It’s never been the Queen’s style to usher in change in a big, noticeable way. Instead, she has always been a slow and steady personality who is keen enough to recognize early on any signs that indicate when an adjustment may be needed. Almost imperceptibly over the past few years, the Queen has been steadily making changes by sharing her workload of foreign tours and domestic engagements with other members of the royal family. Last year’s Golden Jubilee was the most visible sign of this trend to date, with many of the younger royals traveling across the globe to represent the Queen during the celebrations. Another example is the increasing number of engagements where the Queen is accompanied by either the Duchess of Cornwall or the Duchess of Cambridge (or both). Last week, Buckingham Palace sent out the clearest signal yet that the gradual transition of power from the Queen to the younger generation of royals, and especially the Prince of Wales, is starting to gain momentum.
After not attending for 17 years, the announcement that the Prince of Wales would accompany the Queen and Prince Philip to the State Opening of Parliament generated much interest. As Prince of Wales, it is not surprising that Charles would attend this type of function to help prepare for his future role. The news that Camilla would accompany him raised eyebrows since there is much ambivalence about the prospect of a Queen Camilla. Walking beside her royal in-laws in a white silk gown, formal gloves and a tiara that originally belonged to the Queen Mother, Camilla looked very much like a future Queen-in-waiting. Granted, the Duchess’ good works for both the monarchy and her charities over the past few years has helped her win the hearts of a once hostile public. While it may be that some need more time to accept the idea of a Queen Camilla, The Guardian recognized a significant shift had taken place: “The image of Charles and Camilla, attired in full ceremonial and sitting within feet of the thrones in the House of Lords, is momentous and symbolic.” This very public gesture was the Queen’s clearest endorsement yet of her support of the Prince of Wales as the future King, and also perhaps of the Duchess of Cornwall as the future Queen.
There was a very subtle second signal during the State Opening of Parliament. Typically, at the conclusion of her speech, the Queen provides specifics about upcoming engagements and foreign tours she will undertake on behalf of the government. This year’s speech did not contain these details, indicating either that the Queen’s calendar is still to be decided or that future trips will be undertaken by other members of the royal family. While Buckingham Palace insists the 87-year-old Queen and her 92-year-old spouse are healthy enough for long-haul foreign travel, it is understandable that they would want to start to slow down, especially after Philip’s three hospitalizations in 2012.
The last, and biggest, revelation last week was that the Queen would not attend this year’s meeting of the heads of the Commonwealth in Sri Lanka in November. Instead, Prince Charles will represent the Queen at the meeting.
The Queen’s attendance at every meeting over the past 40 years has repeatedly demonstrated her firm belief that Commonwealth-related responsibilities are some of the most important of her reign. This belief is so strong that earlier this year— during the Queen’s recovery from a bad bout of gastroenteritis — she cancelled a majority of her engagements but managed to keep her appointment to sign the new Commonwealth Charter. Since her role as head of the Commonwealth is mostly symbolic, the Queen’s relationship with the Commonwealth and its leaders is very different from her relationship with the British government. Many of the Commonwealth leaders request private meetings during the conference where they can ask the Queen’s advice on a variety of topics, which has led Prince Philip to describe the Queen as the “Commonwealth psychotherapist”.
Many Commonwealth leaders are already voicing their support for Prince Charles to become head of the Commonwealth once he becomes King. During the Charter signing ceremony, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma offered his support to Prince Charles when he spoke of a “foundation of friendship and continuity” in the association between the Commonwealth and the royal family. The Queen responded: “I am grateful to you, Mr. Secretary-General, for your kind and generous sentiments, and for your thoughtful words about the link between the Crown and the Commonwealth and its enduring value.” Later in March, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered her support during a tribute to the Queen: “For Australia’s part, I am sure the Queen’s successor as monarch will one day serve as head of Commonwealth with the same distinction as Her Majesty has done.”
Since the Queen would never consider abdication like her Dutch counterpart, this temporary “job sharing” arrangement with the Prince of Wales may be a good solution for her and the monarchy. With a gradual shifting of duties from the sovereign to the Prince of Wales and other younger royals, especially the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Queen can slowly reduce her public duties. By the time the rest of us figure out what has happened, the transition will appear to have been seamless, and as Time magazine put it, Charles’ “feet will already be under the desk”.