Don’t tinker with the monarchy. Abolish it

Gordon Brown is madder than Richard III if he thinks an institution as undemocratic and unequal as the monarchy can be made ‘more fair’.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

There must have been a few Catholic knees aquiver following British prime minister Gordon Brown’s recent admission that ‘the Act of Succession is outdated’.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Act-laden intricacy of Britain’s constitutional history – and let’s be fair, that’s most of us – Brown was suggesting that, at long last, members of the royal family will be able to marry Roman Catholics without being removed from the line of succession. Chaste students at convent schools across the country must have been beside themselves: balding, toothsome Prince William or his carrot-topped kid brother Harry might yet be there for the marrying.

Catholic royalists shouldn’t get their hopes up, or their convent-schooled daughters dolled up, just yet. Remember, this is Gordon Brown, a man not overly familiar with decision-making. And this time he’s also got the excuse of having to gain the assent of all territories where Queen Elizabeth II is, staggeringly, still head of state – including Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Jamaica. ‘Change can only be brought about by not just the United Kingdom but all realms where Her Majesty is queen making a decision to change’, Brown told parliament ahead of last week’s biannual meeting of Commonwealth leaders. ‘That is why it is important to discuss this with all members of the Commonwealth, including countries such as Australia and Canada, and that is the process which will be taken in due course.’ (1)

In his own, narrow terms, Brown does make some sense: the Act of Succession is clearly ‘outdated’. This is a piece of early eighteenth-century legislation born in the aftermath of the (in)Glorious Revolution of 1687, when the Protestant William of Orange was drafted in from the Netherlands by the English aristocracy to replace the Pope-worshipping, parliament-oppressing James II.

In the words of the Bill of Rights of 1688, ‘it hath beene found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfaire of this protestant kingdome’ to be governed by any ‘popish prince’ or ‘king or Queene marrying a papist’. Hence, anyone ‘who professe[s] the popish religion or shall marry a papist shall be excluded and be forever uncapeable to inherit possesse or enjoy the crowne and government of this realm and Ireland’. The Act of Settlement of 1700 made sure there was no confusion as to what was expected of the British monarch’s religion: ‘Whosoever shall hereafter come to the possession of this crown shall joyn in communion with the Church of England as established by law.’ (2)

So there we have it: the Act of Settlement and subsequent acts of succession are an anachronism in the body politic; a set of legislative oddities belonging to less tolerant times. Former New Labour government minister Tom Watson was moved to praise Brown’s reforming zeal: ‘The prime minister is absolutely right to look at this historic anomaly. You cannot have, in the twenty-first century, institutionalised prejudice against the millions of Roman Catholics in the UK.’ (3)

Yet there is something achingly ironic, not to mention absurd, to all this bluster about out-of-datedness, institutionalised prejudice and historical anomalies. And that absurdity can often be found wearing a crown. If there is any institution that embodies prejudice, which institutionalises a shocking inequality, it is surely the monarchy itself. If there’s an anachronism here, it’s not legislative – it’s the existence in perpetuity of a head of state selected according to a semi-divine bloodline.

More striking still is that members of the House of Commons – our nominally elected representatives – seem oblivious to the feudal hangover in their midst. Instead they seem more than happy to tolerate their constitutional subordination so as long as the monarch, like a reckless grandparent, doesn’t embarrass them by coming out with something a bit ‘old-fashioned’. Just modernise the monarchy, they chime. This is why, alongside calls to change the anti-Catholic bits of the Act of Settlement, there is an accompanying campaign to get rid of primogeniture – the principle by which the firstborn male is the principal heir, in this case to the throne, regardless of female heirs.

Brown has already this year addressed himself to the ‘discriminatory’ aspects of both the Act of Settlement and primogeniture: ‘This is not an easy set of answers but I think in the twenty-first century people do expect discrimination to be removed and they expect us to be looking at these issues’. In a moment of red-blue solidarity, Tory leader David Cameron agreed: ‘I would like it to change. It does not make sense in the twenty-first century to say that men have priority over women when it comes to inheriting the throne.’ (4)

The left-leaning Fabian Society captured this parliamentarian sentiment in its 2003 Commission on the Future of the Monarchy: ‘The current rules of succession raise a fundamental question for a modern democracy. In the context of increasing cultural diversity, and an expectation of civil and social equality, can institutionalised gender and religious discrimination any longer be acceptable? We believe it cannot for symbolic and practical reasons, and reform is long overdue.’ (5)

How can an institution that presupposes a congenital superiority to the common herd ever be acceptable? And that’s just it. It’s not the ‘current rules of succession’ that are an affront to a ‘modern democracy’ – it’s the hereditary principle of the monarchy itself. As Thomas Paine observed in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, ‘To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is the degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition upon posterity.’ (6) You can’t update a wrong, but you can correct it.

However, in light of the absence of a republican sensibility, one inseparable from a craving for liberty, the monarchy’s not going anywhere soon. And it’s certainly not going to be abolished by the current lot sat in the House of Commons. They need the monarchy too much. In their eyes, the more hollow and illegitimate parliamentary institutions seem – and they have never been more wanting in legitimacy than they are now – the more substantial the monarchy’s sheer history appears. They seem to want to cling to the coat tails of the monarchy’s aura of tradition, to drape themselves in its residual authority. Literally, it seems, if Lord Chancellor Jack Straw’s bumptious performance during the queen’s recent opening of ‘her’ parliament is anything to go by. There he was, former student radical and NUS firebrand, revelling in the pomp and ceremony of obeisance before the unelected head of state.

But, as Paine argued, there is something far greater than the ersatz glory of monarchy, and that is ‘the liberty of choosing a house of commons out of [the people’s] own body’ (7). Self-governance ought to win out over constitutional deference towards monarchy every time. If the monarchy’s fundamentally undemocratic, people-dodging laws of succession aren’t reason enough to want to dispense with the monarchy, Paine goes further: ‘One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary rights in kings is, that nature disapproves of it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion’ (8). Anyone in any doubt here should just try Googling ‘Prince Charles’.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black argued that New Labour’s justification for the Royal prerogative showed a distrust of the people. Brendan O’Neill looked at the barriers to a Republic of Britain, and explained why he was sick of Royale with sleaze stories. He also saw the abolition of the monarchy in Nepal as a great day for democracy. Neil Davenport warned of the return of the aristocrats. And Vicky Richardson explained why she heckled the Prince of Wales. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Succession laws are outdated – PM Brown, Total Catholic, 26 November 2009

(2) See The Act of Settlement and the Protestant Succession, House of Commons Library, 26 November 2009

(3) Royal succession law outdated, Guardian, 25 November 2009

(4) Gordon Brown wants to end ‘discrimination’ against women and Catholics over throne, Telegraph, 27 March 2009

(5) Cited in The Act of Settlement and the Protestant Succession, House of Commons Library, 26 November 2009

(6) p15, The Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, Thomas Paine, Oxford Univeristy Press, 1998

(7) p19, The Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, Thomas Paine, Oxford Univeristy Press, 1998

(8) p15, The Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, Thomas Paine, Oxford Univeristy Press, 1998

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today