Last week, a supposedly eminent group of people allegedly met to discuss who should succeed the Queen. No, this is not sacrilegious and they have not been locked up in the Tower of London. We are talking about the Commonwealth.
For readers under sixty, I should explain that the Commonwealth is a group of 53 nations and 2.4 billion people covering nearly one quarter of the world’s land mass. The only common thread is that they nearly all are or have been ruled by the Queen.
When I first went to school we spent the morning of March 12th making Union Jacks and studying a map of the world largely coloured in red. We then had a half day holiday to wave the Union Jacks and celebrate Commonwealth Day. It was previously known as Empire Day.
When we first applied to join what was then the Common Market in the 1960s, one of the main concerns was that we would upset the sheep farmers in New Zealand as trade with our Commonwealth partners far exceeded that with le continent. Nowadays the Commonwealth is best known for The Games in which entry is restricted to members of the Commonwealth and so the United Kingdom does rather well.
Members of the Commonwealth mostly speak English, play cricket and may drive on the left ( but check before leaving). I like to think that it is a force for good in increasing international understanding but, truth to tell, it has never had much success in persuading recalcitrant members to respect its shared values of democracy and human rights. A public opinion poll a few years ago found widespread ignorance of the Commonwealth. The lowest levels of support was in the United Kingdom itself so an incoming monarch might be only too pleased to be relieved of the role of ceremonial head.
The manner of appointment of the Secretary General is well defined and has rotated between member nations but there is no automatic right of a future King Charles III to succeed his mother when she finally lays down her chains of office. The Queen has pressed her son’s case but leaked memos suggest that he doesn’t command the same respect and is seen as too divisive a figure.
If I were Prince Charles, I would quietly let it be known that I would step aside in favour of an really eminent figure from another Commonwealth nation. There are five other monarchs and 31 Presidents available as well such respected leaders like Kofi Anan or Barack Obama, who qualifies by dint of his Kenyan ancestry. Leadership does not always come from the front and if the Commonwealth is to outgrow its old Imperial shackles, how much better for Britain to accept being one among equals and rotating the ceremonial role with others.
If the Prince of Wales made this small step, then I hope he would consider a giant leap too. It would be in the public interest if the crown passed to his son, Prince William, when the Queen dies. This would be really tough on Charles as he has spent his entire life as heir apparent but the trouble is that monarchs live so long these days.
In his brilliant Brief History of Humankind, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari recounts the reign of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor in the thirteenth century. Their children would have enjoyed the best conditions and most nurturing surroundings that could be provided in medieval Europe. Even so, of their 16 children, ten died in childhood and only three lived beyond the age of forty. The sixteenth child, Edward, survived to ascend the throne but his wife, Isabella of France, had him murdered when he was forty three.
Not so today. The Windsors also live in the lap of luxury and appear to have a strong physical constitution so there is every prospect that future Queens and Kings will live as long as the late Queen Mother. Indeed, Harari says, it is only a matter of time before medical science conquers disease. Then only car crashes, terrorist attacks and regicide will take us away. He actually thinks that enhanced super humans and artificial intelligence will have taken over anyway but thats another story.
If I were the Thomas Jefferson of my day, with a clean sheet of paper to draw up a constitution, I would not devise a system based on genealogical descent and divine right to rule until death. Deposition post revolution is still a way off and so I believe we at least need a rule of succession for the twenty first century.
Imagine the scenario. The Queen may live another ten years and by the time he succeeds, Charles will be 80. He rules for 30 years by which time William will be 75 and so on. I may be ageist on this point. The prime of life may get ever later and people who now draw their pensions may still in be in positions of power.
But I think it is time for Prince Charles to fall on his sword. Pass on the crown, Sir, to the next generation so that we model leadership through a relatively young and hopefully happy and thriving family. Limit the period of office to 25 years. The marketing department at Buckingham Palace would be delighted and you could carry on talking to plants and being controversial, which is what you do best.
Published in Newcastle Journal 20th Feb 2018