Queen Elizabeth: What happens next?

23 February 2022

The line of succession explained

British monarchy expert and historian, Dr Cindy McCreery, unpacks the system designed to keep the monarchy running, even when the monarch is indisposed or heading into advanced old age.

Since an overnight hospital stay in October 2021 followed by a minor back injury, Queen Elizabeth has been on “light duties”. This continued when the British monarch tested positive for COVID-19 in early 2022. The Queen, who turns 96 on 21 April and is celebrating her Platinum Jubilee, is now resting at Windsor Castle. Her mobility is in question and she has cancelled a number of events, sending Prince Charles in her place.

What does this mean for the Queen and the monarchy?

Dr McCreery noted that this is a continuation of a process that began before the pandemic. In recent years the Queen has slowed down somewhat, for example, she no longer undertakes long-haul travel. During the pandemic she pivoted from in-person to mostly video meetings.

What are light duties exactly?

The Queen will still sign official documents and could hold important meetings virtually if she was well enough. But she will stay at – or close to – home. She won’t be going out into the community, meeting people or opening new wings of a hospital. Her weekly meetings with the Prime Minister will be done via phone.

How much longer do you think she will reign?

Dr McCreery says barring a sudden/serious health issue, the Queen will continue to reign for the rest of her life. While it is possible that Queen Elizabeth II might step down from her role as monarch due to old age and ill-health, she thinks this scenario is unlikely.

The Queen takes her duty very seriously, and throughout her reign has demonstrated her life-long commitment to serving the British nation and the other 14 Commonwealth Realms like Australia where she remains Head of State.

The Queen well remembers the trauma that followed the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII in 1936. This led to the reign of the Queen’s father, the Duke York, who became King George VI. The stress of this role certainly contributed to George’s early death in 1952, which brought the young Elizabeth to the throne.

Dr McCreery says the Queen now considers it crucial that the monarch sets a good example by doing their duty ‘to the end’.

It is possible that a serious health issue or simple exhaustion might change the Queen’s mind about staying on, she says. But I think the more likely scenario is that she remains in post, with Prince Charles and Prince William continuing to take on more of the day-to-day public-facing duties of monarch – which of course is excellent preparation for their own future reigns.

Image of Windsor Castle

Queen Elizabeth is resting in Windsor Castle under the care of the royal physician.  Image: Pixabay

If she does need to rest and stop all official duties, what happens then?

This has been anticipated by the Regency Act of 1937 and subsequent legislation, Dr McCreery says. When Elizabeth’s father George VI unexpectedly came to the throne on the abdication of his brother Edward VIII in 1936, the new monarch’s heir, Elizabeth, was under 18. Parliament realised the need to provide clarity on what should happen if the monarch could not perform their duty due to incapacity or youth, and established the rules that remain in place today.

What is the Regency Act exactly?

This legislation makes provision for a ‘Regent’ - someone who takes over when a monarch is either a minor (under 18) or significantly incapacitated in body or mind, for example, a stroke, heart attack or dementia. That person is usually the heir to the throne; here it is Prince Charles.

What are the Counsellors of State?

The Regency Act also made provision for a temporary delegation of duties when the monarch suffers short-term illness or travels outside the kingdom. These delegates are known as Counsellors of State and are typically drawn from the next four adults in line to the throne who are over the age of 18 and permanent residents in Britain – Princes Charles, William, Harry and Andrew.

But Prince Harry doesn’t live in Britain anymore and Prince Andrew is stripped of Royal duties?

There is certainly doubt over whether Prince Harry and Prince Andrew can/should now serve as Counsellors of State. Prince Harry currently resides in the US and thus doesn’t meet the ‘domiciled in UK’ rule. He could choose to return; but he could also exclude himself from this duty. Prince Andrew may also be disqualified because he has been stripped of formal Royal duties. This is something that needs to be resolved formally, and soon.

If both Harry and Andrew were disqualified, then the Counsellor of State role would then pass to Andrew’s eldest child Princess Beatrice and then her sister Princess Eugenie.

The Queen is reluctant to hand over because she sees it as unnecessary. She is saying very clearly “I’m still here and I’m still performing my duty.”
Dr Cindy McCreery, British monarchy expert and University of Sydney historian

How does the line of succession work?

The British throne is passed down through the family of the eldest son (in future the eldest child) of the monarch.

The choice of Counsellors of State mirrors the line of succession to the throne but excludes minors and includes the monarch’s spouse if still alive. So we have Prince Charles and his two sons, followed by Prince Andrew and then his two daughters.

However, in practice you only need two Counsellors of State at one time who are able and willing to serve. We know Charles and William are ready and willing.

Can the Queen change the line of succession or appoint her own Counsellors of State?

No, the system has been established by Parliament and reflects Britain’s tumultuous history, and in particular the 1701 Act of Settlement which established the (Protestant) line of succession to the throne. Parliament retains important decision-making powers about who is sovereign, who can succeed to the throne and what happens if a monarch is absent or incapacitated.

Next in line from the Queen is her eldest son Prince Charles, then his eldest son, Prince William and then his eldest son, Prince George. When he grows up George’s children will be next in line to the throne.

What event might trigger the Regent being brought in to replace the monarch?

This only happens when the monarch is declared “incapacitated” – or if a child succeeds to the throne. If the Queen were to become incapacitated, that declaration has to be made by several very important members of British society, including the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chancellor and others, on the advice of the Queen’s physician.

This group would have to agree that the Queen was incapacitated, inform Parliament and the Privy Council, and then it is out of the Queen’s hands. Then duties would pass to the Regent, in this case Prince Charles.  But I don’t think we are at that stage yet. All indications are that Queen Elizabeth is, as she claims, able to continue with light duties.

Can Charles as Regent decide to hand the throne to Prince William?

No, the Regent only assumes monarchical duties on behalf of the current sovereign – he can’t pass the throne on to the next in line. Once Charles succeeds to the throne (i.e. on the Queen’s death) he can abdicate and then the throne passes to his heir, William.  Charles also can’t change his mind and say: “I want the throne to go to Harry after me”.

Could the Queen abdicate and hand the throne to Charles early?

Abdicating is an extremely unlikely possibility knowing this Sovereign, who has dedicated her life to the throne. For Elizabeth to abdicate there would have to be something seriously physically wrong.

Dr Cindy McCreery is director of the Modern Monarchy in Global Perspective Research Hub. She is running an international online conference in June, ‘Going Platinum: Australian responses to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.’

Banner image: British Royal Family - Princess Anne, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Charles, Prince William and his young son George and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, London 2015. Photo: Shutterstock

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