Margaret Thatcher, Tom Stoppard… and Jean Chretien?
Earlier this week a Canadian was admitted to one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, when the Queen decided to award the Order of Merit to Jean Chrétien. I have to admit that I’d never heard of the Order before learning yesterday that Chrétien had become a member, but since then I’ve done a bit of homework.
Apart from the Queen herself, the Order of Merit consists of 24 members and a flexible number of “honorary members”. At the moment, the only honorary member is Nelson Mandela. The overwhelmingly British proper members include Prince Charles and Prince Philip, top scientists like Roger Penrose, eminent artistic figures like Sir Tom Stoppard, and two former Prime Ministers – Margaret Thatcher of the UK and, now, Jean Chrétien of Canada. New members are chosen personally by Her Majesty when one of the 24 dies, and I presume that Chrétien replaced the British industralist Sir Denis Rooke following his death last September.
In Britain, Chrétien’s appointment to the Order seems to have gone virtually unnoticed. Canadian reactions range from intemperate disgust to qualified approval. The National Post’s editorialists are somewhere in the middle, sniffing that Chrétien’s legacy is “hotly contested” whereas the Order is “defined by undisputed greatness”. As they see it, Chrétien was appointed to the Order because of his personal friendship with the Queen and his success in preserving the monarchy in Canada, which in the Post’s opinion “may actually be his most outstanding single accomplishment as a politician”.
This seems like an overstatement, considering Chrétien’s other outstanding accomplishments. He kept Quebec in Canada despite the strong separatist currents of the 1990s, and kept Canada out of Iraq when Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” invaded in 2003. As sectarian bombings increase in frequency following the withdrawal of American troops from city centres, Chretien’s decision to remain Unwilling seems well justified by subsequent events. Whether it was meritorious enough to put Chretien in the same league as Penrose and Stoppard is a matter of opinion, but I find it hard to complain about Her Majesty’s choice.
Speaking of political legacies, I recently came across a column in the Economist suggesting that history will be kind to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown partly because of his achievements in foreign affairs, which have apparently included helping British foreign policy settle into “third-rank humility” and presiding over a G8 summit that “recognised and institutionalised the the dramatic shift in global power toward the emerging Asian economies”. In other words, Brown may be remembered as a great Prime Minister because he set the seal on Britain’s lack of greatness. Could there possibly be a more glaring example of the defeatist malaise that seems to have become a predominant mindset not just in Britain, but across at least the western half of Europe? Strong, confident European nations would make natural partners for Canada, but at the moment our friends across the pond often seem more interested in wallowing in an exaggerated sense of impotence. It’s frustrating.