Does absence of Queen Elizabeth at parliament opening herald Britain's second Regency era?

Long-standing monarch will delegate state opening to her heirs, Prince Charles and Prince William

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Queen Elizabeth II's decision to delegate the state opening of parliament to her two heirs has prompted a royal expert to suggest that the UK monarchy is on the precipice of becoming a Regency for only the second time.

Former BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt said the opening of parliament by both Prince Charles and Prince William, with the former reading the queen's speech, was a “significant moment for two future kings”.

“Charles will accelerate his on-the-job training. The heir is teetering on the edge of becoming a de facto Prince Regent. William will observe what awaits him.

“With the queen progressively withdrawing from public life, the palace is keen to show the monarchy is safe in the hands of father and son.”

While the long-serving monarch has missed the opening of parliament twice before in her 70-year reign, in 1959 and 1963, the delegation is without direct precedent.

On the previous occasions she was heavily pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively, and the Lord Chancellor acted as proxy through the enaction of a mechanism dating back to the reign of Henry VIII.

On this occasion, the enabling mechanisms are Queen Elizabeth's Counsellors of State, who include the sovereign's spouse, which would have been the late Duke of Edinburgh, and the next four people in the line of succession over the age of 21.

The queen is empowered to appoint the Counsellors under the Regency Acts 1937-53. These are currently the Prince of Wales, Prince William, Prince Harry and Prince Andrew.

The delegation of powers to Counsellors of State is made by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm.

The last time Counsellors of State were needed was in 2015 when the queen was away on an official visit to Malta.

Counsellors of State allow for a temporary delegation of duties.

But there are certain core constitutional functions, that unless there is a Regency, cannot be delegated, such as giving Royal Assent to legislation, appointing a prime minister, the weekly meetings with the PM and appointing and dismissing governor-generals.

What is a Regency?

A Regency would be when the queen transfers her powers as monarch to Charles without having to abdicate.

The Regency Act 1937 states that the monarch's duties will be performed by a regent if the monarch is declared to be “by reason of infirmity of mind or body” incapable of performing royal functions, or if there is “evidence that the Sovereign is for some definite cause not available for the performance of those functions”.

This must be declared in writing by three or more out of the sovereign's wife or husband, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls.

How the Regency transpired

The UK has officially been in a Regency period just once, in the years 1811 to 1820.

During this period, George, Prince of Wales, governed the country as Regent when his father, George III, descended into madness — as chronicled in the hit 1994 film The Madness of King George.

The conferral of the title Regent upon Prince George was not without its complications, and was only granted via an act of parliament on February 5, 1811, after two and a half months of political argy-bargy.

The Regency ended in 1820 when George III passed away and the Regent was crowned king, assuming the title of George IV.

There is an interesting similitude between the first Regency period and a potential new one spearheaded by Prince Charles.

The Regency is known as an epoch of social and cultural development, with the Prince Regent a supporter and patron of many of the new movements in painting, sculpture, decoration, literature, music, technology and science.

English novelist Jane Austen is a literary totem of the Regency period. Getty

In this capacity he was known as the “First Gentleman of Europe”, a mantle which Prince Charles, himself a renowned champion of the arts, would wear well.

If a full-blown Regency does not transpire imminently, constitutional expert Dr Bob Morris, of University College London's Constitution Unit, said it was “more likely than not” that the arrangements would continue for future state openings, meaning the queen, who is now 96 and facing “episodic mobility problems”, may never open parliament again.

“It is unprecedented and it's the way in which the constitution flexes to accommodate unusual circumstances,” he said.

“I can't think of any possible earlier version of this.”

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Updated: May 10, 2022, 2:24 PM
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