21 June 2011

Will the Queen Retire at 90?

I have no idea, but it is something to speculate about in an idle moment. Prince Philip was 90 last week (17 June), and told the BBC that he is "winding down" and reducing his workload as a senior member of the royal family. In an interview with the BBC's Fiona Bruce, the Queen's husband said: "I reckon I've done my bit." So might the Queen follow his example after her 90th birthday in April 2016?

Usually when the possibility of the Queen’s standing down is discussed, the idea is quickly ruled out on the grounds of the A-word. Certainly the Abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 represented a major crisis for the Royal Family at the time, but for most people who have seen The King’s Speech this year, Edward was as historically remote as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown. Very few people would begrudge the Queen’s stepping down after so many years of service, or would now regard it as being constitutionally destabilising. Although it might take a little time and effort to induce popular enthusiasm for Charles’ accession, if his sons were to make their support clear any public misgivings would probably soon disappear. All the better if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have produced an heir by 2016.

There might be political attractions too. Bruce Anderson in the FT recently described David Cameron as a man, “Absolute in his own intellectual self-confidence”. So presumably the PM is certain that coalition policies will lead to the British economy being well on the way to recovery by 2015. If so, in the election due that year the country could be expected to return a Conservative government. The PM at the time of the last Coronation, also towards the end of a period of enforced austerity, was Winston Churchill. David Kynaston in Family Britain 1951-1957 remarks (page 305) that the Coronation and the preceding period of anticipation “were not comfortable days for the British left, or indeed the progressive intelligentsia as a whole”. He goes on to quote Barbara Castle: “Winston has just introduced her [the Queen] on the radio, exploiting the romantic mood of the moment to its fruitiest uttermost.” Churchill left government two years later at the age of 80. If Cameron were to stand down in 2017, probably in favour of George Osborne, he would be only 51. But like Tony Blair he would then have time to earn a substantial amount, and he would be able to remove his children from Downing Street before their teenage years. SEE ADDENDUM 22 JUNE BELOW.

Some statistics provide another perspective. The chart below shows the lengths of the reigns of the Queen’s 10 predecessors (excluding Edward VIII) plotted against their age at accession. The data points for the Queen (QE2) and the future King Charles (C3) assume that they leave the throne at the age of 90 (ignoring actuarial considerations). Most sovereigns have been crowned in middle age or later, with only the two Queens and George III (G3) acceding under the age of 30. Queen Victoria (QV) was on the throne for more than 63 years, a record which the Queen will overtake by the end of 2015. If Charles were to accede in 2016, and follow the precedent set by his mother of retiring at 90, he would have reigned for over 15 years, longer than his grandfather and four other sovereigns in the preceding 300 years.

This all seems so neat that it is most unlikely to happen. The relevant non-conjectural data is tabulated below.

Beware of the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar during the reign of George II!

ADDENDUM 22 JUNE: In his Daily Telegraph blog today, Benedict Brogan, who is reputedly close to Number 10, makes a good case for Boris Johnson being the other likely successor to David Cameron.  Johnson’s intimesexpect Mr Cameron to step aside some time in a second term to pursue other interests.”

This post still gets the occasional hit, so I should draw the attention of anyone who reads this far to the following. The Queen gave a speech to Parliament today to mark her 60 years on the throne. She said:
I have been privileged to witness some of that [nearly a thousand years of British] history and, with the support of my family, rededicate myself to the service of our great country and its people now and in the years to come.

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