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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
More From
Peter Bradshaw
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Finance Assistant - Automotive

£15500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: General Maintenance Person - Automotive

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Meeter-Greeter - Automotive

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: Course Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Course Manager is required to join a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

A promised 'women's museum' opens as a Jack the Ripper exhibit tonight, and I won't take it lying down

Becky Warnock
A protester wears a golden mask and Romanian flag during a demonstration in Bucharest against Gabriel Resources Rosia Montana gold and silver project  

Corporate vampires have tried to suck $4 billion out of Romania, and with TTIP the UK could be next

Kevin Smith
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen