News Editor Lydia Starbuck explains why, in her opinion, the decision of the Duke & Duchess of Sussex to step down as senior royals means the Line of Succession must be changed.
As the Duke and Duchess of Sussex plan their new lives, away from the pressures of being ‘senior royals’, the Firm they are distancing themselves from is facing a different future. The House of Windsor will no longer include Harry and Meghan among its main players as the inevitable transition from the long reign of Elizabeth II gets under way. But their decision raises the question of just what that future might look like. I believe that as the Royal Family enters these new, uncharted waters, there has never been a better time to reform the way the succession works.
I’m not arguing for one second that Harry should go although given the events of the past days, I wouldn’t be surprised if he made that decision for himself. Time will tell. But until January 8th, we had always presumed that the Duke of Sussex would play a high profile royal role for decades to come. There he was, no longer a spare but still a vital cog, a man who would one day be the son of the Monarch and part of the much talked about ‘slimmed down’ version of the Windsors that we all know Prince Charles has championed for years. That all evaporated in the time it took to hit ‘Post’ on Instagram.
For Harry’s future now takes a different path. He wants to split his time between the UK and North America and to be ‘financially independent’, albeit with a rather healthy injection of cash from the royal Duchy of Cornwall, currently held by his father. He won’t be on hand to help steer the Windsor ship as his focus will be elsewhere. And that is why the royal rules need to be rewritten.
Currently, thanks to his position in the Line of Succession, Harry has a rather important constitutional role. He is a Counsellor of State which means that the Queen can delegate some of her powers to him. It’s a rather historic sounding part that actually only came into being in 1937, in the early days of the reign of his great grandfather, King George VI. The, the Regency Act created Counsellors of State who were named so that if a Monarch was unable to rule temporarily, either through ill health or being out of the UK, they could take on some of their powers and who gets the position is linked to the Line of Succession.
The Monarch’s consort is always included on the list but the other four Counsellors are taken from the queue for the Crown. They are always the first four people in the Succession who are over 21, British subjects and resident in the UK. Right now, that means the Duke of Edinburgh is joined by the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge, the Duke of Sussex and the Duke of York. If the Queen wishes to delegate her powers to them, she must issue Letters Patent naming two Counsellors to work together. That ruling can be rescinded at any time.
It is easy to see from reading that list just how untenable that situation is, even in the short term. Prince Philip’s health has recently given more cause for concern while the Duke of York has now retired from public life over his relationship with the convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. Now that the Duke of Sussex has said he doesn’t want to be a senior royal any more, that really limits the list of Counsellors of State to just two viable options. Given that they must always be appointed to work in pairs, that lack of choice poses a potential problem.
However, changing the Succession to allow absolute primogeniture, even from the beginning of the Queen’s reign, would allow the Princess Royal to leapfrog her younger brothers. Andrew would be immediately replaced by Anne on the list of Counsellors. Should Harry decide to move aside, his cousin, Peter Phillips, would be called upon to act but not having a royal title is no bar to holding the position which is only ever temporary anyway.
Alternatively, there may well be calls to overhaul the Regency Act altogether. For this piece of legislation also means that were Prince George to succeed to the throne before his 18th birthday, then Prince Harry would act as Regent for him. The role of ruling for a minor currently falls to the next most senior adult in the Line of Succession. Given that Harry has said he doesn’t want to be a senior royal any more and that he will be spending more time out of the UK, he may not even want to take on the position if it fell to him.
However, it also feels somewhat medieval that a young prince would be expected to rely more on their uncle than their own mother. Back in the 15th century, when Katherine of Valois found herself unexpectedly widowed with the shocking death of Henry V, courtiers moved swiftly to remove her from any position of influence over their baby son, the new King Henry VI. Fast forward six centuries, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is currently in a situation where other royals would be expected to guide her son more than her. Although the situation will hopefully never arise, the fact that the Duke of Sussex would have more say in Prince George’s royal future than the Duchess of Cambridge seems, quite frankly, bizarre.
All these are among the ”complicated” issues that Buckingham Palace mentioned in its sharp response to the Sussexes’ announcement that they are seeking a different kind of royal future. The constitutional implications may never even have crossed their minds. But given that the tree has been shaken, now seems a very good time for new roots to be planted.