Prince Charles will never have that opportunity. Prince Charles decided some time ago that, if he was to make a mark upon history, it would be as Prince of Wales.
The public have not made the same imaginative leap, unsure quite what sort of a figure they would like to occupy the role.
Prince Charles’s predicament is not unique: both George IV and Edward VII were nearly 60 by the time they inherited the throne. With their reputations for gluttony and loose living, neither provided a happy precedent, although there is consolation in Edward VII, who on becoming king metamorphosed from dissolute apprentice into likeable-enough “grandfather to the nation”.
Because the Queen believes she has made a promise to God, her close associates say there is no prospect of her abdicating. Perhaps, if she became very ill, she might reconsider her position. More likely is that her son would be asked to discharge the role of regent – as the future George IV did. Periodically it is suggested that Prince Charles might get sick of waiting for that moment, and decide to retire from the succession.
As the law stands, when the monarch dies, the heir succeeds to the throne. There is no more to it than that. For him to “retire”, therefore, would require a bill to pass through parliament beforehand.
To be sure of doing so, it would need the support of the British government. Relevant Commonwealth governments would also have to give their consent. The bill would then have to be signed into law by the Queen. Is it really credible?
Even if the Prince of Wales wanted to cut himself out of the succession – and his mother agreed – there are obvious problems. If the crown was not going to be passed on through a politically neutral process like boring old inheritance, why assume that it could merely skip a generation and be given instead to Prince William?
Why should not politicians and people express an opinion on who else might get the position instead? Of course, if Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, were to decide to become a Roman Catholic, that would save everyone a lot of trouble because he would be automatically disqualified from the succession. But in neither case would it finish the monarchy. Whatever becomes of the immediate succession, it looks as if the institution is here to stay.
But, for all its comforts, who would want the position? Of course Prince Charles is indulged. But then so are many other people, and they live neither in the public eye nor in the knowledge that any one of their staff might earn large sums of money by exposing their all-too-human failings to the newspapers. If the same level of life-long fascination were to attach to a presidency (which of course it would not, for obvious reasons) there’d be few candidates for the job.
The secret weapon of monarchy is not secret at all. It is simply its familiarity. Queen Elizabeth went from vulnerable young woman to doughty grandmother of the nation before her subjects’ eyes. Her son’s progression from gawky schoolboy through student prince to naval commander, to “callous husband” and then to eccentric middle age has been even more public.
The role he vacated as dashing prince is now taken by his sons, who as already noted have become the focus of attention and emotional engagement. It is quite a show upon which to draw down the curtain. For most of the time the British royal family is not now, nor has it been for generations, spectacular.
It is hard even to describe it as much fun. It reflects the people of Britain. But that, of course, is its strength. Angry-browed ideologues may scorch their words across the pages of periodicals. But they will not incite the masses to revolution, because in the endlessly dutiful old queen they see nothing to revolt against. People want inspiration, but if they cannot have inspiration, they’ll settle for certainty, constancy and devotion.
Queen Elizabeth’s long reign is now in its twilight years. (If she lives as long as her mother, a long twilight.) It has seen some of the greatest social changes in the nation’s history. Like the nation, the institution of monarchy has emerged with its grandeur diminished. But it is still there.
Those who seek a more democratically legitimate form of government recognised long ago that challenging Elizabeth II was a waste of time. Hers may not have been the most dramatic or glorious reign in the life of Britain. But no-one can question her dedication or conviction.
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Most of all, she has endured. Although it was definitely not what was intended, in an unexpected way the fact that so many of the marriages of Elizabeth’s family have not worked may have brought it closer to the people, since so many of them have had a similar experience.
The end of her reign will, in the cliche, mark the end of an era. The governments of several Commonwealth countries have certainly indicated privately that she will be their last monarch. They have too much respect for the queen to cast her aside. But they are underwhelmed by Prince Charles and feel that choosing their own head of state represents a long overdue mark of maturity.
It will not happen in Britain. In societies which have increasingly little sense of their own history, kings and queens provide some connection with the past. They are easily understood. They keep the position of head of state out of the hands of those who want it just to gratify their ambition. Merely because they occupy the role for the whole of their lives, the individuals become more familiar to us than here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians, and, unlike politicians, they do not try to force their views upon us. They allow the notion of the state to be expressed through a clearly fallible individual instead of binding it up in flags, anthems, ideologies and simple-minded slogans about national destiny.
Certainly, if we were devising a system of government for the 21st century we should not come up with what we have now. The arrangements are antique, undemocratic and illogical. But monarchies do not function by logic.
If they work, they do so by appealing to other instincts, of history, emotion, imagination and mythology, and we have to acknowledge that many of the most stable societies in Europe are monarchies, while some of the most unstable and corrupt have presidents. It would theoretically be possible to pull one thread out of the rug woven by history (who knows what else might then unravel).
We could easily pack all of them off to live out their lives in harmless eccentricity on some organically managed rural estate. But why bother?