This past week Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip will be retiring from public duties at the end of August. While he will remain patron of his 700+ charities, he will not carry out engagements unless he so chooses and he has left the door open for the organizations to choose a successor – a member of the Royal Family or not – if they wish. The Queen, the Palace stressed, will continue working as usual, though in the past few years she has scaled back certain duties by relying more heavily on her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, and curtailing overseas travel.
Some of this dynamic has been seen this year as her children and grandchildren have undergone and are scheduled to carry out diplomatic trips to EU countries in the wake of Brexit. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, for example, were in Paris in March and are slated for Germany and Poland in July, while Kate will take a solo trip to Luxembourg this Thursday. Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall divvied up a longer tour to Romania, Italy and Austria last month.
But with Philip stepping down, what does this actually mean? Well, broadly, it’s an interesting move because it’s never formally been done before in Britain. Older monarchs have in the past stepped back from carrying out certain functions, but all of those situations occurred in a completely different time and atmosphere. And when it did, it wasn’t announced but rather navigated around as the crown sought to emphasize its power and continuity. There’s always been a belief that the BRF wouldn’t mess with the idea of retirement because it came too close to the idea of an abdication, of which we’re all fairly certain the Queen will never do – her generation can remember the abdication crisis of 1936 and the havoc that wrought.
It bears repeating, though, that this makes the BRF unique. Several other European monarchies have embraced abdications as practical – stepping down in old age and giving way to a younger batch of monarchs with the stamina and energy to engage with their people and reach a greater swathe of the population through generational similarities. There’s a certain sensibleness to this, because it also affords each monarch more time to set and execute an agenda. Charles, for example, whenever he does ascend the throne, will not have 60+ years to make his mark like his mother and while the Queen is beloved and the fact that she won’t step down makes absolute sense given the nuances of the House of Windsor, it’s worth examining the question as to whether, in different circumstances, perhaps it would have been worth considering?’
And perhaps it’s worth mentioning that there are some who believe she might. One is Christopher Andersen, who told the Daily Beast earlier this week that:
“The Queen has never denied that she will abdicate or ever spoken about it,” he says, “Never. And there has never seen an official statement, speaking for the monarch, expressing an opinion on abdication one way or the other. This is one of those myths that the public has really bought hook, line, and sinker. I am so tired of hearing people saying the Queen will never abdicate, because they are unaware that abdication has been discussed behind palace walls for years, by Christopher Geidt [the Queen’s private secretary] and his predecessors.
“There is no question in my mind that is a trial run, as it were, for the Queen’s abdication. Having them both disappear from public view at the same time would be to jarring. That’s why it is being done incrementally, baby steps toward the Queen’s abdication and the crowning of a new king.”
This scenario doesn’t seem outlandish to me, though the confidence with which it is presented is certainly noteworthy. He predicts that the Queen will announce her own retirement when Philip dies and spend the rest of her days at Balmoral as the “Queen Dowager,” while Charles is crowned king. Some of that is actually a good idea – for one, the Queen is the oldest monarch to sit on the throne, for all that she is astonishingly energetic at 91. Secondly, the Queen still being around to bless Charles’s accession may work in his favor – just as anti-monarchists hold their tongue (sometimes) out of respect for the Queen’s service, they may be forced to do so out of respect for Charles being her son. Are the majority of people going to lobby hard to oust the entire monarchy while the Queen is still alive, albeit retired? That would be difficult to stomach. And once Charles is crowned and ruling, well, it’s going to be a lot harder to change things.
That abdication has been discussed isn’t surprising to me, but to say that the Queen has never said she isn’t going to isn’t really compelling because the Queen hasn’t commented on most things. She’s the Queen. As for never promising anything, maybe, but she did give this speech on her 21st birthday, which, for many, summarizes her approach towards her role:
It was 70 years ago and no one is going to begrudge the Queen her retirement if she so chooses to take it, but the flip side of all of this is that if people are so emphatic that the Queen won’t retire then it stands to reason they don’t expect her to – that perhaps they don’t want her to. And what is expected of the Queen, and what the Queen expects of herself as monarch, is a potent consideration.
If abdication is on the table, it changes the game a bit for William and Kate. Much of the defense of them over the last six years, when they’ve been criticized for taking on less engagements or only committing half of their time to public duties, has been premised on the fact that they’ll never retire. In a way, their career unfolds in reverse and perhaps it is just and correct that they have time when they are younger to invest in their family and enjoy a greater amount of privacy then they’ll have later on.
Now, the possibility of abdicating in one’s 70s, let’s say, doesn’t really negate any of that, but it does mean it’s all the more important that William, Kate and Harry be seen doing more of what they did in the weeks leading up to the London marathon. In other words, the pressure is on.
So, what that mean? In the short-term it means there’s going to be enhanced attention paid to other members of the BRF over the next few months. Earlier this week, Philip’s youngest son, the Earl of Wessex, told Sky News that his father’s retirement isn’t going to be a game-changer because Philip won’t disappear, but rather pick and choose when and how he steps into the limelight. He also emphasized that the family already acts as a team when it comes to tackling duties so it would be incorrect to believe this will cause a massive reorganization of priorities for certain members…perhaps that answers the question I’ve seen flashed about here and there as to whether Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie will be given more responsibility.
It also means we’re likely to see more of William, in particular. On Friday he was by the Queen’s side at Buckingham Palace to host Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for a lunch, while Philip was notably absent. And as I mentioned earlier in the week, much of this was already organically in motion with Kensington Palace’s announcement that William and Kate would be spending more time in London beginning this autumn, but it is one thing for them to be carrying out more engagements, and quite another for William to be frequently called upon to accompany his grandmother where her husband once stood.
There’s speculation that we will also be seeing quite a bit more of the Earl and Countess of Wessex. Sophie, in particular, has emerged in recent years as a solid member of the RF, one who carries out her engagements admirably and conducts herself with discretion. She is young and pretty enough that she even has her own fashion blog following. Sophie is believed to have grown close to the Queen since her 1999 marriage to Edward, while her husband is believed to be Philip’s favorite son. Of all of four of their children, it’s only Edward’s portrait that hangs in his father’s private study.
It is worth noting, perhaps, that Edward and Sophie’s marriage is the only one of the Queen and Philip’s children not to end in divorce, though they were also granted significantly more privacy than Charles and the Duke of York were in the 80s.
All of their engagements may very well change in nature, as well. Instead of championing their own personal causes – like Heads Together – there will likely be an uptick in duties which are focused on the actual development of the nation – its economy, its history and its military. It is essentially the difference between “soft causes” and state business, and while Kate and Sophie will likely only play a supporting role in those duties, I expect we’ll see more of William, Harry and Edward, alongside Charles, who already undertakes these with regularity.
2016 may have been a “snooze” of a year for the BRF, but so far 2017 is shaping up to make up for it and then some.