As I wrote on Saturday, The National Post was "the great journalistic adventure of my life" - and on this twentieth anniversary of Conrad Black's Canadian national newspaper we're dusting off a week's worth of moldering columns, starting with yesterday's shameful account of the tie that binds me to Tony Blair.
I don't have much advice when it comes to column-writing (which isn't really a thing anymore, since the collapse of newspapers), but I do have one tip: You need to get out of the house once in a while. So, when riffling through the archive, I always have a preference for pieces in which I'm out and about - sometimes somewhere unusual (as we'll come to), or sometimes just motoring past Bar Erotica in an ice storm:
One year ago tomorrow, I was on the road in a rental vehicle heading out of Montreal across the Champlain Bridge. Like those Americans who fled to Canada to dodge the draft, this Canadian fled to America to dodge the draught ...and the cold, and the dark, and the inoperative fax machine, and the immobilized car trapped behind the electrically operated parking garage door. After four days on the Quebec end of the Great Ice Storm, I said "Ice a-gettin' outta here" and made a break for the border. There were rumours that what was left of the Montreal grid was to be shut down completely and the island's two million inhabitants evacuated to somewhere with power. As the only place any of us knew with power was the Premier's office in the Hydro-Québec building, given the choice between being forced into spending the night wedged up against Bernard Landry on Lucien's couch or flying the coop, I split.
The journey from Montreal was a cautious negotiation of splintered trees and sagging cable. But, for me, the most shocking symbol of the province's paralyzing darkness lay ahead: Halfway to the border, the Danseuses Nues sign at Bar Erotica in lberville was out. It's not strictly true that there are more Danseuses Nues signs than Arrêt signs in the province, but it's certainly the case that small towns that no longer have a church or general store seem able to support a nude dancing establishment with effortless ease. (To comply with Quebec law, the English breasts have to be half the size of the French breasts.) And for travellers between Montreal and Burlington, Vermont, the cheery greeting of Bar Erotica's sign is one of the most reassuring beacons on the landscape. It has a sort of blow-up doll on it, but that night she hung in darkness: The ice storm had left strange, translucent clumps dangling from her limbs, as if she'd just staggered out from an explosion in a condom factory. It was a sobering reminder of how fragile civilization is - like the bit in Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston comes across the shattered Statue of Liberty.
A few miles further on, I glimpsed the first lights since the inextinguishable Hydro-Québec logo back in Montreal: It was the US border post at Highgate Springs. Every power failure ends somewhere, and, wherever it is, it seems arbitrary and unjust: 43 Queen Street is sunk in gloom, while 45 Queen Street is lit up like the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. But why did this power failure have to end at the US-Canadian frontier? It's a line on a map, but on one side you're plunged into a black hole of all-enveloping chaos and on the other you're not. According to Hydro and Quebec government officials, the ice storm was a once-a-millennium act of God. But God is no respecter of international borders: That night, He rained down icy pellets on both Phillipsburg, PQ, and Highgate, Vt. So how come the pipsqueak Vermont Electrical Power Company of Highgate Center could keep the lights on down residential streets in the handful of border villages they serve while the mighty Hydro-Quebec's local transformers and substations so comprehensively failed Phillipsburg?
"Drive carefully," said the customs officer, who'd obviously been practising his lines all evening. "Don't get blinded by the dazzling glare down here." But the point at which the lights came on symbolized the difference between the US ice storm and Canada's: South of the border, it was a story about the weather; north, it was about political failure.
That was from my National Post column of January 7th 1999. But in the good old days the columnar life could take you from Bar Erotica to Buck House in the wink of an eye. So here I am a few months later, at the Palace on the eve of the Australian republican referendum:
As readers of Monday's Comment page may have noted, I passed a jolly evening last week at the Elks Lodge in Littleton, New Hampshire, in the company of George W Bush. Immediately afterwards, I flew to London for dinner at Buckingham Palace.
"Wow! That's quite a week," said my assistant. "One minute, you're with America's next head of state. The next, you're with Britain's and Canada's head of state."
"Or look at it another way," I said. "One minute, I'm at the Elks Lodge in Littleton. The next, I'm at Buckingham Palace."
It would be invidious for me to disclose the reasons for the Palace's call, if only because the Financial Post's Linda McQuaig has already complained that I sound more like something from Monarchy than a Canadian newspaper column. Hey, sorry about that, Linda. But, as the only national columnist who isn't a member of the same Toronto health club as Adrienne Clarkson, I have to find my namedrops where I can. So, at the risk of breaching the confidence of a private occasion, here's an exchange that deserves to make it into the public prints:
One of my fellow guests, remarking on the lack of agricultural workers in Britain, said that he now brought in young Australians and South Africans, who were able to make £90 to £100 a day (about $60,000 a year) picking onions.
"Crying all the way to the bank?" said the Duke of Edinburgh.
The next day, Australians went to the polls for their referendum on whether to dump the monarchy. The Queen won. Australia, we'd been told, wanted an elected head of state, and now it's got one. Yet, rather than respect the people's verdict, the proponents of a republic flew into a rage. Aussies are wont to refer to the English as "whinging Poms," but you've never seen anyone whinge like the sore losers on the republican side when the electorate declined to agree with them.
The overwhelmingly republican press took defeat particularly hard: It seems Australians do resent a remote autocratic foreigner from thousands of miles away running the place and lording it over them. Unfortunately, it turned out to be Rupert Murdoch rather than Elizabeth Windsor. The media mogul overplayed his hand by declaring that he'd lived under three different systems (Aussie, UK, American) and republics were best. John Howard, the prime minister, reminded Mr Murdoch that he was a US citizen and, in an unguarded moment, apparently suggested that he "f**k off." Even after the republican side had conceded, the Murdoch press seemed reluctant to accept the actual result: "Queen Hurt By No Vote Despite Win" was the headline on The Sunday Times of London. Mr Murdoch's poodle, anxious to please, began his report as follows: "The Queen was hurt and disappointed by the strength of republican feeling in Australia... "
Come again? Her Majesty was "hurt and disappointed"? How does the Times hack know? He was down the pub with her? She'd called him at home, choked up with tears, to confide her innermost feelings? As the only journalist on the planet present at Buckingham Palace on the eve of the big vote, I think I can speak with complete authority on this matter when I say I haven't a clue as to the Royal Family's state of mind and private thoughts. I kept trying to slip Australia into the conversation, right up to the end when, as the Duke of Edinburgh was showing me the door and my carriage was about to turn back into a pumpkin, I opined that I thought the 1901 Australian constitution was rather better than the 1867 Canadian one. "Hmm," he said, and made some sharp observations about the differences between the two forms of federalism. But, as to how they feel about losing their antipodean throne, who knows?
Still, if I had to guess, "crying all the way to the bank" isn't a bad way to put it. Like Liberace, the Queen may have been "hurt" by some of the beastly things that have been said about her; but, on the big day, she came through: Her electoral validation may be a long way from the divine right of kings, but it's also useful ammunition against lazy post-monarchists in her realms. The snubbed Australian media keep harping on about the electoral divide — between young upscale educated urban republicans and old poor rube hick monarchists — but the interesting aspect of the royalist victory is how widespread it was: On Tuesday; it emerged that, as votes continued to be counted, the sole pro-republican state — Victoria — had tipped back to the Queen's side. The only two large polling centres to plump for the republican cause were the national capital Canberra (like Ottawa, a company town where the company happens to be big government) and London, England, where 60 per cent of expats are supposed to have voted to dump the Crown. If the Republic of Oz needs the votes of Earl's Court bedsits, it's in bigger trouble than it knows.
For Canadian republicans, the Australian referendum has several lessons. First, it's a rebuke to the "inevitabilist" theory of history. Secondly, it's a telling defeat for the "minimalist" republic — the idea that you simply change the governor-general's title to president, and life goes on as before. The defeated republican forces now say that next time the question should simply ask whether Australians favour a republic per se and leave it until later to work out whether it's going to be the Václav Havel model or the Saddam Hussein model. The devil is in the details — and to demand that the electorate reject an actual specific monarchy in favour of a vague, unspecified republic is as absurd as asking them to vote for a monarchy and reassuring them you'll let 'em know afterwards whether they'll be getting Elizabeth II, Emperor Bokassa or Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria.
Some republicans who support a directly elected president recognised this and joined forces with monarchists to defeat the system on offer: a republic whose head of state would be decided by the politicians. The official republican movement mocked their more principled colleagues for forming an "incoherent" and "contradictory" alliance with Good Queen Bess' diehard forelock-tuggers. In fact, there's nothing incoherent and contradictory about it. This was an important victory for western society's real silent majority: those people who dissent from the notion that career politicians should carve up all the most visible offices of state for themselves. Some of this silent majority are monarchists; some believe in a directly elected president; a large proportion are just average contented folks who aren't obsessed about politics. But they have far more to bind them to each other than they do to the establishment republicans who believe that the presidency should be just one more gift in the ruling party's box of baubles. If Australian voters tell us anything, it's that a political state isn't enough. At heart, most of us are romantic enough to demand more — either the mystique of monarchy or the rawer form of democratic politics in which a man must embark on his campaign to win the presidency by pressing the flesh in the Elks Lodge. Constitutional monarchy and a US-style presidency don't have much in common — except insofar as, either way, you find yourself sitting next to me come early November — but both speak to something larger in a nation's sense of itself.
For my own part, I'd argue that the Royal Family comes into contact with a far wider range of ordinary Canadians than the Liberal cabinet does. By "wide range of ordinary Canadians," I mean, of course, me: I've been to dinner at the Palace, whereas that deadbeat at Sussex Drive has never once invited me over. His grudging defence of the Crown was typical. What's extraordinary about the Australian vote was that Her Majesty won not just against the avowed republicans but also against her supposed defenders, a far more slippery crowd. For decades, M Chrétien and his Commonwealth confrères have been republicanising their countries by stealth — here, a Royal crest off a mailbox; there, a forgotten politician to replace her on a banknote — until the visible symbols of the monarchy are removed from daily life. Her Majesty should take courage from her victory in Australia and decline to let herself be inched off the throne by the governing elite: There would be no better time for the Queen to embark on a campaign to bypass the Trojan Horses in her various viceregal branch offices and connect directly with ordinary people throughout her realms. She won down under, she could win here, and she should let Jean Chrétien know that she knows. To paraphrase Tony Blair, she is the People's Queen now.
~from The National Post, November 11th 1999
Time rolls on. But in Australia the republican ructions still rankle - and I regret to say that, as reported here (about halfway down), I played a minor role in in one such spasm by Malcolm Turnbull (now himself de-throned).
By the way, many of my favourite Post columns are collected in The Face of the Tiger and Mark Steyn from Head to Toe, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and in one convenient bargain package. If you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, don't forget to enter the promotional code at checkout to enjoy special member pricing.
If you're not in the Steyn Club, we'd love to have you. The Club will be presenting a brand new audio adventure in Tales for Our Time starting this Friday, and a special edition of The Mark Steyn Show next week. You can find more details about The Mark Steyn Club here. And stay tuned for details of the second Steyn Club Cruise with Mark and his special guests.
For our Massachusetts readers, this weekend - 3pm on Sunday October 28th - Steyn will be at the Boston Marriott in Newton to accept the Genesis Award from CJUI (Christians and Jews United for Israel). Aside from speaking, he'll also be signing copies of Lights Out, so if you're in the vicinity of Greater Boston we hope to see you there.