Two recent announcements – the Japanese government’s agreement to the Emperor’s wish to abdicate and Prince Philip’s retirement from public life, both on grounds of advancing age – highlight the fact that there is no continuing provision for abdication in UK law. Bob Morris considers the implications of this and suggests that there may be a case for change.
The Japanese government has agreed to the request of the current Emperor of Japan, Akihito, to abdicate on grounds of age and growing infirmity – he is now 84 years old. Prince Philip, 96 this year, announced on 4 May that he would be withdrawing from public life later this year on grounds not dissimilar to those of the Emperor. What are the implications, if any, for the United Kingdom monarchy?
Abdication – background
The problem for Japan is that Japanese law does not allow for abdication. The last abdication took place 200 years ago and there are no precedents for how a retired Emperor should be styled or otherwise accommodated in the political system. Moreover, revisiting the succession rules was likely also to come up against their continuing ban on female succession when male only succession has prevailed for 2,600 years. A Commission study of the issues reported on 14 April recommending a one-off law for Akihito alone – he would be given the title of ‘Grand Emperor’ – rather than a continuing provision. The gender issue, even though there is a shortage of male heirs, was ducked.
In continental Europe the experience is more varied. Dutch Queens from Queen Wilhelmina in 1948 have abdicated at around 70 – Queen Beatrix most recently at 75 in 2013 – in ways which permit their heirs to grow their families in relative freedom and privacy before taking on full public duties in maturity. (The current King Willem-Alexander succeeded at age 46.) There have been abdications in Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg. Particularly notable was the retirement of Pope Benedict in 2013. There have not been age-based abdications in Scandinavia where, so far, only two sovereigns (Norwegian kings) have exceeded 90 on death.
The position in the UK
There is no continuing provision for abdication in UK law. Further, the circumstances of the last abdication – that of Edward VIII in 1936 – continue to be of painful memory in the House of Windsor. As is well known, Queen Elizabeth II has repeatedly declared her intention of serving for the whole of her life. Now herself 91, the fact of her husband’s ‘retirement‘ at nearly 96 raises the question what sort of withdrawal (partial or otherwise) might be appropriate for her when she reaches a similar age retaining her faculties but experiencing at least the physical frailties of advanced old age.
The present law offers two possible routes: regency and abdication. However, neither route is entirely straightforward. It has also to be borne in mind at all times that the UK sovereign is simultaneously head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth countries, known as the ‘realms’. For both routes the appointment of a regent or succession of an heir in such exceptional circumstances would require acceptance in each of the fifteen realms in order to ensure that they all have the same sovereign. A number of the realms would need to legislate – a particular difficulty in federal systems such as Canada and Australia.
It is possible, of course, that abdication particularly might encourage some realms to become republics. However, as Buckingham Palace has previously made clear, that is and always has been a matter for the realms concerned. Its avoidance cannot, therefore, be an object of UK policy or the prospect therefore of an impediment to responding to a personal need.