The Daily Telegraph, Dec 17 2011
Hark what discord follows when you meddle with the monarchy
Has the Government really thought through its plans to change the laws of succession?
There is a widespread delusion, I find, that the succession to the throne has been changed. If William and Kate have a first-born daughter, people think, that girl will be Queen. And if, in due time, she marries a Roman Catholic, that too will be permitted. It’s all been sorted out, apparently. There will be what is called – without any apparent sense of absurdity – a Royal Equality Act, and then Bob’s your uncle (though your poor uncle Bob, if currently in line to the throne, will now have to give place to your first-born aunt).
It is not surprising that people think this, because that is what they have been told to think. This all got going under the brief, inglorious rule of Protector Brown. Having reached office without a democratic mandate, and rightly fearing that the eventual general election would be tough, Mr Brown wanted to change the law of succession to win more Catholic votes in Scotland.
Mouthing about equality, he set to work. But as with Tony Blair’s fiasco of trying casually to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor over a weekend, he did not consult Buckingham Palace properly. Too late, he found out that this was not a matter for him alone. Britain is one of 16 countries of which the Queen is head of state. Under the preamble to the Statute of Westminster of 1931, changes involving the Sovereign must be agreed by all. At the Commonwealth Conference of 2009, Mr Brown tried it on with the other relevant heads of government. Irritated not to have been adequately forewarned, they told him to go away.
David Cameron is interested in reform too. It suits the rationalist agenda of the Liberal Democrat part of the Coalition. It suits the Prime Minister personally because focus groups have decreed that he is beginning to seem unattractive to women. What better, in Royal wedding year, than making sure that, if lovely Kate has a lovely daughter first, she should one day ascend to the throne?
So Mr Cameron squared the other 15 monarch-sharing prime ministers of the 53 Commonwealth countries. They all crowded into a fringe meeting at the Commonwealth Conference in Perth, Australia, in October and agreed to put his changes in hand. Since there is no regular machinery for this sort of thing, an ad hoc committee has been created, centred in New Zealand. In charge, I gather, is a Kiwi civil servant called Rebecca Kitteridge.
Miss Kitteridge is widely admired, but she will have her work cut out. Whatever measures she frames in Wellington will have to span the globe. They must win the approval of all 16 legislatures, from little Tuvalu (population: 11,000, 97 per cent of whom are Congregationalists) to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, from St Vincent and the Grenadines (that’s a single country, by the way, not a reggae band) to good old Oz. In the United Kingdom alone, eight existing statutes will have to be repealed or amended before the changes can become law.
No one knows what will happen if some (or one) of the 16 vote against what the others want, or try to amend it. Yet that is their democratic right, and such events are quite likely. If you look, for example, at the proposed change to permit marrying a Catholic, you find that the ban on a Catholic coming to the throne stays. So does the rule that the Sovereign must be “in communion with the Church of England”. Catholics, who form the religious majority in Australia and Canada, may well not wish to re‑enshrine an anti-Catholic measure. Members of other faiths may well feel that the “in communion” rule still excludes them from wearing the Crown.
Back in England, atheists could protest that they will remain the victims of a state religion. North of the border, Scottish Nationalists, observing that the reforms require amendment to the Act of Union, could take the legislative chance to widen the argument about being part of the United Kingdom at all.
Once you consider these difficulties, you notice something else: this act of modernising is not, in the way it is being conducted, very modern. It is being put together semi-secretly, and our Government will not disclose the legal advice it is receiving. It is also, in spirit, imperialist: the British Government decides, and then tries to push all the “lesser” countries into agreeing.
When the reforms do eventually reach the 16 parliaments, the government line will be that this has all been agreed and so legislators should just nod it through. The Queen may be embarrassed, but since, constitutionally, she can act only on the advice of her ministers, she will be powerless. At this point, any self-respecting Member of Parliament would be entitled to say: “Wait a minute! You are trying to change the rules by which our head of state is chosen and controlled. Is this good for her and her heirs? Is it good for our country? I am going to ask some difficult questions.”
Here, for example, is one. Suppose the heir to the throne does marry a Catholic, which, under the new rules, he/she will be permitted to do. Suppose that they have a child. Suppose the child, as the Catholic Church requires, is brought up a Catholic. Under the law, even as reformed, that child cannot become Monarch. “Are you asking me,” the doubting MP might inquire, “to vote for a reform which could precipitate a constitutional-cum-religious crisis?”
If, on the other hand, the law were changed to permit a Catholic to come to the throne, there would be a lot more questions. What would happen to the monarch’s headship of the Church of England? How would he/she be crowned? “Are you proposing, Prime Minister,” the awkward MP could ask, “to disestablish the Church? If so, please lay before us your legislation for doing so.” Untune that string, as Shakespeare famously put it, and hark what discord follows.
The change in the sex rules is not easy either. Nowadays, most people broadly think that men and women should have equal rights. But how well do such notions fit in a hereditary system? Why should the oldest (of either sex) take all? How can you defend any hereditary system once you get really modern?
With monarchy, you should agree the rules and stick to them. Not for nothing is the original act of 1701 called the Act of Settlement. It doesn’t much matter what the rules are – elective, first-born, male line only, religious choice, lottery – but they must be settled. When they are not, the personal principle which is the focus of unity becomes the point of dispute. Some people think that A should be King (or Queen) and others think it should be B. This is why it was so mischievous – in the furore after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – to quarrel about whether Charles or William should succeed to the throne. If you cast doubt on the succession, you cast doubt on the whole thing.
Obviously David Cameron does not mean to do this. In Oxford yesterday, he made an impeccable speech about the 400 years of the King James Bible. As its name suggests, that translation is, among other things, a product of our monarchy. The Prime Minister spoke of how much the “history and existence of a constitutional monarchy” owe to the religion which that Bible expresses. By his own logic, he should tread carefully when he starts fiddling with the system that decides who should wear the Crown.
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