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Opinion Queen Elizabeth has done enough: The case for abdication

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II watches a military ceremony to mark her official birthday at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, in June 2021. (Chris Jackson/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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Queen Elizabeth II has lately been making a case for her own abdication.

The 96-year-old queen’s absence from the state opening of Parliament this week — owing to what Buckingham Palace gently referred to as “mobility problems” — is just the latest high-profile absence of the once-unstoppable queen. A U.K. tabloid reported last month that the queen’s aides plan to confirm her attendance at future events only a few hours before. When she is present, her advancing age is being accommodated: At a March service honoring her late husband, Prince Philip, she entered Westminster Abbey through a side door to avoid walking the church’s lengthy nave.

This all speaks to more than just someone’s aversion to being seen in a wheelchair. The queen’s longevity and dedication to duty have become her adversary. As an American, I have no stake in the outcome. But as a longtime royal watcher, I see why it would be good for her, and her successors, if she steps aside.

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Yes, the prospect of abdication is as foreign to this queen as taking the Tube or simply standing in line. As a child, Elizabeth was raised to prioritize duty over all else, effectively repudiating the choice her uncle King Edward VIII made in 1936. When she turned 21, she famously declared that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Little did she know. A service to mark Elizabeth’s 70-year reign will be held at St. Paul’s Cathedral next month. She’s already fulfilled her promise of a lifetime of service. No one would fault her for stepping aside now. If anything, she’d be around to enjoy the praise for her decades of uncomplaining, hand-waving, national symbolism. (Elizabeth could transfer her powers to her son, in what’s called a regency, but that is likely as repellent to this queen as abdication.) The question is what will her reign become if she is not well enough to actually be seen — even in ceremonial roles?

Some considerations are simply human: When Philip died last April, age 99, he had retired from royal duties more than four years before. The queen recognized that her spouse had earned a rest. How satisfying might it have been if both had stepped away from public life and had more time together in his final years? The queen has devoted her life to her work, but her existence as monarch and head of state is also singularly lonely. Almost all of the loved ones she grew old with have passed away. Stepping down could give her a few years of relative normality, perhaps filled with the dogs, horses and other elements of country living she enjoys.

Stepping aside would also hurry her relatives into realizing that they’re running out of time to justify their subsidized existence. Already there are ample signs that the royal family is tone-deaf to questions about its relevance. Consider the negative reception that greeted Prince William and his wife in March when they visited the Caribbean in honor of the queen’s Platinum Jubilee. In Belize, the couple skipped their first planned stop amid protests by locals. In Jamaica, the prime minister announced that the country desires “full political independence.” In the Bahamas, a committee on reparations demanded a formal apology. Despite widespread criticism of the tour, little in the royal playbook appeared to have changed when the queen’s youngest son, Edward, and his wife, Sophie, traveled to the region in April — and also faced a backlash.

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Although the queen’s long reign has provided stability during her relatives’ many and varied scandals, future generations of Windsors lack the goodwill she has banked. It is only a matter of time before more people demand a monarch who reflects modern life and can make an affirmative case for maintaining a royal family in the 21st century.

The queen is already focused on succession. She has spoken up on sensitive issues to quash debates that could mar her eldest son’s accession, advocating that Prince Charles be the next Commonwealth leader and that his wife, Camilla, be known as queen. Her experience gives her credibility that others lack to propose significant changes, such as limiting future reigns. After the jubilee celebrations next month, Elizabeth could step aside as part of a royal modernization, helping to launch her son’s kingship.

As age inhibits her further, she does her family, and herself, little good by waiting.