In the past two weeks the Duke of Edinburgh retired and a slew of new documentaries and TV specials on the late Princess of Wales debuted. These two seemingly parallel events have created a perfect storm of an intersection that lands smack dab on the head of the Prince of Wales – or rather, his place in the succession. Stepping away from the personalities at play here and it begs the question, how can a man who has been first in line for the throne since 1952 truly have his viability undermined?
Enter the memory of his ex-wife, whose mere name brings forth the old tale of their unhappy relationship and brings out visceral reactions about marriage and infidelity. While I think it is correct and fitting that Diana be honored this year and remembered for her good work both from inside and outside the British Royal Family, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to re-litigate a marriage. Particularly one none of us were a part of.
Now throw into the mix that Charles married his unpopular mistress and the presence of the younger, glamorous dynamic duo, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and you have a firestorm of debate over whether Charles should succeed his mother to the throne. A mother, now in her 90s, who is on the last leg of her reign, which begs yet another question: Will she abdicate? And if not, then would she ever step down from her duties and let Charles step in a sort of regent?
Let’s start with the question as to whether the succession should leapfrog over Charles. The short answer is “no.” I don’t care what your opinion is of Charles, if you believe the right call is for the crown to pass from Queen Elizabeth to William then you don’t understand how the monarchy works. And I don’t mean the rules of succession – I mean how the institution fundamentally works in the public consciousness. Succession is not a popularity contest and if you set up a situation that allows you to essentially choose the next king, then why have a monarchy at all? You would so corrupt the basic fabric that makes up the concept as to irreparably damage it.
Here’s another reason: William and Kate are not ready to be king and queen. For one, they don’t want to be. It will only be this autumn that the two take on the roles of full-time working royals, a fact that I have defended them on purely because William is second – and not first – in line to the throne. Secondly, the role of the monarch is not carrying out engagements or even philanthropy – that’s a part of it, sure, but to focus on that to exclusion of everything else is a fundamental misunderstanding of the constitutional role the Queen plays. Charles is prepared to step into that position; William and Kate understandably have a learning curve ahead of them.
And yet a new round of polls have gone out asking the public what they think. Perhaps unsurprisingly the results have found that the majority of Britons don’t want Camilla to become queen (a slightly separate issue from Charles becoming king). And according to one, 51 percent would prefer to see William succeed the Queen. Some newspapers have gone so far as to ask whether the recent coverage of Diana has lowered or increased their opinion of Charles – the answer will not shock you.
So, to that, I would add that polling done by newspapers, even if conducted correctly, is hardly scientific. That is particularly true when they are more on the tabloid-esque side of things (though tabloid has slightly different connotations in the U.S., for my American readers). And I would also once again underline that this isn’t a popularity contest. These results mean literally nothing and will not, and should not, inform how the succession is handled.
Now let’s move on to the succession itself, a topic we have covered a few times here, including the question of whether the Queen might follow her husband into a sort of quasi-retirement. Earlier this year a story circulated that when Prince Philip passes away, the Queen is considering the option of “retiring,” and allowing Charles to step in and carry out more of the public functions of monarch. A version of this story is back out there, only this time it states that the Queen has told her “inner circle” that if she is still alive by 95 (which she will turn in 2021) then she is prepared to implement a regency.
Specifically, staff have been told to get up to speed on the Regency Act of 1937, which was put in place shortly after the Abdication Crisis of 1936 when George VI ascended the throne, his heir being his eldest daughter, then-Princess Elizabeth. The Act put in place a plan for what would happen should the King unexpectedly pass away or become incapacitated before Elizabeth turned 21, thus necessitating a minority government. At the time, the regent agreed upon was Elizabeth’s uncle, Henry, Duke of Gloucester. Today, the law has been amended to reflect Charles.
Generally questions as to whether the Queen will abdicate get back a visceral “no.” Her generation is, after all, so close to the fiasco that was Edward VIII. And then there is her own personality, statements and dedication, none of which imply abdication was in the cards. “Was” being the operative word here, because as we’ve discussed before, it’s likely not until relatively recently that the reality of what ruling would look like if the Queen enjoyed the same longevity that the Queen Mother did was considered.
That, and the fact that several other European monarchies have begun setting up forms of abdication that allow elderly sovereigns the ability to retire and pass the buck to the next generation.
Now should a regency be put in place then it’s a not a true abdication and that’s an important distinction. If Charles stepped in as regent his mother would still be queen and he would emphatically not be king. He would, however, hold the powers of a king and carry out the working of a king in his mother’s name.
I don’t think this scenario is out of the question. We were taken aback by Philip’s announcement of retirement and perhaps that should be a nod of things to come. For all that Charles, William and Harry are given credit for modernizing the monarchy, albeit in different ways, perhaps we should give more due to the Queen for having the courage to take an unprecedented step within the British Royal Family.
If she does go this route, then I think we can all agree it would be very well-deserved.