The old story of the Queen abdicating does the rounds. She is nearly the longest-reigning British monarch, and on 9 September 2015 she reaches the 23,226 days achieved by her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. Although if we want to look at who has held the title of Queen longest, we have to look at her mother, Queen Elizabeth, on 23,850 days (as Queen Consort and then as Queen Dowager) - a point the Queen reaches on 25 May 2017.
This week saw the birth of the Queen's fourth great-grandchild, Mia Tindall. Currently 16th in line to the throne, and she will be moved down the line as more descendants of her great-uncles (the Prince of Wales, Duke of York and Earl of Wessex) and of her uncle (Peter Phillips) make their arrival into the world. But thanks to the Succession To The Crown Act 2013, she cannot be moved down the line to make way for younger brothers.
The legislative process is a little bit more complicated than "It gets Royal Assent. It becomes Law". Often there are provisions in Acts (or Bills as they are before they get Royal Assent) to say that they don't just come into effect. I noted the way that Acts are often prescriptive or permissive, and this is permissive:
5 Commencement and short title.
(1)This section comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.
(2)The other provisions of this Act come into force on such day and at such time as the Lord President of the Council may by order made by statutory instrument appoint.
(3)Different days and times may be appointed for different purposes.
(4)This Act may be cited as the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.
What is this saying? Basically that the rules it introduces - the changes in the marriage laws for descendants of George II, changes concerning marrying Roman Catholics, and removing the gender bias in succession - are on the Statute Book, but cannot be introduced until an order is made by the Lord President of the Council, who is currently Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader.
Last year, Easter was 31 March. This year it's 20 April, and next year 5 April. But the Easter Act 1928 has different ideas, defining it to be "the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April".
OK, hang on a bit. According to an Act of Parliament - that has not been repealed - Easter Day should have been on 14 April. This year it should be 13 April. Next year it should be 12 April. We seem to have a discrepancy here.
This is resolved by a clause stating when it comes into force - there has to be an Order-in-Council passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This has never happened. The Government could lay an Order before Parliament next week if it wanted to, and if both Houses passed it, then the date of Easter would be changed. Indeed, the Guardian has called for this to be done.
It is possible that Prince George of Cambridge could have 4 children, in order:
- An elder daughter
- An elder son, married to a Roman Catholic, and without children
- A younger daughter
- A younger son
As the rules stand, the fourth child, his younger son, would be the heir after him. And even though the Succession to the Crown Act has been passed, the younger son would still be the heir. Following on this example, we could have the situation 80 years down the line, where a historian digs out the fact that in 2013 Parliament passed a law that would make the elder daughter George VII's heir, but that the Order to put it into effect was never issued.
The reasons for waiting a while are obvious - the Queen is Head of State of more than just the United Kingdom, and the Government is sensible to avoid the possibility of the rules of succession being changed in some of her realms and not others. Hence, wait till all the other countries she is Head of State of have completed their legislative processes before issuing the Order.
If you read some of the more excitable Daily Mail commentators, then something comes across. It was an attempt by Brussels to Europeanise the monarchy. It was there to keep the Liberal Democrats on board. And I'll come back to that in a bit.
Since the Union of Crowns, Parliament has removed reigning monarchs on 3 occasions. Charles I was found guilty of treason and executed. James VII was deemed to have abdicated his duties and removed - with Parliament deciding it had the right to select new monarchs and draw up rules for the order of succession, who could be debarred from becoming monarch etc. There was no Hanoverian army marching in to seize power - simply Parliament drew up rules which led to the Hanovers becoming next in line after Queen Anne.
The third removal is more recent - and was done by His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act 1936 removing Edward VIII. While in Johnny English, the Queen's abdication - the result of someone putting a gun to a corgi's head and telling her to sign it - is something the Prime Minister learns about after the event, in real life there needs to be an Act of Parliament.
The pattern there was on 10 December, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, read to the House of Commons a statement from Edward stating he intended to abdicate, and there was a debate, while Edward Wood, the Chancellor of Oxford University (who was in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords), read out the same statement to the House of Lords. And the following day, the Bill completed its passage and gained Royal Assent.
That Act took effect immediately:
1 Effect of His Majesty's declaration of abdication
(1)Immediately upon the Royal Assent being signified to this Act the Instrument of Abdication executed by His present Majesty on the tenth day of December, nineteen hundred and thirty-six, set out in the Schedule to this Act, shall have effect, and thereupon His Majesty shall cease to be King and there shall be a demise of the Crown, and accordingly the member of the Royal Family then next in succession to the Throne shall succeed thereto and to all the rights, privileges, and dignities thereunto belonging.
Technically, there was a "Demise of the Crown", which normally happens when the reigning monarch dies.
There are other explanations for the abdication - Edward didn't do it willingly, and his broadcast afterwards had an air of petulance; the Government didn't like him as he had criticised them when Prince of Wales etc.. An important thing to take away is that Parliament is sovereign (pun intended) over who is the sovereign - it can remove, change the laws of succession etc. via an Act of Parliament.
Suppose the Queen approaches the Government with her intention to abdicate this year. What's to stop there being a quick Bill drawn up, passed, signed, and the Duchess of Edinburgh toddles off into retirement?
Something has changed since her uncle's abdication - namely the Commonwealth. Just as Clegg is waiting for the other realms to complete their legislative processes before he issues the Order that brings the new laws of succession into effect, he would have to wait for the other realms to complete their legislation removing the Queen, unless we wished to have the anomalous situation of the Queen handing over to Charles at different dates in different realms.
This process could take weeks, or months or years. And maybe Australia decides to add a republic referendum to it, which leaves various options:
- The abdication could take effect across all realms before Australia has its referendum, and Charles becomes King of Australia
- Australia votes for a republic, and the abdication takes effect between that and Inauguration Day, leaving Charles becoming King of Australia for the interim period
- Australia votes for a republic, and the abdication takes effect between that and Inauguration Day, but the legislation treats that as the Presidency falling vacant and there is a procedure for an Acting President to take over from the Queen until the first elected President takes office
- Australia votes for a republic, and the abdication takes effect on Inauguration Day, so the Queen ceases to be Head of State of all her realms on the same day
- Australia votes for a republic, Inauguration Day happens, and abdication takes effect across the Queen's remaining realms simultaneously at a later date
And remember that it would be the Lord President of the Council issuing the order that causes the Demise of the Crown and hence Charles becoming King. Consider if it were Clegg in office at this point. Given some of the reaction to a change in the succession laws which will have no impact for decades, imaging what fun papers like the Daily Mail or Daily Express would have. Drawing attention to Charles' views on the environment being more palatable to the Liberal Democrats and "Brussels". Clegg's signature on a piece of paper removing the serving Head of State being seen as the Liberal Democrats having gone too far. And if it happens under a Labour Government....
While abdication is an interesting idea, it would easily be spun out of control by sections of the media, and come across as being a politically partisan move.