Skip to content

Margaret Thatcher, Tom Stoppard… and Jean Chretien?

July 17, 2009

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.

Corwin

Bookmark and Share

Advertisements
3 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink*
    July 31, 2009 11:40 pm

    This may be beside the point, but I never saw Chretien’s refusal to go into Baghdad as putting Canada into the “unwilling” category, as many of his critics charge. Instead, the Liberals opted to participate on another raging front in Afghanistan. In that theater alone, Canadian forces overextended themselves, and freed up US personnel to go and dig themselves into a quagmire in Iraq.

    As for his award, I would be interested to know what so distinguished him.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      August 1, 2009 11:35 am

      This may be beside the point, but I never saw Chretien’s refusal to go into Baghdad as putting Canada into the “unwilling” category, as many of his critics charge. Instead, the Liberals opted to participate on another raging front in Afghanistan.

      The problem with that interpretation is that Canadian forces were on the ground in Afghanistan well prior to the invasion of Iraq. Even if you want to argue that the later expansion of our deployment was intended primarily to free up American troops for Iraq (which strikes me as debatable), Chretien was certainly “unwilling” in the narrower sense of not agreeing to send troops to Iraq. In my opinion this is no criticism: he was right to keep us out of that mess.

      As for his award, I would be interested to know what so distinguished him.

      I suspect it was really just a case of doing a decent job for a long time, and building up a good personal relationship with Her Majesty. There were probably more deserving people she could have picked, beyond Canada if not within it, but I think Chretien was a reasonable enough choice. In retrospect, I would argue that he was a damn good prime minister – just not a great one.

  2. marakardasnelson permalink*
    July 26, 2009 9:51 am

    Hmm… quite interesting, to be sure, but isn’t all this knighting and placing people in Orders and special clubs a little bit childish and outdated these days? It’s all just a gold and jeweled encrusted spectacular show, filled with tea and crumpets. I’d rather pass.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: