LONDON — Aging monarchs in the Netherlands and Belgium stepped down this year to make room for the next generation of Europe's crowned heads. But here in Britain, the birth in the coming days of a royal baby will have heirs stacking up like so many planes at this city's super-clogged Heathrow International Airport.
So with Queen Elizabeth II now 87 after 61 years on the throne, perhaps it is no surprise that the "A-word" is floating around these isles.
There is no sign that One is heading for the gilded doors, and those close to her dismiss any suggestion of the queen as a quitter, arguing she will never go the way of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Yet, as the queen and her 92-year husband, Prince Philip, both confront health issues and with a third direct heir on the way, chatter about a royal retirement has rarely been louder.
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"Will the Queen abdicate?" Britain's Guardian newspaper asked with casual bluntness after Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands called it a day following 33 years on the throne. The paper went on to wonder whether, after "years of smiling and waving and keeping shtoom while gaffes abound around her," is it time for Queen Elizabeth II to finally "relax with the corgis?"
With the British monarch's first great-grandchild due any day now, London-based YouGov published a poll last month showing those who wanted the queen to serve for life stood at 60 percent. Although up from a poll in May, it was down 4 percentage points compared to one taken last March around the time the queen was briefly hospitalized with a stomach infection and had to cancel a number of official engagements.
Even Lord John Prescott, a former member of the Privy Council that advises the monarch, penned an opinion piece in the Sunday Mirror, ostensibly about a "friend" who felt the queen was "overburdening herself" and deserved "to break convention and consider enjoying a long and fulfilling retirement."
By at least one measure — international travel — the queen is unquestionably slowing down. Eyebrows arched across Britain back in May when Buckingham Palace announced she would, for the first time in 40 years, skip her biennial trip abroad to address leaders of her far-flung realms including Australia and Canada. It would please Her Royal Highness to instead send her son, Prince Charles — the longest waiting monarch-to-be in British history.
The decision came even as she and the nation await the arrival of her first great grandchild, whose birth will mark the first time a reigning British monarch has had the security of three direct heirs on standby.
Royal biographer Robert Lacey said he found it hard to believe that the queen would retire, particularly while her husband, now recovering from a abdominal operation, is still alive. And yet, Lacey noted, the royal line up of the Queen, Charles, William and baby "isn't just statistical."
"It really increases the likelihood that the queen will do what was once thought unthinkable and abdicate and step down," he said. "To be cynical about it, I can see demands growing for it, you know, 'give Charles a chance,' that sort of thing."
For all the talk of retirement, however, there is no doubting the queen's popularity. The public questions following her seemingly cold response to the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, are now a distant memory. Instead, the queen is seen here as a constant in a fast-changing world, a celebrity of rare decorum in an age of reality show trash. In her youth, she stood as symbol of the stalwart British spirit in the aftermath of World War II. And now, in her winter, many here say, she is setting an example by balancing public duty and an aging body to surprisingly robust effect.
At 87, she still regularly delights in horseback riding on the grounds of Windsor Castle, and she let down her guard at the Ascot races this year in a burst of joy when her own horse came in first.
Although the queen is reducing her overseas schedule, in 2012 — the year she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee commemorating 60 years on the throne — she hit no less than 425 domestic engagements, compared to 325 the year earlier.
And yet there is also no denying, observers say, that a changing of the guard of sorts is already taking place. Charles and Camilla accompanied the queen to the state opening of Parliament this year, an event of high pomp where the spotlight is typically reserved for the reigning monarch.
Indeed, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall are riding a string of positive press reports that have led some observers to speculate of an orchestrated campaign. Last month, Camilla went on her first foreign solo tour, joking with photographers at the Louvre in Paris about not wanting to "block the Mona Lisa." Charles, his own popularity on the upswing, is coming off a humorous turn as a BBC weatherman and a witty speech last year in which he brought down the house by touting the accomplishments of "mummy."
Of course, it's not all Charles and Camilla either. William and Kate represented the queen on a nine-day tour of Asia and the South Pacific. Even Prince Harry, the spare to his brother's role as heir, stood in for the queen on a tour of Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Brazil.
The queen's strong aversion to retirement, royal watchers say, is based partly on the famous abdication of her uncle, King Edward VIII, to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. The act is said to have been regarded by the queen as shirking official responsibility even as it had the effect of thrusting her father into the role of king.
But the queen, said Dickie Arbiter, a former spokesman, is also deeply religious, and "she sees herself of having sworn to serve for life not only to the people, but to God."
A provision of the 1937 Regency Act allows for the removal of monarchs under certain conditions if they become incapacitated. But her condition would need to be positively vegetative, observers say, before any such attempt would be even contemplated.
Instead, over time, she is expected to hand off more and more of her official duties. Should she become seriously ill, royal watchers say the queen is more likely to opt to remain monarch, while perhaps allowing Charles to assume the role of regent — a designation allowing him to run most of her state affairs.
Arbiter described the chances of an abdication as "zero, none, never going to happen."
He cited a 1947 speech in which the queen, then a crown princess, herself said:
"I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong."