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

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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)

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