Two contributors battle it outby Andrew Brown , Hugo Vickers / May 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Should the Queen abdicate?
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Prince Philip, who will be 96 this June, has announced that he is retiring from official duties in the autumn. Is it time for the Queen, now 91, also to consider stepping down from her own much greater responsibilities as monarch?
Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather was killed by his doctors, with an eye to the media impact. Her father died of lung cancer at a relatively early age. She has been luckier and healthier. She could well last until she is over 100 years old and I hope very much that she does, but there will come a point when simple old age will enfeeble her and the job will become a tormenting impossibility. She might feel that enduring at all costs was her duty. Some such sentiment drove Pope John Paul II through his Parkinson’s disease, but was no example to follow. Pope Benedict XVI, who observed the process closely, learned from it and when his powers failed became the first Pope to retire for nearly 600 years.
The Queen’s job is less demanding than a Pope’s. Much of her work consists in refraining from doing those things which it would be unimaginable for a good Queen to do (a lesson Prince Charles has failed to learn). But there are also active roles for a monarch and a huge one is approaching. She has lived through great changes, and the end of her reign will be used to mark a still greater, epochal one: an end to the kind of country we have been ever since the reign of the first Elizabeth and an end to all the history that our Queen was taught.
The monarchy will play a central part in helping the country understand and dramatise this transformation. The next coronation will be the most important piece of public theatre since the death of Diana. Much better to hold it at a time of her own choosing, and to set a final example of gracious renunciation rather than clinging on until grim death.
The Queen is pragmatic and also an excellent Head of State. I cannot agree that there is a hint of her “clinging on” and I would certainly not advocate any kind of renunciation, gracious or otherwise. There are several reasons why the Queen will not abdicate. First, in a speech on her 21st birthday in 1947, she promised to serve this country all her life, whether that be short or whether it be long. Unlike politicians, the Queen keeps her word, which is why we trust her so implicitly to be on the side of Britain.
Secondly, she was anointed as Queen and that solemn religious ritual is a significant difference from those unanointed monarchs who cop out when it suits them—in the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium. (I concede Pope Benedict is in a different category, but we do not yet know the full story there.) Thirdly, the Queen would not in any way wish to be compared to her uncle, Edward VIII, who abdicated (before being anointed). I suspect “abdication” is not a popular word with her, and I do know she was displeased when Queen Juliana of the Netherlands stepped down aged 71 in 1980.
Nor of course does she have to abdicate, if for some reason she were unable to fulfil her role as Head of State. In that case, there would be a Regency, as happened between 1811 and 1820, when George III was ill.
Meanwhile the Queen is the best example as to why no one should retire. She is completely in control of all her faculties, she hears everything, has a fine memory, she rides regularly—pretty good for 91—and her global status as our Queen is admired across the world. She is our greatest asset.
Your tone arouses in me a feeling I did not know I harboured: pure republican fervour. But underneath the baroque condescension, you make two strong points about her unwillingness to retire which must be met. The first is that she promised she would serve her country all her life, and she keeps her promises. It’s true and immensely valuable that she sets an example of faithfulness to her word, but it’s not fair to compare this to supposedly slipperier politicians, since the oaths she swore were a great deal less detailed than their commitments, even when they appeared not to be. She swore in 1953 to “maintain the Protestant religion by law established” and if you had told the Archbishop of Canterbury who crowned her that this would come to include women bishops, he might have dropped on the spot from an apoplexy.
I do not think that abdication would end her service to the country. On the contrary, it might well crown it, so to speak. It is precisely because abdication might strengthen the monarchy—if it were done right—that it should be considered. Her personal preferences—and I’m sure you are well informed about them—have nothing to do with arguments about her duty.
The second strong point is that she is still, at 91, in excellent shape. I’m sure she is. But my own mother has just had her telegram from the Queen so I know—like Prince Philip—that one’s powers do diminish in the tenth decade. The point is not whether she can do the job now, which I’m sure she can. But there must inevitably come a time when she no longer can manage even the ceremonial demands of the job (she no longer signs the telegrams herself) and that is what we should plan for. Prince Philip’s withdrawal from royal duties is a harbinger of the best fate that awaits her. He will be 96 when he stops working, but both of them might live to be more than 100.
This is most stimulating. You find it hard to attack my arguments so you try another tack—and paint me as a condescending figure so absurd that I stir Republican feelings. An interesting ploy. At the risk of more baroque statements, I am a royal hierophant, not, I hope, a royal sycophant. The Queen’s 1947 declaration was pretty watertight and she has stuck to it.
Abdication is also difficult because you can’t have two monarchs. George VI complained that most monarchs come to the throne on the death of their predecessor while his predecessor, Edward VIII, was stomping about Europe, embarrassing him. I suggest that the Queen is more popular than her heir. She should be described as Elizabeth the Steadfast or Elizabeth the Conciliator, neither of which quite applies to the Prince of Wales. Charles the Troubled?
The Queen Mother lived to nearly 102, and she was in command of her faculties until about 10 minutes before she died. The fact that the Queen is needed, is useful and is well informed on a daily basis helps keep her alert, more so than many less fortunate nonagenarians. (By the way the Queen has never signed those telegrams, and since 1960 the Christmas cards and signed photographs have been done by autopen, the signature changing every two years—a device used by many world leaders.) So your points, well meant no doubt, are a little thin.
The Queen has a family to support her. When she was young, the older ones were there to guide her. Now that she is the matriarch, the younger members of the family can take on the arduous overseas tours and investitures etc—particularly in the light of Prince Philip’s so-called retirement. It is a surprisingly good system. With her wealth of experience, the Queen becomes more valuable every year, not less.
I agree with you that the childhood precedents for abdication are rotten ones. Edward VIII was spoilt, petulant and very bad for the monarchy. You are also surely right that the knowledge that she is useful and needed, coupled with a lifetime of self-discipline, will keep the Queen’s mind alive for very much longer than might otherwise be the case. But by the same token, if she were to abdicate she would behave in ways almost opposite to those of her foolish uncle and that would strengthen the monarchy and the nation she serves.
If she were to apply this mind and clear sight to the problems ahead, she would see that a well-managed abdication would be much the best way to handle the delicate transition from her reign to the next, where a shrunken and diminished England has to make its way in a world where past glories don’t impress our enemies and only send us vainglorious.
My own preference, cruel and unjust as it might seem, is that she should be succeeded by her grandson, not her son, who is regarded by thoughtful politicians who’ve had to deal with him as a disaster in the making. But for that to happen, it would be absolutely necessary for her to make it clear that this was her will—not her last will or testament, but a judgment expressed while she was still alive and still visibly in control of herself. Of course it would require much more than that, but I think that her active participation would be necessary for the plan.
So in the end, perhaps the most powerful argument for her abdication is that it would indeed set a precedent, since it would mean, if done right, that there would never be a King Charles III.
Goodness! Talk about moving the goalposts at the last minute. The matter under debate is whether the Queen should abdicate, not whether she should do something outrageous such as change the succession in favour of Prince William. Since you have raised this point, as others have done, I must address it. I am sure that the Prince of Wales will be circumspect in his views when he is king. He will come to the job with a wealth of experience, and he will do so at a moment of intense grief. I believe he sees his present role as Prince of Wales as the time to make his mark and speak out, and that when he becomes king, he will stand back somewhat. It will almost be a retirement job. It might all be rather interesting. He deserves to be king. And I also think it would be hard for Prince William to follow his distinguished and experienced grandmother. We need King Charles in the middle.
You misunderstand the Queen fundamentally if you believe she would effectively stab her son and heir in the back towards the end of her reign. The Queen must and will carry on. Her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, was born in 1874, her youngest, David Cameron, in 1966. An extraordinary span and a wealth of experience.
Think of the countries of the world that would give anything to have a head of state such as ours. We are living at the tail end of a golden age, and we should not seek to shorten it; rather, we should enjoy every minute of it and count ourselves lucky. I cannot think of a reign in history in which I would have preferred to live.