National Post (Latest Edition)
We don’t want to blow a raspberry at Her Majesty the Queen, but it cries out to be said: Jean Chrétien’s surprise Monday appointment to the Order of Merit is anomalous almost to the point of being ridiculous. The Order is, quite possibly, the most prestigious honour one can receive on planet Earth. It is limited to a maximum of 24 living members, making it more exclusive than some penny-ante gong like the Nobel Prize. It is open to accomplished individuals in all fields of human endeavour from throughout the Commonwealth, and ever since it was founded by Edward VII, appointments by every sovereign have upheld exceedingly high standards of intellectual quality and civic virtue.
This is so although, or because, the honour is in the personal gift of the monarch. Along with that of the Royal Victorian Order, the membership of the Order of Merit is one of the few remaining decisions left entirely up to the Queen as an individual, with no requirement that she receive binding “advice” from ministers. There is no Order of Merit committee: It is all up to her. Yet, on the whole, it is hard to imagine anyone else exercising better taste and sense. Her earliest selections (Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield was the very first) have stood the test of time in exemplary fashion, and those of recent years, such as Web inventor Sir Tim BernersLee or documentarian Sir David Attenborough, are largely unimpeachable. At least two-thirds of the now-full existing complement of 24 members could safely be described as geniuses.
And Mr. Chrétien, to be sure, possesses a certain kind of genius all his own. Still, it seems awkward for a politician whose legacy is still so hotly contested to be inducted into a club defined by undisputed greatness, mostly of the intellectual or artistic kind.
Let us recall that Mr. Chrétien was not deposed as prime minister by an opposition party, but by desperate members of his own bloc who felt that his stewardship of the country, which came within a heartbeat of leading to its partition in 1995, was unacceptable. His legacy in Quebec is an especially mixed one: He eventually checkmated separatists with the Clarity Act, but he also left nationalists there feeling cheated and federal- ists feeling abused. Through his political machine’s bid to control the province, moreover, he bequeathed his party a scandal that remains coterminous with sleazy politics to this day. Had he provided us with a treasury of priceless bon mots or a library of inspirational writings, or been a great world-historical figure who transcended his age and helped to overthrow some great evil, one might overlook such black marks. But of course, he wasn’t.
Mr. Chrétien’s appointment to the Order is being taken as a sign of special personal favour on the part of the Queen, with whom he has always enjoyed a warm rapport, and that is surely the case. Indeed, the preservation of the monarchy in Canada may actually be his most outstanding single accomplishment as a politician. Mr. Chrétien came from, and led, the party for which 1967 represents Year Zero, and to whom all Canadian history before that time is nothing but a racist-sexist pandemonium lacking in medicare, human rights commissions, no-fault divorce and all else that is progressive and good. When it comes to monarchism, however, he would not be moved. At a time when it was under continual attack in our sister dominion of Australia, he defended it deftly through verbal jujitsu, always shrugging off republican hints and grumblings by saying with unflappable confidence that he saw no appetite for fundamental Constitutional change in Canada.
So perhaps one cannot quarrel too loudly with his appointment to the Order of Merit. But if one happened to be Lord Black of Crossharbour — a figure admittedly never too far from our thoughts — one might be sorely tempted to try. Hypocrisy played a large role in Mr. Chrétien’s particular genius, so should anyone be surprised that there is a certain distinct flavour of it haunting what may be the supreme moment of his life? Having lectured Lord Black and other Canadians on just how un-Canadian it is to accept distinctions from the fountain of honour, and having forced the man to choose between his citizenship and the House of Lords, Mr. Chrétien now basks in the resounding knell of the gong to end all gongs. Let’s not be afraid to roll our eyes just a little.