The Queen won’t abdicate but she might still retire
The beauty of the Commonwealth lies in its pointlessness. Far from being a hindrance, the fact that it doesn’t have a purpose is a feature, not a bug. No-one is being swept along by ‘the Project’ and rarely does anyone expect anything from the two-yearly get-togethers – and that lack of clear agenda, combined with an informal atmosphere with leaders parted from advisors and officials, is what can create the space to nudge international discussions on one topic or another in a positive way – such as the focus today on addressing poor vision among the world’s poor. The meetings are in that sense rather like a working funeral, except without the need for a death.
This one, as well as the generalised statements of intent, did take a decision: to appoint the Prince of Wales as its next Head, in due course – an ambiguity we’ll come back to. Such a decision was necessary because the role isn’t officially hereditary: a technical nicety the media have fixed on while ignoring two more important aspects of the story. Firstly, the timing. There was no need to appoint Charles (or anyone) today. With most jobs, the normal process is to wait for a vacancy and then decide who’ll fill it. The variance from that norm here is worth commenting upon. And secondly, the Queen herself openly lobbied for the role to remain tied to the crown. When someone who for over sixty years has studiously avoided any public political involvement chooses to proactively engage in a political process, we should take notice.
In fact, the tie to the Crown might not be quite so tight. This is where it might get intriguing. I wonder whether she might be planning on retiring from the Headship of the Commonwealth. While it is undoubtedly a role that means a lot to her, it’s also one that she’s not really able to physically fulfil. She hasn’t made an overseas visit since 2015 (to Malta) and is unlikely to do so again. While she can – and does – send her children and grandchildren abroad to represent her, it’s not quite the same.
Now that the succession as Head of the Commonwealth has been assured – and because that role isn’t officially tied to the Crown, so could be given up by her without it impinging on her coronation vows – she could stand down and formally hand it over, while still remaining queen.
To do so would obviously be a huge marker in a transition process. Yet that’s a process that’s been underway for some time and with good reason. Today is the queen’s 92nd birthday. It’s easy for our familiarity with her on our TV screens and internet pages to obscure that fact but she is a very old lady whose job requires her to work hard. Certainly, she has a lot of support in her duties and in her private life, and she seems in good physical and mental shape. Even so, she’s at an age where the average person has long since retired. Indeed, she’s at an age where the average person has been ten years dead.
The general assumption is that retirement is not an option: her coronation oath is literally sacrosanct, as, to almost the same degree, is the promise she made on turning 21 to devote her whole life to the people of Britain and the Commonwealth. However, that devotion can take a number of forms and none of her vows explicitly prevent her from handing standing aside, should the burdens of office become too great. Indeed, arguably, they could be said to require it.
We are not at that point now but I do think plans might be being put in place to at least make it an option in the future. After all, if Prince Philip can retire, and if several monarchs from across the world, from Spain to Japan, can do so, why not her too?
What won’t be on the table is abdication. Apart from the connotations with Edward VIII, there would be too much of a problem with Commonwealth countries: each one would require an Act of Parliament to alter the succession in that manner. By contrast, the ‘soft retirement’ option of a regency need only affect Britain: the queen’s role is carried out in all her other realms by the relevant governor-general, something which could happily continue irrespective of her personal status. There are, of course, negative associations both with a regency and a Prince Regent too but events would overcome the former while the latter title need not be used.
Whether or not such an arrangement comes about, it seems clear that the transition of royal duties is accelerating. When the next CHOGM takes place in Rwanda in 2020, I would not be at all surprised to see Prince Charles open it as Head of the Commonwealth, irrespective of whether he is yet king or not.