Mark Milke: The attack on Queen Elizabeth II in a Victoria park—and on history.
At the end of February, some vandal lopped off the head of at a statue of Queen Elizabeth II in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park.
The beheading was obviously planned – not a “prank “committed suddenly late one night by drunken sots. One has to make an effort to carve away a bust from the rest of a statue (the upper body in this case).
I lived in Victoria for a few years and am well familiar with Beacon Hill Park. It is a magnificent treasure and so too the sculpture of Canada’s head of state, a position Queen Elizabeth II has occupied since February 6, 1952.
Six years ago, in 2015, Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, surpassing Queen Victoria, after whom the city is of course named.
So far, so good one might say – and add “so what?” For some, the very notion of a monarch might seem like an antiquated throwback to some age where people wore pith helmets and dressed up for dinner every night.
The case for the monarchy: Evolutionary change
I’ve never thought of myself as a monarchist. But the attack on the statue of Queen Elizabeth II is enough to make me one, this for reasons connected to how civilizations best evolve—by evolution, not revolution, except in the most extreme of circumstances. And having a monarch whose very presence reminds us—or should—that Canada has an evolving history, thus matters.
Some useful history: Unlike like our American friends, Canada is the result of evolutionary change and is part of our constitutional makeup. When colonists in 13 American colonies agitated against King George III, culminating in the American Revolution of 1776, they were legitimately in rebellion against an out-of-touch colonial power that taxed them but without representation. (Insert your favourite joke about Ottawa vis-a-vis British Columbia here.)
Even then, the American Revolution was arguably within the British tradition of evolutionary change. After all, American revolutionaries demanded rights that were British in nature: the vote for those who would tax them.
Still, the revolutionaries chased off the more conservative elements of colonial American society, the United Empire Loyalists as they were known. They fled north to what was then a patchwork of garrison towns and other lightly populated settlements within British North America and what in 1867 became Canada, with additions thereafter. (British Columbia joined in 1871.)
Even if one takes the view that Americans were only asserting British rights (the view even of sensible British parliamentarians such as Edmund Burke) there is a difference between Canada and the United States at least by degree: The Yankees started over with their system of government; we muddled through. Revolution vs. evolution. In other words, revolutionary impulses in Canada are un-Canadian, even when mild by historical standards.
Extreme revolutions: No thanks
What has this to do with a Victoria statue beheading?
Except in the most extreme circumstances—some king taxes you without the vote, or you’re repressed by a tyrannical regime (see: 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe and pro-liberty revolutions there)— revolutions and revolutionary sentiment are usually a terrible idea for citizens and end in bloodshed.
The best example is the French Revolution, which Burke opposed because he saw it for what it was: A utopian revolutionary project. So too the communist revolutions of the 20th century. Both types saw the existing order as so fundamentally flawed that it had to be torn down, root-and-branch, to be replaced from the ashes, Phoenix-like, with a utopian project.
Except that what replaced French and Russian monarchists, out of touch as they were, were impatient, immature, revolutionary hotheads who soon made blood run in the streets. They also instituted repressive regimes that did not represent an improvement.
The definition of absurd: Revolutionary sentiment in a liberal democracy
The attack on the image of Queen Elizabeth II is revolutionary in sentiment. It is part of the widespread attack on statues (usually of the dead) that some deem insufficiently in tune with the spirit of our age.
Thus, statues of figures as diverse as Adam Smith (anti-slavery to his core), Winston Churchill (who stood against Nazi Germany when few did), and even Mahatma Gandhi have been questioned, attacked, defaced, beheaded and torn down.
Their crimes are inevitably ones of thought and of being in an age unlike our own, where too many think they have reached the pinnacle of civilizational virtue, an immodest sentiment in itself. (Future generations will take issue with some of our assumptions and sympathies today.)
But of course, it’s a bit silly to think someone who lived 100 or 1,000 years ago would have views like ours today. That’s rather the point: Perhaps we have progressed, and some of the figures—Churchill, Gandhi, et al., helped us do just that.
History is not perfect: Neither are we
As I’ve written in a different context, the key question we should pose to historical figures is not, “Did their every view or remark perfectly align with us today?” That is an impossible standard for them and us. Instead, the useful question to ask is: Did they contribute to human freedom and flourishing in their era?
The answer for U.S. Civil War Confederate generals who fought to retain slavery is no. But the answer for Gandhi (and Churchill) is yes.
Princess Elizabeth served in the Second World War: What service of yours equals that?
Back to Queen Elizabeth II. Removing the head of her statue is an attack on someone who represents the best of the British tradition and thus Canada’s history too: evolutionary change.
In addition, the Queen and her parents showed laudable leadership early in her lifetime. The Royal Family stayed in Britain rather then flee German bombs. The now-Queen as a young woman could have stayed out of the war effort in the battle against Adolf Hitler. But then Princess Elizabeth joined the army at age 18, trained as a mechanic, and drove a truck. And this woman’s statue is whom some choose to attack?
It should be noted that Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps opposed the hacking of the statue’s head. But without consultation, the mayor and Victoria City Council removed the statue of Canada’ first prime minister, and onetime Victoria Member of Parliament, John A. MacDonald in 2018. At least Helps and council were elected, and could be arguably be said to be acting democratically, if hastily and unwisely. Still, their hasty and ultimately error-prone action gave succor to the reactionaries.
There is this other element to ponder. When vandals attack statues, they also attack works of art and their sculptors. A previous version of the Elizabethan statue was also attacked after its erection in 1960, apparently by university students. One media report noted how its sculptor, Peggy Walton Packard, “never accepted another public art commission” after such attacks. She died in 2010 at the age of 95, but was quoted as saying that “It was awful. It seemed the university students were attacking the Queen and indirectly attacking me, too.”
Indeed, they were and are. Our present age needs far more nuance and tolerance for consequential figures and their images, dead or alive
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.