such as UK GMO regulation or Canadian dairy protectionism. With Australia and New Zealand, these issues were also items of contention. Even the closely aligned economies of Australia and New Zealand, with almost complete free trade and free movement between them, chose to negotiate separately with the United Kingdom, as they perceived that their interests diverged sufficiently that joint negotiation was problematic.
In particular, predictable opposition by British agricultural protectionist lobbies combined with diehard Remainers to object to freer trade in agriculture, as accepting wider Australian imports would mean permanently abandoning European standards. Such a move would make the Remainer dream of rejoining the EU much more difficult.
Similarly, the United Kingdom initially approached the Australia and New Zealand negotiations with a favourable attitude towards free movement of people. But as negotiations proceeded, protectionist and anti-immigration sentiment in each of the countries was mobilised to water down free movement provisions to much weaker visa relaxation measures.
Some of the trickier issues have not even been tested. The US has long found the strict Canadian dairy protection problematic, so much so that Canada was given a pass on it in initial NAFTA negotiations, with the understanding that it would be addressed later on. This never happened, and when the Trump administration undertook to renegotiate NAFTA they raised the issue again, gaining only minor modifications in the successor USMCA agreement. In any future CANZUK multilateral negotiations, this issue and others like it would remain a hot issue.
At this point, further trade and free movement gains would require substantial political capital and deliver only modest benefits. The four nations already have substantial trade with each other, and their citizens already enjoy relatively free movement, with quite large British contingents in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Additionally, three of the four nations are now tied by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement among Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. (Six of the eleven members are also Commonwealth members.) This provides a pan-CANZUK trade environment that is now well above the baseline WTO floor—which means that the political return from a further pan-CANZUK agreement will now be smaller.
The idea of co-operative ties on the basis of mutual benefit suffers from the reality that the benefits of freer trade and easier free movement, although desirable, are too weak and diffuse to generate the political capital needed to overcome local protectionist interests. It is the old trap of political parasitism—a minority can benefit so strongly from protectionist measures that they are happy to throw resources and effort into defending them, while the benefits of abolishing protection are so diffuse and invisible that few have any incentive to challenge the power of the entrenched protectionists.
In addition to the rather disappointing returns from the first efforts at CANZUK construction in the wake of Brexit, the rapidly changing world situation since Smith and Klimczuk-Massion began their work has radically altered the balance between trade and free movement, on the one hand, and the defence sector on the other. The modern CANZUK concept, and the movement towards it, was launched in the twilight of the post-Cold War assumption that international law and global consensus had made warfare among peer nations of the First World essentially obsolete. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in violation of the Budapest Protocols and Article 51 of the United Nations charter, and the rather feeble, hesitant and inadequate response of the Budapest security partners has shown that to be essentially an illusion.
In the beginning of the book my advocacy of a state federation of the CANZUK powers was referred to, but judged somewhat unlikely. That characterisation was not unreasonable in its time and place. But that was then and this is now. Somewhat counterintuitively, I would now argue that an actual state federation oriented primarily at defence (and defence industries) is more likely than a CANZUK treaty driven by trade and culture.
This will in turn be driven primarily by the need to extend the British nuclear umbrella over all CANZUK countries as their trust in the US nuclear umbrella declines, driven by isolationist trends in the US. This in turn is driven by the fact that the Ukraine war will trigger a general rush for medium-sized powers to develop their own nuclear weapons, and for smaller nations to seek close ties, up to the point of federation, to get in under that umbrella. Most nations will merely ignore or repudiate the Non-Proliferation Treaty; half of the existing nuclear powers have done so with no real consequences. A CANZUK federation would be the legal successor state to the UK and would inherit the UK’s grandfathering of its nuclear arsenal, in case anybody is still bothered by the legality.
If all this seems unlikely, consider the fact that many federations, especially in the English-speaking world, were proposed on economic grounds for decades, unsuccessfully, yet were concluded quite rapidly when security concerns became pressing. Benjamin Franklin proposed the Albany Plan for union of the American colonies in a dominion-like status in 1754; it was implemented as a loose confederation in 1778, but was rapidly replaced by a strong federation in 1789 as the new nation became threatened by Spanish- and French-backed secessionist threats like the Burr Conspiracy.
Canadian confederation was debated for decades, but concluded rapidly in 1867 as Canadians became nervous about the huge, battle-tested Union Army suddenly unemployed on their southern border. And Australian federation was similar debated for years, and a weak Federal Council of Australasia was formed in the late nineteenth century, even less powerful than the American Articles of Confederation. A proper federation was not formed until 1901, in an environment marked by growing German colonial activity in Samoa, the Marianas and New Guinea. Japan’s rapid industrialisation and attainment of a modern navy, as demonstrated by its defeat of China and annexation of Taiwan in 1895, posed an additional security concern.
Sentiment, economic benefit, common language and culture are all very nice, but proposals for closer relations based on those factors can linger in debate for decades. The current environment demonstrates that neither international law nor bilateral guarantees are necessarily effective protection against direct military force by an aggressive regional state. Strong multilateral treaty organisations in theory might be more effective; certainly one of the motivations for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the prospect of the weaker Budapest guarantees being replaced by the NATO treaty. The world may well see that treaty being tested in Poland or the Baltic states in the near future.
Regardless of the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine, no state will want to go through what Ukraine has suffered since February 2022. Many defence ministers of middle powers with aggressive neighbours will look at the history of that conflict, and draw the most obvious conclusion: if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons, the war would never have happened. Indeed, the thought of nuclear disarmament of the United Kingdom, once a serious thread of Labour politics, has receded to the fringes of its political world. Australian defence analysts eyeing North Korea have been quietly revisiting the prospect; indeed, the new AUKUS nuclear submarines will be cruise-missile capable, and those cruise missiles are nuclear-capable. Canada continues to ignore the question since its geography places it under the American nuclear umbrella whether the US or Canada want it or not; there is no way to be certain that a missile detected over the North Pole is headed for Seattle or Vancouver, and will elicit the same response from the US.
In a world of rapidly proliferating nuclear weapons, a submarine-based ballistic missile capability continues to be the gold standard of deterrence. Yet the question arises, even if the United Kingdom extends a firm treaty guarantee to place the other CANZUK nations under its nuclear umbrella, would Australia, for example, be entirely certain that a British Prime Minister would trade Manchester for Melbourne? Mention that question in an Australian debate and “Gallipoli” and “Singapore” would immediately come up.
Paradoxically, only a federation with the character of a state is likely to offer a sufficient guarantee of willingness to risk retaliation. Closer ties would come from distrust rather than trust, in an odd way. Nuclear weapons and the risk of their use are such a consequential matter that only a democratically elected, effective federation parliament with a prime minister and cabinet responsible to elected members could be trusted with that power, and only an undivided command could act quickly and effectively. In a global crisis, one would not want a response to depend upon a committee of four prime ministers, at least one of whom would likely have been woken from sound sleep.
To be clear, such a federation would at first consist of little more than a Parliament, a Defence Minister, a Finance Minister and a Prime Minister, and a minimal staff. Only the Strategic Deterrent Force would be directly under federation command; for everything else, the national governments would carry on as before. Further consolidation would come gradually, over decades, without having it forced as the European Union tries to do.
Unlike the European Union, there would be no painful, clumsy and mostly ineffective effort to develop the dignified side of such a federation. (Not that the efficient side of the EU is particularly efficient.) The existing Crown union of the realms, which has already accommodated the transition from colony to dominion gracefully and naturally, would be able to adapt to the need to serve the dignified function with scarcely a hitch. The all-federation units would receive their colours from the King, he would make the throne speech to the new federation parliament, the honours system of the federation would be smoothly established, and within a few decades large portions of the public would probably not bother to distinguish between the national and federational sides of the dignified function.
History has in effect preserved the dignified side of the Crown union of the realm with virtually no efficient side. The Enduring Crown Commonwealth constitutes an excellent description of that side and its development through recent history. The authors have also laid out a useful discussion of some of the efficient tasks that might be established by institutional connections. By no fault of their own, very recent history has now elevated a different aspect of the efficient side to the fore, and the balance of functions must now be adapted to the new world into which we have all been thrust. Fortunately, everything that has been said in Smith and Klimczuk-Massion’s work applies equally well to the dignified aspects of the new tasks that the realms may pick up. Perhaps a successor volume, should one emerge, could complement this work in that regard.
James C. Bennett serves as a consultant to clients in the space, communications and other technology enterprises. Among his books are The Anglosphere Challenge (2004) and The Third Anglosphere Century (2007). He has written several articles for Quadrant