Allan Massie: Retirement not an option for the Queen

The Queen with the Queen Mother, Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Picture: Getty
The Queen with the Queen Mother, Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Picture: Getty
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The British monarch is unlikely to follow the Dutch example and abdicate in favour of her son, writes Allan Massie

In the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix has announced that she will abdicate this spring and hand the throne over to her son, Prince Willem-Alexander. This has become the Dutch way of doing things. Her mother, Queen Juliana, abdicated, and so did her mother, Queen Wilhelmina. There are some here who think our Queen should follow suit. She is after all a dozen years older than Queen Beatrix, and the heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales, Duke of Rothesay, will reach pensionable age this autumn. Isn’t it only fair to him that there should be a handover?

Fairness, however, has nothing to do with it, and comparisons with the Netherlands are irrelevant. That kingdom is of comparatively recent foundation. It was only at the end of the Napoleonic Wars that it came into being, at first, and was, until 1830, joined to what is now Belgium. Before the French Revolution, the United Provinces of the Netherlands (which didn’t include modern Belgium) were a republic. There was a sort of president – the stadtholder – and it had been hereditary, with interruptions, in the House of Orange and Nassau. This was the office held by William of Orange when he invaded England in 1688, and after the flight of James VII & II (William’s father-in-law and uncle) became joint monarch with his wife, Mary. However, each of the provinces had its own stadtholder, and for two periods, 1650-72 and 1702-1747, there was no stadtholder of the United Provinces.

As a consequence of this history, the Dutch monarchy has always had a certain republican tinge, and in republics it is normal for presidents at some point to relinquish office, either because they have lost an election, or are debarred, as in the US and France, from serving more than a certain number of terms of office, or simply because they choose to retire. The republican history of the Netherlands makes the abdication – retirement – of the monarch seem quite natural.

We do things differently here. Admittedly ours has long been a parliamentary monarchy, arguably at least since 1660 when an irregularly summoned English parliament voted to restore the monarchy after the 11 years experiment with a republic, and invited Charles II to return from exile. The position in Scotland was different because Charles had already been crowned King of Scots in 1650. Then, following James’s flight in 1688, the English Parliament bestowed the crown on William and Mary, and the Scots one followed suit.

It was, however, the English Act of Settlement of 1701 which firmly established the parliamentary nature of the monarchy, for it was parliament which decreed that the Crown should pass to the Elector of Hanover and his heirs, as the nearest Protestant descendants of James VI & I. The Scottish Parliament did not this time fall into line, passing its own Act of Security, which threatened the breaking of the regal union which had existed since 1603. However, the matter was resolved in the Treaty of Union of 1707.

Nevertheless, the British monarchy is a sort of hybrid. The succession is settled by parliament – and is apparently about to be changed to permit a daughter of the monarch or heir to the throne to take precedence over a younger brother. The idea of the Divine Right of Kings has been dead in the water ever since the execution of Charles I in 1649 – even though for a couple of generations afterwards, Tory political philosophers, notably Sir Robert Filmer, continued to assert its validity. Nevertheless, the Coronation rites date from mediaeval times, and the crowning of the monarch is a sacral ceremony.

Queen Elizabeth II is, by all accounts, a devout Christian, even though a majority of her people would no longer claim to be that; everything that is known, or at least believed, about her makes it clear that she regards her Coronation oath as binding, and that it committed her to reign, and serve, for the full length of her life. So, if she became incapacitated, or for any reason unable to fulfil her duties, there would be a regency, not an abdication. There is a precedent for this. In 1811, George III became mad, and parliament passed the Regency Act to enable the Prince of Wales to assume the powers and responsibilities of the Crown. There have been subsequent Regency Acts, most recently in 1937 and 1953, making provision for any eventuality.

If the Queen were to follow the Dutch example and abdicate in favour of Prince Charles, this would surely change the nature of the monarchy. It would be tantamount to saying it was a mere job like any other, one that should perhaps have a fixed retiring age. Many certainly will think this quite reasonable; they regard the monarchy as at best a convenience, a means of ensuring that we have a non-political head of state. They might argue too that there is a precedent for considering it a mere job. Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936, because the government of the day, the governments of what were then called the dominions, and the Church of England were all opposed to his wish to marry a divorced American and he believed he could not continue as king “without the support of the woman I love”.

It may well be that some day the idea that being king or queen is a job like any other will become so well established that it will seem right and proper that the monarch should retire like everybody else – well, almost everybody else, since there is at present no requirement for members of the House of Lords to retire from parliament.

That day hasn’t arrived yet. If it does, then an act of parliament will be presented to the monarch saying in effect, “time’s up in so many years”, and the monarch of the day will be required to give his or her assent. That day still looks distant – and not only because the Queen is a great deal more popular than her parliament. If it arrives, the nature of the monarchy will surely change again, and would probably adapt. Over the centuries the Crown’s capacity for re-adjustment to changed circumstances and renewal, has been remarkable.