19th February 2013
When Hilary Mantel was giving her lecture in which she mentioned the sacrifices demanded of the Duchess of Cambridge, I was giving a talk in the Middle Temple in which I discussed the sacrifices expected of the Queen, and the heir apparent. At the same time as we take a step forward by reforming the rules of succession, we are in danger of drifting into a step backward. The step forward is the abolition of male primogeniture, so that in future the eldest child will succeed, whether a girl or a boy; and abolition of the rule that any heir who marries a Catholic must step out of the line of succession. This is being legislated by the Succession to the Crown Bill, currently going through Parliament this month: at great speed, with no Green Paper or White Paper, and almost no public debate.
Where I hope we might start to have a public debate is the gradual step backward into a monarchy which risks becoming a gerontocracy. This is not said out of any criticism of those involved; quite the reverse. Their sacrifice is extraordinary; and is the consequence of the inevitable effects of people living longer. The Queen has been on the throne for 60 years, and will shortly be 87. If she lives as long as her mother, who died aged 101, she may reign for another 15 years. If that happens Prince Charles will be 80 when he becomes King. If he in turn lived to 100, Prince William would succeed to the throne at the age of 67. And his child to be born later this year might succeed at the age of 70 …
My forecast ages may be wrong, but the point remains. We are asking our senior Royals to take on the responsibilities of the Monarchy at an age when most people are retired. And we are asking the heir apparent to spend all his adult life in waiting, and not to assume the throne until old age. If we asked anyone else in their mid 80s to undertake the punishing schedule of the Queen’s public engagements it would be called Granny abuse. It is not kind to the Queen to expect her to go on like this; and it may not be kind to her people to live under a succession of monarchs who are all very old.
Is there any way out? Look across the Channel to the Netherlands, where the last three Queens have abdicated at around the age of 70. Queen Beatrix announced her abdication last month at the age of 75. And look to Rome, where last week the Pope announced his retirement at the age of 85, before (as he put it) he loses his strength of mind and body. But for our Queen abdication is unthinkable, the A-word is unmentionable, because of the abdication crisis of 1936, in what is seen by the Royal family as shamefully self-indulgent behaviour by Edward VIII.
It is also made much more difficult by the fact that our monarch is head of state of 15 other countries, the Realms, all of whom would have to agree to an abdication. It has taken over a year for the realms to agree to the change in the rules of succession now being legislated for, with big legal and political difficulties in Australia and Canada, and a lot of shepherding required of the smaller realms. So I don’t pretend it’s easy, it is not something which governments will readily want to tackle; but it is something that merits public debate, whether we want to have a succession of very elderly monarchs.