The Queen will be 94 in April. Even if she emulates her mother and lives to be 101, it is inevitable that the British monarchy will change radically after a reign that has broken every record for longevity.
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is by far the longest-lived consort of any British monarch but even the Phil and Liz Show, successful though it has undoubtedly been, cannot avoid the final curtain, as his admission to hospital for care of an existing condition - most probably a bladder infection - is a reminder. After all, he will be 99 in 2020 and every innings, even for the Lords’ Taverners 12th Man, must end some time.
The United Kingdom is a very different country from the one she inherited from her father on 6 February 1952. The death at Sandringham of King George VI was supposed to usher in “A New Elizabethan Age”, a time of scientific discovery and transformative social progress. That never quite happened but the Queen has moved with the times, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes ahead of the advice of her most trusted courtiers. She has never been afraid to trust the judgment of her subjects, unlike some of those courtiers.
Most of the people of the United Kingdom and wider Commonwealth have never known any other Sovereign. Whatever happens after her death will be as shocking to some as it will be welcome to others.
I have always believed that a monarchy suits the British temperament. For a start, it means that we do not have to endure a deeply divisive wrangle over who should be President. That would make the Brexit struggle look like a stroll in St. James’s Park.
Just imagine the interminable rows about the various candidates that might push themselves forward or be proposed by supporters who might see some advantage for themselves in backing a successful candidacy.
With a monarchy, we are fortunate in not having to choose between Tony Blair, Richard Branson, Hugh Bonneville or any other National Treasure who might be flavour of the month but might not maintain their popularity beyond next Pancake Tuesday.
A hereditary monarchy means that we shall never have to endure a Richard Nixon, a bent politician who brought shame upon the United States, not because he was a Republican Party chancer but because he was also the Head of State, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and the font of all American honours.
I covered the end of the Watergate scandal that did Nixon in. I remember in 1974 the Canadians looking down on their American neighbours from north of the border. They thanked their lucky stars that they had a head of state who was not mixed up in bribery, break-ins and manifold political dirty tricks.
Watergate convulsed the U.S. for 18 months. The American Constitution did its stuff and eventually rid a great country of an unworthy president. But the scars were deep and have been long-lasting.
Then and now, even Francophone Canada acknowledges that the Queen speaks laudable French and her presence and role have helped to keep a vast country together just as certainly as Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways have done.
Faced with a referendum choice between a Monarch and a President, a majority of Australians opted for the Queen, because she was a uniting figure above the rough house that often characterises State and Federal politics in Australia.
If Prince Charles, 71 last November, lives to succeed his mother, his reign will inevitably be a short one. That is not necessarily a bad thing. King Edward VII, his great-great-grandfather, reigned for less than a decade at the beginning of the 20th Century but gave his name to the Edwardian Era, one that was widely enjoyed by those who lived through it and remembered fondly after he died in 1910, a few weeks after my mother was born.
There is still a rosy glow around Edward’s reign. Men enduring the privations and dangers in the trenches of the Western Front, only four years later, said ruefully: “This wouldn’t have happened if King Teddy was still alive”.
And that’s probably right. The King was related to most of the monarchs of the Old Europe that died with the First World War. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was his nephew and much in awe of Britain because of his grandmother Queen Victoria. It is not fanciful to imagine Edward intervening personally in diplomacy because he had done so successfully as King, for instance when he sealed the Entente Cordiale with France by complimenting a famous French actress.
The people loved King Edward because in many ways he was like them. He liked eating and drinking and having a good time. He led in two Derby winners and had a good eye for any good-looking woman who strayed across his path. King “Tum-Tum”, as he was known on the continent, was naturally popular and not just in this country.
He was no dunce either. During the severe political crises caused by the second Boer War, Irish Home Rule and reform of the House of Lords, he played a blinder.
Prince Charles, sometimes said to have been educated beyond his intelligence, has never seemed to me to have that instinctive understanding of this country, its people and their ways. Almost as if he was born 50 years old, he has never struck a chord with the ordinary people as Edward VI, George V and George VI all did.
Though his heart is in the right place on many contemporary issues, and he clearly means well, Prince Charles’s passions have never been those of ordinary people. This has resulted in him seeming to be a Prince apart. It hasn’t helped that he still talks like Lord Snooty. I can only imagine how he much he must cringe when archive film of him speaking as a young man is broadcast.
He worshipped “The Goon Show” ten years after the rest of us had grown out of it. At Cambridge – where I reported on him – he surrounded himself with other young men who lived in “nice hizes” and wore corduroy “trizers” when attempting the casual look.
For the first time in his life, he could have chosen anyone to be his friend but stuck with the country house set.
No wonder his father was disappointed in him, and his sons still get a lot of fun out of mocking his old-fashioned mannerisms, accent and obsessions.
It has been a great blessing that the Queen has lived so long because it has given her eldest son the time to improve. The temper tantrums that could contort his features and send staff scurrying to take cover in the broom cupboard have been brought under better control since he was permitted to marry the divorced Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles.
Age has calmed him to some extent, though he is still easily enraged if anyone seriously disagrees with him on any of his pet subjects. He will “cut” anyone who does that more than once.
But some of the wilder notions have been tamed. The “Black Spider Letters”, in his wayward handwriting to government ministers, seeking to change policy or emphasis on matters close to his heart, should never have been written and are now thankfully much rarer.
There is nothing in our famously “Unwritten Constitution” that permits an heir to the throne to lobby the government of the day.
The Queen’s longevity has enable him to get most of that out of his system That said, I cannot see Prince Charles as king passing up the opportunity to bend the Prime Minister’s ear at the politician’s regular Tuesday evening audience of the monarch.
It is almost inevitable that as king, Charles will attempt to stretch the limits of the Royal Prerogative – to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. The difficulty will arise almost immediately because most of his opinions would not stand up to scrutiny in a saloon bar discussion.
An immediate difficulty that will have to be overcome, if it is not sorted out before the death of his mother, is “Queen Camilla”. At the time of his marriage to Mrs Parker Bowles – and I was outside Windsor Register Office when it happened on a bitterly cold April day in 2005 – it was stated, as plainly as could be, that his new wife would not become Queen if and when he ascended the throne.
This was done to placate the considerable public animosity towards her and opposition to the marriage. But I have never doubted that Prince Charles will be utterly determined that his wife should be Queen and there will be much mulling over the Royal Marriage Act to solve this problem before it overshadows his coronation.
There is no doubt that Prince Charles will insist on a Coronation as full-blown as that he witnessed as a child in Westminster Abbey in 1953, even though he will not be reigning over the British Commonwealth and remnants of a world-wide empire as his mother did then.
The new king will be on much firmer and popular ground if he follows his intention to slim down the royal family. His grandfather always talked about, “We four”, the ideal royal family of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. In recent decades, the royal family has grown so large in numbers that the balcony at Buckingham Palace can hardly accommodate them all for the fly-past after the Queen’s birthday parade in June.
The pubic will support a slimmed-down royal family, more closely confined to the direct line of succession, which means keeping the spotlight focused on Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and their three children. The spare royals will come to play increasingly minor roles or no role at all.
This can only be a good thing. Prince William and the Duchess, both demonstrably nice people, bringing a wealth of hard-won wisdom to their waiting roles of Heir Presumptive and His Spouse, are the best hope for a solid continuation of the House of Windsor into the second century of its existence.
No one is perfect but Hollywood casting could not have come up with two people who could fit their unique roles more perfectly. They look good, they sound right and they are not bowed down by the huge responsibility that comes with being the head of state in a constitutional monarchy.
And equally important, people like them. They warm to the things they do and say. Thanks in large part to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, this country can look forward to a monarchy not just fit for the 21st century, but very acceptable to most of the other 16 Commonwealth realms that also acknowledge the British sovereign as their Head of State.
But before we arrive at King William V (not to be confused with VW), his father will reign; that is, if the Queen does not outlive him.
Will Charles put his stamp on the age, as Edward VII did? Will there be a Caroline Era?
No, not least because Prince Charles may decide not to reign as King Charles III. Charles is an unlucky name for British royalty. Charles I was executed by the axe on the orders of Parliament and his son, Charles II, led a life of dissipation and whoring but left no legitimate heir.
Prince Charles has already hinted that he might like to be known by another name. If you like a bet, as Edward VII certainly did, a fiver on King George VII, in tribute to the Queen’s father, might be worth a punt.
If you are a king, you can choose any name that takes your fancy, much like a re-branded pop group looking for another hit.