Making sense of Harper's British fixation

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What's with Stephen Harper's anglophilia -- lavish royal visits, restoring "royal" to the navy and air force -- and now Canada-U.K. embassy mergers? I find it less irritating than intriguing. Harper may have biographical attachments to Britain, as Bob Hepburn wrote here yesterday. But he's also supposed to be a rational political chess master. There are few votes in anglophilia, aside from the monarchist league, and little realpolitik value. The U.K. isn't the U.S.

"We have an incompatible brand with the U.K.," former Canadian diplomat Paul Heinbecker told the Globe, puzzling over the embassy scheme. For instance, Canada supported anti-apartheid sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s and the U.K. didn't. Aha! Maybe that's the point: It's the brand, stupid. We're being rebranded. The old foreign policy brand included peacekeeping, now dumped in favour of war-making and its symbols (the highway of heroes, Luke's troops); environmentalism, now ignored or scorned; and the UN, which Harper skipped this week while blocks away accepting a "world statesman" award. It's clearly a government's right to change course and rebrand, but why do that by rubbing our noses in royalty and hanging new portraits of the Queen?

Well, under the old brand, Canada aspired to be an honest neutral broker, or even (in the Trudeau years) sympathized with underdog former colonies like Cuba or Jamaica. If you want to reset to line up alongside the strongest players, Britain's a good symbol to use. The U.S. won't quite do, partly because it always claimed to have no colonies, even as it was running the world. The British Empire on the other hand was an undeniable case of sheer might. There's even a school of thought, embodied in historian Niall Ferguson, that says imperialism was a great thing (for the most part, yadayada) and still can be.

So there's rationality there. But not rationality alone. I think it'd be wrong to underestimate the visceral disgust of neo-cons like Harper for the old brand: those maple leafs on backpacks in Europe, "niceness" as a point of Canadian national pride, an "anti-Americanism" that appalled them. In 2000 Harper called Canada a "second-tier socialistic country, boasting . . . about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status . . . " That sounds bitterly personal to me. What should a nation boast about, if not its economy and social services? Its culture? I doubt he had that in mind. If it upsets you deeply enough, you don't want to just change it, you want to blot it out as if it never occurred. And return -- to the old days before the horrors happened.

There may be actual nostalgia too, but less for Britannia than for an earlier Canada that seemed to belong to white guys (leaving aside those folks in Quebec and the native ones) in those days. The more irretrievably the former Canada appears to be slipping away, the keener is that nostalgic yearning. Ian McKay and Jamie Swift write, "The application of 'royal' to institutions left and right may seem comical, but one would be ill-advised to minimize the extent to which the British sovereign is a deeply meaningful symbol of whiteness, hierarchy and authoritarian rule." I grant Harper and Jason Kenney have laboured to connect with visible minorities (though they've made no such efforts with women), but rational motives can coexist with others. Kenney's immigration and citizenship policies, for instance, lean hard in the old Canada direction.

You see a similar drama unfolding in the U.S. election. They don't come any whiter than Mitt Romney. Some outright or implicit racism used to suffice to win elections down there. But Obama is building toward victory with vizmins, women and gays. Old white guys are welcome but they'll have to climb aboard a new electoral bus. It must be dismaying for many of them. There's a subplot, described by Vijay Prashad in Counterpunch, in which Romney promises he'll restore a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office from which Obama evicted it. Actually he just moved it upstairs but it clearly carries a big symbolic load for Romney and his minions. There's still nothing quite like the bombastic icons of the British past to help screen out what's proceeding ineluctably in the present.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: mechanikat/Flickr

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