As so often, the faux speech bubbles on the cover of Private Eye caught the moment. It was February, the month the Queen marked 60 years on the throne.
The picture was a shot of the royal family singing hymns in Westminster Abbey. “Long Live the Queen!” shouts a voice from the back. “Well,” mutters Prince Charles, “up to a point.”
The Queen keeps breaking longevity records, like some unstoppable batsman. In a few weeks’ time she will have been on the throne 61 years; in 2015 her reign is due to overtake Victoria’s as Britain’s longest; quietly last month, she and Prince Philip celebrated 65 years of marriage. The papers said this was their “blue sapphire anniversary”. Who knew?
Her jubilee year has been a triumph. There were moments (the bitter-cold barge ride on Jubilee Sunday which nearly did for Philip; the palace rock concert two days later; the Olympic opening ceremony) when her expression was that of an elderly lady gingerly wading into an English sea, with her grandchildren calling: “It’s warm once you’re in, grandma!” But her decision to play along with the Olympic James Bond stunt did much to enhance her street-cred and added to the sense of national contentment with the monarchy. An Ipsos-Mori poll last month showed support for a monarchy at 79 per cent, a level not reached in 20 years, with the Queen herself on a record-equalling 90 per cent.
Meanwhile, though, poor old Charlie. Next November, he will be 65, the traditional retirement age. He has not even started the job for which he was predestined. He is the longest-serving work-experience lad of all, eternally doing the royal equivalent of manning the photocopier and making the tea.
Though the structure of the world’s greatest soap opera has remained unchanged all this time, the plots have been remarkably varied, including one storyline (Charles’ first marriage and matters arising) that no scriptwriter would have dared imagine. And now there is a new feminine angle: there are in effect three queens.
There is a historic resonance to this concept. When George VI died, there was a famous picture of three queens, veiled and dressed in black: his mother, Queen Mary; his widow, the Queen Mother; and his daughter, the new young Queen.
Now there are two queens-in-waiting (subject to contract). Given that the present Queen is 86, Britain could have King Charles and Queen Camilla at any moment. The official line, reiterated in a discreet corner of the Prince of Wales’s website, is still that Camilla will not become queen but take the clunky title “HRH The Princess Consort”. This is in deference to her shadowy past as Charles’ mistress.
Camilla remains curiously little-known. That same poll showed that only 2 per cent picked her out as one of their “two or three” favourite royals, putting her level with Prince Andrew and just ahead of Edward. That isn’t the same as being actively disliked, though. She has just come creditably through a tour of that most unruly dominion, Australia; and there is a growing sense that she is a good sort. My hunch is that the idea of her just consorting will not survive the outpouring of grief that will greet the current Queen’s death: the British will want a Queen and the final decision will be guided not by protocol and precedent, but by polling when the moment comes.
For now, she remains overshadowed by the more certain queen-to-be – Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. On the evidence so far, Kate seems to be an exceptionally well-chosen addition to the cast: much of the charm and empathy associated with Diana, the mother-in-law she never met, with the massive plus of actually loving her husband. She also comes into a business much more conscious of the need to protect and nurture the talent. However, her role in the celebrity mags and tabloids is scheduled to change.
The news that Will and Kate have indeed performed the most private but most crucial bit of royal business means that next summer they are due to deliver an heir to the heir to the heir.
Under the newly agreed rules, their firstborn will not be superseded as third in line to the throne, even if female. Thus there may be yet another queen in waiting. And, whatever the gender, the direct line of Windsor accession will stretch towards a distant future in which everything else will have changed.
Women of 2012