As first published by The Guardian in May 2022
This moment was always going to come.
Due to her failing health, Queen Elizabeth II was not present at yesterday’s state opening of parliament – arguably her most important ceremonial performance in the calendar year. Last night’s palace press release explaining that Prince Charles would stand in for his mother follows a pattern of recent similar announcements, the subtext of which is clear: the Queen is not well enough to fulfil the role expected of her.
Mounting health problems have plagued the Queen since she unexpectedly pulled out of last year’s Remembrance Sunday service having sprained her back. Her difficulties with physical mobility have persisted and she has described publicly how her Covid-19 infection in February left her “tired and exhausted”. Looking ahead to a busy summer of platinum jubilee events, one wonders whether she will be well enough to join in the celebrations.
The British monarchy has to face up to some difficult questions as to what comes next. The word “abdication” has been taboo in the House of Windsor ever since Edward VIII gave up his role as king in 1936 to marry the woman he loved. Indeed, his dereliction of duty exists in direct contrast with the public image the Queen has carefully crafted as the nation’s leading public servant over more than 70 years.
Other European royal families have embraced abdication as a positive way of passing on the responsibilities of monarchy to the next generation. In the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, abdication has meant reinvention. The older generation has been allowed to peacefully retire; the young have taken over and given their monarchies a much-needed burst of energy and imagination.
In Britain the situation has been different. Rather than abdicate, the Queen had sought to gently retreat from her public duties. Over the past decade, honours investitures, royal tours and other parts of the monarch’s routine have been delegated to members of her family. Now the Queen’s withdrawal from public life has been hastened by medical problems, and the Prince of Wales finds himself regent in all but name.
On Tuesday in a packed House of Lords, Prince Charles was flanked by his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, and his eldest son and heir, the Duke of Cambridge, as he read out the Queen’s speech. Through this choreography there was a clear emphasis on dynastic continuity. The sovereign was symbolically (if not physically) present, not only through her kin, but also through the large imperial state crown that was perched on a small table in front of Prince Charles. It was also clear what the monarchy will look like without the Queen: the focus of the “slimmed down” monarchy will be the direct line of succession.
This annual speech is not actually written by the Queen or a member of her family. Rather, it is prepared by government officials and sets out the current administration’s legislative agenda for the next parliamentary session. There were few surprises in terms of content, with an emphasis on post-Covid economic recovery, the government’s “levelling up” programme and its constitutional plans now the UK has left the European Union.
Prince Charles did exactly what was required of him. He carefully read out the government’s agenda for the year ahead in just less than nine minutes. He did not stop or falter. There were almost certainly things contained in the speech that he disagrees with – for example, it was notably light on plans for the UK’s climate strategy. But as constitutional monarch he cannot and must not contest government policy.
This requirement to bite one’s tongue has been difficult for the Prince of Wales and he has sometimes resorted to backdoor channels in order to put pressure on government officials to support issues that matter to him. Fortunately for the heir to the throne, the issue closest to his heart – the need to live in harmony with the natural world – now commands deep, consensual support among public and politicians alike. Indeed, Prince Charles has enjoyed something of a return to popularity over the past five years, not least because of his image as the environmentalist king-in-waiting.
We can be sure that his passion for the natural world will be the defining theme of his reign when the time comes for him to succeed his mother as monarch. The climate crisis is not going away. The main risk here is that fringe politicians on the right successfully challenge the current government’s plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions, at which point the issue of climate strategy becomes politically contentious and therefore something royalty must not discuss.
In the meantime, we can expect to see more and more of Prince Charles and less and less of the Queen, as one reign steadily draws to a close and a new reign begins.
Featured image credit: Prince Charles, July 2012. Dan Marsh. CC.2.0 via Wikimedia Commons