Abdication is dead. Long live the Queen...

When Queen Beatrix revealed last week that she is to stand down, all eyes were on Buckingham Palace. But giving up is not the British way

Share

There's been something distinctively British in our reaction to the news that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the longest-reigning Dutch monarch, will abdicate in April, passing the crown to her eldest son, Crown-Prince Willem-Alexander, who is 45 years old. For us, it was like remembering how we reacted in 1982 on hearing that Charles Forte was allowing his son Rocco to take over as chief executive of his catering chain, the Forte Group. Or how we felt in 1975 when the news broke that from now on it would be young Matthew, and not Harry Corbett who would have his hand up Sooty.

The Dutch way of doing royal things is very grown-up and relaxed, like the country's attitude to drugs, and Dutch royals may relish the fact that they don't have to grapple with all that burdensome duty, Ruritanian flummery, misery and resentment. And yet the idea of abdicating, to the British mind, is irrelevant. Shakespeare's Henry IV laments: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." Not, "Moderately uncomfortable lies the head that wears a crown, because your son can take over when you feel past it."

The very word conjures up the headmasterly phrase "abdicating one's responsibilities". The whole point is that you do it until you die, and at that mystical moment, according to Britain's unexamined constitutional theology, the essence of royalty passes to one's successor. It is a notion that has survived Britain's entirely pragmatic importing of Dutch royals in 1688.

Our royals really are riding fantastically high in the opinion of press and public right now. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and her appearance at last year's Olympics gave a turbo-charged boost to a remarkable new resurgence in popularity. Charles and Camilla are treated as a benign elderly aunt and uncle to the nation. William and Kate made Hollywood A-list status with their wedding. Even Harry is tolerated, despite his experiment with Nazi fancy dress, Las Vegas nudity, and a recent dangerous and unwise interview in which he associated fighting in Afghanistan with playing video games. He's just naughty old Harry. So it's incredible to remember how the British felt 20 years ago, at the time of the Firm's great PR plunge, when the Queen's abdication in favour of Charles – or William – was openly discussed, and republicanism was briefly fashionable in dinner-party circles.

Historians mutter that The Great Slump had its genesis further back, in Prince Edward's It's A Royal Knockout television show in 1987, in which Championship League Royals took part, but not heavy-hitters such as the Queen, Prince Philip or the Prince and Princess of Wales. The high jinks were strangely boring and undignified. Princess Anne radiated distaste for the whole proceedings, and clearly regretted agreeing to take part. Journalists tittered derisively at Edward at the press conference after; he stormed out and the press made it its business to mock the poor prince from then on.

Come the Nineties, after Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign – no feeble voluntary "abdication" for her – the royals somehow found themselves on the receiving end of a new press mood of boredom, discontent and open dislike, targeted chiefly at Britain's uninspired and anticlimactic prime minister, John Major. When Windsor Castle was damaged in a fire in 1992, Major promptly announced that taxpayers would foot the bill. The taxpayers were extremely irritated with him, and also, for the first time that anyone could remember, with the Queen herself. In that same year, Anne's marriage with Mark Phillips ended in divorce, the same year as the Duke and Duchess of York announced their separation, Sarah Ferguson's boisterous silliness having long since begun to pall with the public. Meanwhile, the rumours of Diana's desperate unhappiness were circulating and the state of their marriage was a delicious "open secret" for Britain's political and media elite. In December, their separation was announced.

It was like a batting collapse in cricket: a snowballing crisis of confidence. People were pointing out that setting a good example, upholding marriage and just toughly getting on with it were part of the royals' raison d'être. The year 1992 was also the Queen's annus horribilis and the pundits were openly canvassing the idea of passing the tarnished crown to the unblemished generation of William. This anti-royal mood found its expression a year later when the Queen was made to pay tax on her private income, an innovation which featured in no party political manifesto, but was forced on the Sovereign from below – a remarkable, sub-revolutionary moment in British history.

Even after that, The Great Slump did not end. In 1997, when Princess Diana died in Paris, the press whipped up a storm of resentment at the Queen's non-appearance in public, and the colossal outpouring of public grief was widely considered a rebuke to the Royal Family's apparent hard-heartedness.

But at that point, the storm broke and the hysteria subsided. William and Harry grew up; Charles and Camilla entered a sensible arrangement and, most importantly of all, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh soldiered on.

There was no more talk of abdication. This, I think, is because memories are still long and people associate the whole thing with the 1936 crisis, when Edward VIII renounced the throne so that he could marry the twice-divorced Mrs Wallis Simpson. There is still a sizeable strand of opinion which has never quite accepted the tragi-romantic gloss that has been put on this strange prewar episode in a thousand books and movies. On the contrary, sincere as Edward's feelings were, the "abdication" threat could simply have been a misjudged piece of brinkmanship, like Lord Randolph Churchill's legendary and cataclysmic resignation from Salisbury's cabinet in 1886. It was a threat, and a gesture, from which there was no turning back.

From then on, the public associated royal duty with unglamorous Bertie and Elizabeth, with picking up the pieces, clearing up the mess and standing tough against the Nazi war machine, whose leader had been photographed greeting the abdicated Duke and the Duchess of Windsor in 1937.

The wartime flavour of non-abdication is something I learnt more about while researching my novel Night of Triumph, set over a single night – VE night – and based on the true story of how Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were allowed for the first and only time in their lives to leave the palace grounds and to mingle incognito with the partying crowds. To "abdicate" – for a very, very short space of time.

We can't know exactly who and what they encountered, while rubbing shoulders with the people. Official histories recount that the experience was pleasant and, in fact, euphoric. I can well believe it. But I wonder if it wasn't a little disturbing as well. Who knows what they experienced in this tiny night of "abdication"? Was it a little scary?

Whatever the truth, nearly 70 years on, the British Royal Family is supremely popular, hardcore non-abdicators who don't get to retire or hand over the job to someone else. So the Dutch royals' leasehold arrangement must look rather enviable. And very exotic.

Peter Bradshaw is film critic of 'The Guardian'. 'Night of Triumph' is out now (Duckworth Overlook, £12.99)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
More From
Peter Bradshaw
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

MFL TEACHER, SUPPLY VACANCY, LOVELY SITTINGBOURNE SCHOOL

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: The Job We are currently recruit...

NQT Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Crawley: Randstad Education can provide you wit...

MATHS TEACHER, PERMANENT VACANCY, TONBRIDGE SCHOOL

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad Education is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

iOS 8 is full of shiny new features - but it's terrible news for app developers

Ed Rex
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week