Felipe VI was sworn in as King of Spain yesterday after his father, Juan Carlos, officially abdicated from the throne on Wednesday. The move has some British royal watchers hoping that perhaps HM Queen Elizabeth II or Prince Charles might follow suit, as the public are far more excited about telegenic Prince William and Kate Middleton than about 65-year-old Charles. But don’t hold your breath.
The littlest heir to the British throne also warmed monarchists’ hearts this week as he took his first steps, resplendent in a pink jumpsuit. But if the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William are as long-lived as the Queen Mother (who died in 2002, aged 101), we could be waiting almost 70 years for good king George.
Former king Juan Carlos announced he would abdicate early this month: “A younger generation deserves to step into the front line.”
Juan Carlos is the third in a recent series of long-serving European monarchs to abdicate in favour of their heirs apparent.
Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands began the trend on April 30, 2013, passing the torch to her son Willem-Alexander. Only a few months later on July 21 last year, King Albert II of Belgium abdicated in favour of his son, Philippe, citing failing health.
Aged 88, and with 62 years on the throne under her belt, Queen Elizabeth II would be forgiven for kicking back with the corgis and enjoying her twilight years. Yet from all the evidence, it doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere.
“You’re not allowed to be a quitter in the house of Windsor,” said royal expert Dr Giselle Bastin from Flinders University.
“The European royal houses have more of a tradition of stepping down when they want to opposed to when they die … Queen Elizabeth II believes very strongly in her coronation oath, which was to serve with duty for the rest of her life, and she sees that as a lifelong job, I imagine,” Bastin told Crikey.
The one blight on the clean sheets of the British monarchy is Queen Liz’s uncle King Edward VIII, who infamously abdicated in 1936 to marry twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. But Edward had not yet had his coronation, so he never got the chance to make the same solemn oath before he gave up the throne after less than a year.
In contrast, other European houses have a far more liberal attitude towards abdication. Only two Dutch monarchs have died on the throne. Queen Juliana and Queen Wilhelmina both abdicated, aged 71 and 68 respectively, as did King William I. Two out of six Belgian Kings have abdicated. Albert II follows the example set by his father Leopold III, who abdicated in 1951. Elsewhere, Denmark’s royal family has seen one abdication, while Sweden has had three.
The latest abdications occurred for a number of reasons. Albert II pointed to his failing health, while it seemed Beatrix simply chose the opportune moment. Juan Carlos faced growing unpopularity — not least due to an opulent elephant hunt in Botswana during the height of his country’s recession in 2012. The fact he was the honorary president of Spain’s World Wildlife Fund at the time probably didn’t help.
For a British precedent, Bastin points to Edward VII, who only had a decade on the throne after Victoria’s death. “This idea that you put in the popular person is not something that is part of their brand. They see it as an inherited role, and … they are quite obsessed by hierarchical ordering,” she told Crikey.
If Queen Elizabeth II were to abdicate, the decision would set in motion constitutional processes created for the benefit of her uncle. It requires a properly signed and witnessed instrument of abdication, followed by parliamentary legislation recognising and ratifying the abdication. As British laws only become effective once the monarch gives royal assent, the Queen would have to then sign off on her own abdication, at which stage she would be removed and the crown would pass to Charles.
Australia’s Parliament would have to sign off approval as well. Under the 1931 Statute of Westminster, the singular crown became one head of state for each dominion grouped as the British Commonwealth, so Elizabeth II would remain our Queen until similar legislation was passed here and approved by the Governor-General.