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When Prince Charles condemned the “brutal” and “truly terrible” aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it might have seemed like a senior royal was wading into the kind of geopolitical territory they often try to avoid.
But there is precedent for the words of Queen Elizabeth’s heir, who has been known to speak more freely and controversially on such issues than his mother.
“Prince Charles’s current comments are not surprising,” Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said in an interview.
“There is past evidence that he has been critical of Putin annexing territory in Eastern Europe.”
That emerged in Halifax in 2014, when word leaked out that in a private conversation, Charles had reportedly likened Putin to Adolf Hitler.
A diplomatic stir ensued after it was reported that Charles told a volunteer at the Canadian Immigration Museum that “Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler,” referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.
Charles is not alone among members of the Royal Family to speak out on the situation in Ukraine in the past few days.
In a tweet, Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, said they stand with the people of Ukraine as they “bravely fight” for their future. They also recalled the “privilege” of meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife, Olena, at Buckingham Palace in October 2020.
Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University in Wales, said that in the U.K., anyone other than those who are “giving their full support to Ukraine finds themselves on the political margins.”
“In essence, Prince Charles and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expressing the prevailing view in a manner that only a member of the Royal Family can do.”
As an institution, Prescott said via email, “the monarchy is fundamentally a political institution, but isn’t party political. It doesn’t get involved in matters which are controversial.”
“But on matters where there is broad agreement, especially on foreign policy (where perhaps apart from Brexit, the political parties tend to be closer to each other), then the monarchy can express that broad agreement on behalf of the British state.”
Prescott said it is “no accident” William and Kate met Zelensky when he was in the U.K.
“It’s an example of the soft power of the Royal Family being used to confirm positive relations between the U.K. and Ukraine,” Prescott said. “The Cambridges met Zelensky as part of his visit to the U.K. to sign the U.K.-Ukraine political, free trade and strategic partnership agreement. It’s the sort of diplomacy that goes little noticed.”
Still, William and Kate’s comments differed from Charles’s.
They “have been very careful to express support for Ukraine without overtly condemning Russia. They don’t mention Vladimir Putin specifically in their tweet,” said Harris.
“They focus on the warm personal rapport they developed with [the Zelenskys] when they met … [and] raised this in terms of personal support. Prince Charles’s comments speak more widely to geopolitical issues.”
Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, met with Ukrainians in London to show their support.
“I must say, my wife and I have been deeply moved by everything we’ve heard today during our visit and above all by the extraordinary bravery, generosity and fortitude of the Ukrainian community in the face of such truly terrible aggression,” Charles said during the visit to the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral.
For his part, Zelensky thanked William and Kate for their support, tweeting that he and his wife were grateful that they “stand by our country and support our brave citizens.”
Support for Ukraine also came from Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who issued a statement on their website saying they “stand with the people of Ukraine.” Harry also spoke of the crisis as the couple appeared at the NAACP Image Awards last weekend in Pasadena, Calif.
Some tabloid coverage mocked their statement, and other media reports noted the different reception their support for Ukraine received compared to that of William and Kate.
Harris said that since it became clear Harry and Meghan, who stepped back from full-time royal duties two years ago, would not be returning to senior roles within the Royal Family, “there has been debate and discussion about how their public appearances and statements should be covered by the media.”
Some commentators continue to put Harry’s activities within the context of his relationship with the Royal Family, Harris said, while “other commentators argue that Harry and Meghan should receive coverage as celebrities alone because they no longer carry out royal duties or represent the Queen.”
But with Charles, William and Harry sharing common ground about the situation in Ukraine, Harris said “it’s likely that Harry’s opinions will continue to be placed in the context of his family’s views, even though he no longer undertakes royal duties.”
All this is in marked contrast to the approach the Queen has taken to matters of politics throughout her reign.
“When she asserts diplomatic influence, it tends to be quite subtle and she observes the importance of remaining above politics within the U.K., but there aren’t the same strictures for some [other] members of the Royal Family,” said Harris.
The Queen has, however, made a financial contribution to a Ukraine refugee charity appeal. The Disasters Emergency Committee tweeted its thanks for her “generous donation.”
Other members of the Royal Family are also reported to have made charitable donations.
Coming back from COVID-19
Queen Elizabeth returned to virtual public duties more than a week after testing positive for COVID-19.
The 95-year-old, who has been vaccinated, had cancelled some online engagements because she was experiencing mild cold-like symptoms, Buckingham Palace said.
She also cancelled a diplomatic reception that was to have been held at Windsor Castle, a decision made on the advice of the U.K. Foreign Office, the Palace said.
As much as the Palace publicly emphasized the Foreign Office advice, it was hard not to also see the cancellation in light of the Queen’s health.
It had “the fortunate side-effect of allowing the Queen further time to recuperate after her recent bout of COVID,” said Prescott, who also noted it “would have been highly inappropriate to hold what is basically a party at a time when war has broken out in Europe.”
Harris said she thought the cancellation would have been influenced by the Queen’s health, along with anticipation of upcoming events to mark her 70 years as monarch.
“Every effort is being made to ensure that the Queen is in good health to enjoy the Platinum Jubilee.”
Harris sees a larger trend continuing, as more of the Queen’s engagements move into the online world.
“It hasn’t been a stated policy that the Queen is going to be doing more virtual engagements even after the pandemic and fewer in-person engagements, but we’re gradually seeing that some of these more tiring engagements that involve a lot of standing and walking, that there are fewer of them on the Queen’s calendar.”
Another high-profile engagement on the calendar comes at the end of the month, when a memorial service for her husband, Prince Philip, will be held March 29 at Westminster Abbey, almost a year after his death at age 99.
What the GG can — and can’t — do
Many protesters who went to Ottawa recently had a flawed understanding of constitutional freedoms and how our parliamentary system works.
Our colleague in CBC’s politics bureau in Ottawa, Peter Zimonjic, dove into several issues involved in that. Here’s his look at whether citizens or the Governor General can force the dissolution of government:
Gov. Gen. Mary Simon’s office received so many phone calls and emails from people asking her to dissolve the federal government during the blockade that she had to issue a statement explaining that she does not have that power.
Under Canada’s Westminster form of parliamentary democracy, the governor general acts as a proxy for the Queen and dissolves Parliament upon the request of the prime minister. When Parliament is dissolved, a new election is called.
In 1926, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King asked Gov. Gen. Julian Byng to dissolve the minority Parliament and call new elections. Byng refused. King stepped down and, a few months later, led the Liberals to a majority victory.
Ever since, no governor general has refused a prime minister’s request to dissolve Parliament. Nor has a governor general ever dismissed a prime minister and a government outright.
Citizens can only register their “non-confidence” in a government by voting in an election — by granting another party or combination of parties enough seats in the House of Commons to form a government.
Apart from a direct request from the prime minister, the only other way to dissolve Parliament is through time limits set out in law. The Constitution limits the length of each Parliament to five years.
Section 56.1 of the Canada Elections Act, which was updated in 2007, restricts the duration of a Parliament to four years. Elections can still be called by the governor general before the four-year time period expires, but only on the advice of the prime minister.
Governments are only replaced when the prime minister resigns or is dismissed by the governor general. The governor general’s discretion to dismiss the prime minister is extremely narrow and limited by constitutional convention.
Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa with expertise in parliamentary executive power, said the massive number of emails and phone calls the Governor General received from convoy protesters is more evidence of a recent trend in protest movements.
“It has become routine in Canadian politics to write a letter to the Queen, governor general or a lieutenant governor asking them to exercise their powers in some way, contrary to constitutional conventions,” he said. “This is political theatre, no more.”
“I haven’t tackled you yet.”
— Prince George had a cheeky quip for his mom while he was with his parents at a rugby game between England and Wales. Kate had an equally quick quip for the eight-year-old, countering with: “Yes, you have.” The game marked the first time Kate was in the stands since she became patron for England’s Rugby Football Union, replacing Prince Harry. George’s dad, Prince William, has been patron for the Welsh Rugby Union since 2016.
More travel is on the agenda for some members of the Royal Family after the pandemic-induced hiatus. Charles and Camilla are set to visit Ireland later in March as part of celebrations to mark Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. A visit later this month by William and Kate to the Caribbean has been confirmed and will include Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, are to visit Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines in late April. Princess Anne will be in Papua New Guinea, also in April. But there’s no word yet of any travels to the Commonwealth realms of Canada, Australia or New Zealand. [BBC, Daily Mail]
Prince Charles has been given the go-ahead to build a school for farming in Scotland. [The Guardian]
Camilla says having the title of Queen Consort will help to highlight the causes she supports, such as preventing intimate partner violence. [BBC]
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