A Platinum Jubilee to mark 70 years as Queen offers subtle hints for the future of the monarchy

Who’s on the balcony?

There is a reason this seemingly random question intrigues royal watchers each time a Big Event focuses the public spotlight on the Royal Family.

And perhaps no more so than over the next few days, as Queen Elizabeth marks her Platinum Jubilee and 70 years as monarch.

Today’s appearance by members of the Royal Family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace in London — and perhaps another such appearance later in the extended Jubilee long weekend — offer subtle signs about the future for the monarchy, even as so much attention focuses on the 96-year-old Queen and her unprecedented seven decades on the throne.

“It’s a remarkable title and accomplishment for the Queen, but it does hint that … no one is immortal,” David Johnson, a political science professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, said in an interview 

“We see that … the Queen is slowing down.”

Balcony scenes such as this one during Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, can telegraph messages regarding how the Royal Family sees the future of the monarchy evolving. In this case, there was a focus on the most senior royals, from left, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall; Prince Charles; Queen Elizabeth; Prince William; Kate, Duchess of Cambridge; and Prince Harry. (Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press)

Preparing for the next reign

With today’s balcony appearance limited to working senior members of the Royal Family — no Prince Andrew, no Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex — there is another reminder of what many see as a signal of a slimmed-down monarchy favoured by the Queen’s heir, her eldest son, Prince Charles.

Johnson also sees hints of the future in the ways the Jubilee is being marked beyond the festivities spilling into the streets of London over the next few days.

  • WATCH — CBC News Special: The Queen’s Jubilee, Trooping the Colour, June 2, 5 a.m – 8:30 a.m. ET on CBC-TV, CBC News Network and CBC Gem

“Some of the events even in Canada, encouraging people to plant trees, and to plant Jubilee gardens, be involved with nature, those are all interests of the Prince of Wales,” said Johnson, author of Battle Royal: Monarchists vs. Republicans and the Crown of Canada.

“The Jubilee itself will highlight both the Queen but also some of the deeper broader social concerns and social interests that the Queen and her eldest son have.”

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles pose for a portrait in the garden of Frogmore House on March 23, 2021, in Windsor, England. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images/The Associated Press)

As much as the Queen is slowing down, and other members of the Royal Family are taking on more of what she used to do, there is little sense she is in any way detached from the goings-on within the House of Windsor now.

“She’s trying to orchestrate what’s coming after,” John Fraser, author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Affair with Royalty, said in an interview.

“She’s been quite canny. She’s made decisions … she made the decision about Camilla being the Queen consort. She’s getting us all ready for this,” said Fraser, founding president and a fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada.

‘A different era’

What “this” will be is a matter of some interest, and debate, coming as it does at a time of broader reckoning in society with our past, and our institutions.

“Elizabeth represents such a specific period of time, such a specific mindset, and the world has evolved and changed so much, that this 70th anniversary seems like it should be more than just the celebration of her reign, but maybe also the moving on [to] other things,” said Toronto playwright Marcia Johnson, whose play Serving Elizabeth tells the story of Mercy, a staunch anti-monarchist who is hired to cater for Elizabeth when she’s on a 1952 trip to Kenya and learns she has become Queen.

“It’s hard to imagine Charles then William — they seem to be in this modern world and [Elizabeth] represents … a different era,” said Johnson.

“If there were ever a time for us to say well, that was interesting and now we don’t have the monarchy any more, I think this would be the time if it ended with her.” 

  • WATCH — CBC News Special: The Queen’s Jubilee, A Service of Thanksgiving, June 3, 5:30 a.m. – 9 a.m. ET on CBC-TV, CBC News Network and CBC Gem.

Johnson, who was born in Jamaica, was inspired to write her play by an episode of the Netflix drama The Crown, which also explored that trip Elizabeth was on when she learned her father, King George VI, had died.

“The things I was saying in Serving Elizabeth was that it’s not a fairy tale and we might be post-colonial but there are many people and countries that are still suffering the aftereffects of British rule.”

In the performance of the play Serving Elizabeth at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont., in 2021, Arlene Duncan, left, played Mercy, a cook hired to cater for the 1952 royal visit to Kenya in 1952 by Princess Elizabeth, played by Sara Topham, right. (David Hou/Stratford Festival)

Now, as the Jubilee events unfold, Johnson is interested in seeing how it will be reported in the news, and how that relates to the future of the monarchy.

“I have nothing against Elizabeth, but it’s not the only story,” Johnson said. “She represents so much more and we in the world apparently are opening our eyes to … our history and are addressing things and are trying to make amends, so this is a perfect opportunity to say yes look at what she’s accomplished, but is it time to rethink these things.

“Should they be getting paid what they’re getting paid? Should they give back some of the land that they have, you know? Just think about it. I don’t think it has to come from a mean-spirited place. It’s just the facts.”

Numerous members of the Royal Family have often joined Queen Elizabeth on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, as they did here for Trooping the Colour in June 2019, but such a scene won’t unfold Thursday, as the balcony appearance is limited to senior working members and their children. (Hannah Mckay/Reuters)

A slimmed-down future?

Fraser says people “are looking all over the place” for signs of just what the future of the monarchy may look like.

“They’re coming fast and furious. The fact that Prince Charles read the [U.K] speech from the throne … I’d be very surprised if this Queen does another speech from the throne ever,” he said.

“We will see a good example in this Platinum Jubilee of things to come in the next two years. I fully expect the Queen to make her century if not more, but she will continue to recede and Charles will continue to come forward.”

Beyond that, there is a sense Prince Charles will focus his reign on a smaller core group of Royal Family members to carry out the working roles within the House of Windsor.

“We know Charles wants a slimmed down version so there won’t be too many roles for Princess Eugenie — that crowd [of royals further down in the line of succession] will drift off except for some of the big occasions,” said Fraser.

Johnson, the political science professor, predicts that the traditions of the monarchy will continue.

Prince Charles reads the Queen’s speech during the state opening of the British Parliament in London on May 10, 2022. (Ben Stansall/The Associated Press)

“The institution of over 1,000 years, the key roles, will continue,” he said, suggesting that the philanthropic role of the monarchy will also carry on, but with a shift in priority. 

“You will see much more of a focus on matters of the environment, the interests that are near and dear to Charles’s heart going back 20, 30 or 40 years,” he said.

In Canada, too, he predicts the monarchy will survive the transition to the next reign. But he sees another question: will it thrive?

“That is a challenge.” 

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