19 April 2013

Redefining reality to accord with our desires

The late Czech President Václav Havel was better positioned than most people to penetrate the ideological illusions that so marred the 20th century. Living in a communist country that claimed to be a workers' paradise made him aware of the dangers of any worldview built on a false construct that not only claims to be reality but attempts to suppress those who persist in telling the truth. According to Havel,
Ideology, in creating a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.

11 April 2013

Rival leaders blood relatives

This rather insignificant story appears in today's National Post: Family feud? Genealogy site claims Trudeau, Mulcair are cousins after digging into lawmakers’ backgrounds.

Canada’s political spectrum could include a family feud, according to Ancestry.ca. The popular Canadian genealogy website says Liberal leadership frontrunner Justin Trudeau, and NDP leader Tom Mulcair are distant relatives – ninth cousins, to be exact. The two prominent politicians share a set of eighth-great-grandparents: Mathieu Amiot and Marie Miville, who were married in Quebec in 1650, the website says. Amiot and Miville were among the first Quebec settlers, and apparently had quite an impact on the political future of a country that, at the time, didn’t yet exist.

This is hardly news. Given that the two political leaders have roots in 17th-century Québec, and given the small number of French families living there at the time, it would be more surprising if they were not related to each other.

According to my own genealogical research, the Queen is my 13th cousin once removed, as is my own wife. Once you go back far enough, it turns out that virtually everyone is related to everyone else.

By the way, this month marks the tenth anniversary of this blog. Cause for celebration? Depends on your perspective, I suppose.

08 April 2013

The PM and the 'bubble'

Unlike America's Constitution, which was deliberately planned by late 18th-century constitutional architects, the Westminster parliamentary system developed almost by accident through a series of fortuitous events that effectively empowered the people's representatives and curtailed the power of the king. Carolyn Harris presents a fascinating account of How the South Sea Bubble Created U.K.'s Modern Monarchy. At issue were the economic crash of 1720, King George I's mistress and his half-sister, and a financial scandal which incapacitated the King, whose power was already weakening due to his lack of facility in English.

In the inquiry that followed the South Sea Bubble, the payments received by Sophia Charlotte [the half-sister] and Melusine [von Schulenberg, the mistress] became public. George I blocked the extradition of South Sea Company Treasurer Robert Knight, who fled England in January 1721 after alluding to immense bribes paid to the most prominent people at court. John Blunt, one of the company’s founders, was arrested and provided the list of payments. In March, Melusine and Sophia Charlotte were accused in a House of Lords debate of accepting bribes.

Because members of his court were implicated, George I couldn’t claim the authority to resolve the situation alone. Instead, Robert Walpole, the newly created first lord of the Treasury, took charge. The assets of South Sea Company directors were confiscated and distributed to bankrupt shareholders, and the stock was divided between the East India Company and the Bank of England. Walpole also fought to protect the king, shielding Melusine and Sophia Charlotte from prosecution.

Although Walpole never formally received the title of prime minister in his lifetime, his authority after the South Sea Bubble was unprecedented and set the tone for the future of the constitutional monarchy. The monarch would retain some control over foreign affairs but the prime minister would assume the role of head of government in the domestic realm as “the King’s Servant.” Walpole conducted state business in the House of Commons and united the Cabinet as an executive authority. The monarch’s direct influence over subsequent prime ministers varied over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, but Walpole’s example set the tone for the office.

The monarch's power is by now almost completely dependent on that of the prime minister. Now if we could only find a way to curtail the PM's power. For this we would do well to look to Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull in Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, which I assigned to my Canadian Government students this term.


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