by The Laird o’Thistle (Special Edition)
© Unofficial Royalty 2022
I believe that this is the first time that I have been asked by the staff of Unofficial Royalty to address a particular topic, and not a small one at that. On Tuesday, 10 May 2022, Prince Charles presided at the State Opening of the new session of the U.K. Parliament in the Queen’s behalf. It was announced the previous day that the Queen, upon the advice of her doctors, had “reluctantly decided not to attend” the State Opening due to the “episodic mobility problems” that have limited her activities since early last autumn. In an unprecedented, but entirely legitimate and appropriate move, she issued “Letters Patent” designating Prince Charles and Prince William as “Counsellors of State” to act in her behalf, with Prince Charles taking the lead. Charles and William did so on Tuesday, also accompanied by Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
All of this was done under provisions of the 1937 Regency Act, which was adopted following the Accession of George VI as a contingency for what would happen if he were to die before Princess Elizabeth came of age. (The Act was subsequently updated in 1946 and 1953; and the need for further revisions is currently being discussed. See note.) The pertinent section invoked for Tuesday’s State Opening reads as follows:
[Section 6] Power to delegate royal functions to Counsellors of State.
(1) In the event of illness not amounting to such infirmity of mind or body as is mentioned in section two of this Act, or of absence or intended absence from the United Kingdom, the Sovereign may, in order to prevent delay or difficulty in the despatch of public business, by Letters Patent under the Great Seal, delegate, for the period of that illness or absence, to Counsellors of State such of the royal functions as may be specified in the Letters Patent, and may in like manner revoke or vary any such delegation.
With two Counsellors of State being required, at least implicitly and by precedent, Prince William was called upon to accompany his father in this instance. Though some are questioning whether, in the Queen’s absence, it was actually a “State Opening” (versus simply an “Opening”), I would argue that it was… precisely due to H.M.’s invoking of the provisions of Section 6. This was further reinforced by the symbolic inclusion of the Imperial State Crown in the ceremony… placed on a small table on the very spot where H.M.’s throne usually stands.
So much for the facts of what occurred, and why. The question raised anew by it all concerns the degree to which we are seeing the emergence of a sort of “dual monarchy” in which Prince Charles and Camilla become the “public face” of the Crown, while the Queen… still the Sovereign… retreats more and more from public view. This, I think, is increasingly the case, with Prince Charles and Camilla being assisted by Prince William and Katherine, the Princess Royal, and Prince Edward and Sophie. (Although still officially active, the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent, and Princess Alexandra, are increasingly stepping back and “aging out” of their longtime service as “working” royals.) The question behind the question is whether this de facto situation may… sooner or later… shift to an official (de jure) designation.
My layperson’s read of the Regency Act is that it does not provide for the possibility of a co-Regency shared by the Queen and Prince Charles. Nor would the plural wording allow Prince Charles to be solely designated as Counsellor of State without a second Counsellor. Either would, I think, require a revision by Parliament of the legislation.
The focus then shifts to the Queen, and what she is willing to do? By all accounts she has, always and still, totally ruled out the idea of abdication. (One wonders if the future Charles III may hold a different attitude when his turn comes.) By all accounts the Queen is still fully compos mentis (i.e., sound of mind, memory, and understanding), and thus able to do the “desk job” of monarchy, as it were. The issues at hand are her great age, and her apparent physical disability to attend public events going forward.
She’s now at the age where Prince Philip chose to withdraw from public duties. There was talk in the press at the time that she might eventually follow suit. But, as recently as her statement released for the 70th anniversary of her Accession, it is clear that she takes her 1947 pledge that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, will be devoted to your service” VERY seriously. Her Coronation Oath, likewise. The thing that I wonder about, however, is whether she may be at, or near, the point at which that service needs to become vicarious? When does she reach the point at which her devotion to service itself requires her to step further back, if not away?
As in most families, this is probably not something that her family feel they can broach with their mother/grandmother, at least not yet. At some point her U.K. and Commonwealth governments may feel the need to raise the question. The U.K. press has begun making some noises on the topic in recent months. My own gut is telling me that once we get beyond the official Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June, something may significantly shift over the summer. Whether and how that involves some sort of more official and permanent “viceregal” role for Prince Charles will emerge.
All that being said, the one thing that I am absolutely confident about is that Queen Elizabeth II will continue to do her conscientious best in her stewardship of the Crown and her service to the peoples of the U.K. and the Commonwealth to her life’s end, in whatever form that takes. That is her never-wavering sacred trust.
Ken Cuthbertson, the Laird o’ Thistle
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