LONDON – Should Elizabeth II — by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories, queen — resign?
The Emperor of Japan has said he’d like to. He’s 82 and is “beginning to feel his age.” She’s 90. And as far as the hawk-like attention paid by the royal correspondents has recorded, the queen has been as impeccable as ever. If with a reduced schedule. But 90!
Her heir, His Royal Highness Charles, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Grand Steward of Scotland, is pushing 70. His elder son, His Royal Highness Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron of Carrickfergus, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Personal Aide-de-Camp of Her Majesty the Queen, is 34. The designation “early middle age” is heard more often than “young.”
Should Elizabeth, by the grace of God, not now move aside? There’s recent precedent. Juan Carlos I of Spain, who became king days after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, played a large role in his country’s transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. In 2014, Juan Carlos resigned his throne to his son, now Felipe VI. Three queens of the Netherlands, in their 70s, handed the throne over to their heirs.
There’s also the matter of Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Phillip. He is loyally padding after her at 95, but in uncertain health. Stephen Bates, the royal biographer, has floated the possibility that the prince’s death may be the occasion of her resignation. Though she will be aware that Victoria, her great-great-grandmother, carried on as queen for 40 years after her husband died in 1861.
The crazier sites have been writing that there’s a secret agreement for the queen to pass the crown over to Prince William. Or that the queen would have had to leave the country because she’d been warned by “top military brass” of a third world war if Britain didn’t leave the European Union.
But the saner sources, or at least those who claim to be in the know, say she will never resign. The BBC, cautious to the point of timidity in its comments on the queen (it fired its director of BBC1, Peter Fincham, in 2007 for making the mildest of jokes about her) has ventured that she won’t resign while she lives. It reminded us that her message to the Commonwealth on her 21st birthday contained the phrase, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” That’s quite an oath. And she wasn’t even queen yet.
Even disregarding the promise, which she likely won’t, the United Kingdom, which isn’t united in much these days, brings establishment and citizens together in a fervent wish that she carry on. She is held in great public affection, the longer she dutifully performs the ceremonies, openings, bestowal of honors, opening of parliaments — the round of rituals that the British state has retained. All these impart both a sense of grandness and of continuity.
Probably the largest reason for the low ratings suffered by the far-left leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was his initial refusal to sing the national anthem, “God Save the Queen.”
As for the governing class, she is now a pearl beyond price.
The vote to leave the European Union and the constant threats from the Scottish National Party — a virtual political monopoly in Scotland — to demand a second referendum on independence have made Britain into a nervy, febrile polity. (The first vote, in September 2015, showed a 55-45 split in favor of remaining in the U.K.) With a prime minister resigned, a quasi-revolutionary leader of the opposition, the union at risk and a recession forecast by many economists, the little old lady in Buckingham Palace remains the one great institution not trembling.
Were she to pass the crown to Charles, it would rest on one much less popular, scorning and scorned by the crisis-loving British press, with a history of semi-mystic pronouncements and a residue of blame for the car accident that killed his former wife, Diana.
Charles also has a habit of writing testy notes to ministers to question certain policies and press them to adopt different plans. Much of the disdain is unfair. But when did fairness come into public reputations?
Were Elizabeth to name her grandson William as king, she would bequeath a huge challenge to a man who seems quite shy. He appears to have none of the populist vigor of his brother, Harry. His wife, Kate Middleton, is poised but bland.
He and his wife do still have a reservoir of support that Charles has not. A splashy coronation could also lift anxious spirits for a time. But the British tabloids’ desperate need for royal scandal would amplify every frown into a marital crisis, every piece of gossip out of the palace into an impending divorce. That William has an even lower opinion of the press than his father won’t help.
In the 63 years of her reign, Queen Elizabeth has been the still point in a world that saw the end of empire, the radical 1960s, political crises over Europe, civil strife in Ireland and a short war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The death of Princess Diana, talked up at the time as a threat to the throne, was in retrospect no more than the plea of a fundamentally loyal people for the queen to publicly manifest her grief (whether or not sincerely) because it seemed everyone else had decided it was a personal loss.
Elizabeth II could not know, at 21, that her life would be as long as it has been. Or that she would be called to wear the crown for so many years.
But a promise is a promise. And thus no exit for Elizabeth.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.