- - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

King Juan Carlos I of Spain will be abdicating his throne on Thursday in favor of his son, Felipe. The king and his wife, Queen Sofia, will reportedly be allowed to retain their titles.

In the midst of this transfer of royal power, the United Kingdom’s The Guardian newspaper conducted a small experiment. It set up an online poll to see whether readers felt the 88-year-old Queen Elizabeth II should follow the 76-year-old Juan Carlos‘ lead and step down.

The result: 50-50.

The Guardian is a left-wing newspaper with a long-held republican (or anti-monarchical) streak. We should still keep in mind that Queen Elizabeth’s personal popularity has often stood in contrast with a declining interest in the British monarchy. Accordingly, there may be something to this informal poll.

At the same time, I don’t think the original question (“King Juan Carlos is abdicating. Should Queen Elizabeth follow suit?”) was relevant.

Queen Elizabeth is a constitutional monarch, and not an elected official. As a nonpolitical head of state, she isn’t required to step down in favor of a successor. In this day and age, the choice to abdicate ought to be voluntary and not be forced by politicians or the general public.

The United Kingdom’s abdication crisis involving King Edward VIII is a classic example of why public and political intervention aren’t the best options.

In 1936, Edward revealed his intention to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The Church of England opposed such a union, and the public’s displeasure with the relationship was clear. Edward’s reasonable counterproposal of a morganatic marriage, with Simpson never becoming queen, was ultimately rejected by Parliament.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin advised the king he had three choices: call off the marriage, marry Simpson or abdicate. Edward refused to consider the first choice, and would surely have caused a constitutional crisis (leading to the government’s resignation) with the second choice. Left with no other option, he abdicated on Dec. 11.

Edward told the stunned nation during a radio broadcast, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

In fairness, the United Kingdom has changed a great deal in nearly 80 years. If Queen Elizabeth ever decided to abdicate, it would be very different to the circumstances faced by her uncle, Edward.

Yet it’s fairly certain she’s not going to. Queen Elizabeth has the freedom to stay in her position, which would allow her to break Queen Victoria’s incredible record for longevity (63 years, 216 days) next fall. It’s her choice, and so be it.

By contrast, King Juan Carlos made a personal decision to end his 38-year reign. The circumstances were quite different, mind you.

The king had long been a popular monarch and was credited with re-establishing democracy in Spain after the death of a dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco. Yet his popularity began to plummet in 2012 after apologizing for taking a luxury elephant-hunting trip in Botswana during Spain’s financial crisis. The king’s rumored affair with a woman 28 years his junior, combined with a corruption scandal involving his daughter, Princess Cristina, and her husband, also damaged his reputation.

In a recent poll by El Mundo, 62 percent of respondents fully supported King Juan Carlos‘ abdication. The Spanish newspaper reportedly thought this was his “third consecutive annus horribilis in which the gap between Spaniards and the monarchy has widened.” That’s quite a contrast from two years ago, when almost 80 percent of respondents had nothing but good things to say about their long-reigning monarch.

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