The British, it has been said, like their monarchs either young and glamorous, or old and venerable. As the longest-lived of all our kings and queens, Elizabeth II has had the opportunity to experience the public enthusiasm and warmth which comes with both. The national celebrations of her Diamond Jubilee last year provided evidence beyond doubt that she was once again at the centre of public life, something which will doubtless be reconfirmed by this month’s marking of the 60th anniversary of her Coronation. She is now virtually beyond personal criticism, and perhaps more importantly, the monarchy itself, which 15 years ago was looking distinctly mortal, is once again in robust health.
Republicanism, never much of a serious political creed in Britain but one which made fashionable headway during the Blair years, is once again back in its box. But this is not to say that all threats to the continuation of the monarchy have been removed. Its existence could, before this century is out, be thrown into serious doubt by another social development which supporters of the hereditary principle never really took into consideration, because for centuries they didn’t have to: our greatly increased life expectancy.
When the Queen emerged from Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, amid much euphoric talk of a new Elizabethan Age, she was just 27. Her father, George VI, had died at 56, an age we would now consider outrageously premature. But however tragic the personal loss, the King’s early death had the effect of ensuring that the institution was revitalised for the postwar period. It is worth pondering what the picture would have been had he lived even until 80, or indeed, like his widow, for a full century: Elizabeth II would have ascended to the throne after retirement age.
This is, of course, already the reality for the current Prince of Wales. If Charles were to succeed in, say, a decade’s time and reign for 20 years, King William V will already be over 60 when he ascends to the throne. His first child, who is due next month, would already be 30, which would mean, in the fullness of time, another monarch of over 60. And so, barring the unexpected and the tragic, it will go on.
Every so often the abdication question raises its head in the media and is promptly dismissed. Most recently, it was aired after it was announced that the Queen would not be attending this year’s Commonwealth Conference. Prince Charles’s presence at the State Opening of Parliament further added to the speculation. One thing is certain about Elizabeth II: she will never abdicate. But perhaps Charles III (or George VII, as he may well chose to be called) will have to have a different approach, and take a cue from the Dutch, who recently saw a coronation smoothly follow an abdication. If not, the increased longevity we will all enjoy could paradoxically be the death of the monarchy.