A Few Words on Abdication

It’s been reported that one of the reasons King Juan Carlos I chose to abdicate is that he didn’t want his son, Prince Felipe, to end up like Prince Charles. Naturally, this has triggered renewed debate in the media over whether or not the Queen should emulate the example of her Spanish cousin. But giving up the British throne is easier said than done, and there are a number of obstacles that make it unlikely that the Queen will ever ‘retire.’

Abdication is not a constitutional norm in the United Kingdom, and the law provides no mechanism for a Sovereign to leave office voluntarily. When Edward VIII wanted to renounce the throne to marry his American hussy Wallis Simpson, Parliament had to pass a special Act to allow him to abdicate. If the Queen wished to abdicate, the same course would have to be followed, with the added complication that identical legislation would also have to be passed by most of the other Commonwealth Realms.

Edward VIII at his only State Opening of Parliament. Note the lack of a crown. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Edward VIII at his only State Opening of Parliament. Note the lack of a crown. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The international aspect was less of a problem in 1936. Back then, there were only a handful of self-governing dominions, and they could allow the British Parliament to legislate for them under the Statute of Westminster 1931. But those former dominions are now totally independent of the United Kingdom, and they cannot ‘opt-in’ to British legislation. If Lagassé and Bowden are right about the unconstitutionality of the Succession to the Throne Act 2013 (Can), any legislation to implement the Queen’s abdication in Canada would require a constitutional amendment under section 41 of the Constitution Act 1982 (i.e. it would require the agreement of the federal Parliament and the legislatures of all the provinces). Meanwhile, Australia’s federal system would present challenges of its own. So while Edward VIII’s abdication took effect quickly (he announced his decision on December 10 and the necessary legislation became law on December 11), Elizabeth II might not be so lucky. After all, her realms still haven’t implemented the changes to the law of succession that were agreed upon in 2011!

The concept of abdication also has a certain stigma attached to it in Britain. Nowadays, people tend to think of Edward VIII’s decision as a romantic one, but at the time, it looked like it might have permanently damaged the monarchy (during the Commons’ debate on the abdication, the Labour MP George Hardie claimed that it had “done more for Republicanism than 50 years’ propaganda could do”). Furthermore, the Queen Mother was convinced that the stress of being king ultimately shortened her husband’s life. With all that baggage to contend with, I think it would be personally difficult for the Queen to give up the throne, despite the fact that she’d be doing so under vastly different circumstances.

I would be highly surprised, therefore, if the Queen were to abdicate. Instead, I think we will continue to see more ‘job-sharing’ with Prince Charles as she grows older. She’ll continue to exercise the constitutional functions in person, but he’ll take on more of the social duties.


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