Saturday, 28 March 2009

Messing with the monarchy

The attempt by Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris to rewrite the rules of royal succession may not have got very far in Parliament yesterday, but they certainly made a splash outside. It's hardly surprising that Gordon Brown should relish this Ruritanian distraction from his handling of the economy, hence journalists were briefed that the prime minister had consulted the queen about changes to the 1701 Act of Settlement (which excludes Catholics) and to the principle of male primogeniture. It's an easy way to attract favourable coverage, after all. To most people the current rules are discriminatory, anachronistic and, as Harris primly put it in the Commons, "not acceptable in this day and age". But isn't the whole idea of having a monarchy discriminatory and anachronistic, whether the monarch is male or female, Catholic or Protestant, an intellectual or a buffoon? (Prince Charles, of course, believes himself to be the former.)

Tidying up old laws that almost everyone agrees are silly will create no more than the appearance of equity. I suspect that some of those nodding in agreement with Dr Harris would suddenly start shifting their feet if we had a prince of Wales (or a princess) who converted to Islam or Scientology, or who was openly gay. My main problem with the debate as it has unfolded over the past day or so, however, is its tone of preening 21st century self-congratulation. The monarchy is held wanting because it was not designed to specifications laid down by a New Labour quango. Yet, at least as regards women's rights, the monarchy might be described as the first progressive institution. For centuries it was ahead of the curve.

For hundreds of years, there were very few career options open to women beyond nun, prostitute, and witch. Women worked, of course, but mainly in the home or as servants of one kind or another. Not until the eighteenth century do we see a career in which it was possible for a woman to compete on more-or-less equal terms with the men: writing. In the following century came nursing, teaching and, eventually, medicine. But it was not until well into the twentieth century that women were able to enter politics or the law, and in the military they have had to wait until the 21st. It is unlikely in the extreme that there will ever be (another) female pope. Yet for all this time it has been open to women - a small handful of women, admittedly, and only when no suitable man was available - to be a queen.

This is no small thing. The United States of America, a country that has always seen itself as being at the cutting edge of modernity, still awaits its first female president. So does France, which like many countries never allowed women to ascend the throne. Yet pre-revolutionary China - archaic, stagnant, regressive - was for decades controlled by an empress. So was Russia for most of the 18th century, the period during which it joined the modern world. We too have had our queens, of course - one of whom, Elizabeth I, actually did something worthwhile. Its openness to women set the monarchy apart: other titles and estates were handed down exclusively down the male line, a tradition that caused such anguish to Jane Austen's Mr Bennett.

Although we have only recently achieved anything approaching sexual equality in society as a whole - a process still far from complete, of course - a monarchy which for centuries allowed some women to exercise supreme power is damned as sexist, reactionary and in need of reform. It is, of course, not logical that boys should have precedence over girls, younger sons over elder daughters. But then it is not logical that there should be a monarchy at all. It is certainly not logical that, given the potentially disastrous principle of hereditary succession, there should be no mechanism for distinguishing among the various children (or collateral descendants) of the reigning monarch which is most fitted to rule. It is hardly a great victory for equality if preference for the first born of whatever sex replaces preference for the oldest son. Even the Saudi despotism manages things better, with the throne passed sideways between brothers.

Of course, if Prince William's first born is a girl and the principle of male succession remained unchanged, it would in today's climate create a scandal. And unless the country has turned its back on sexual equality (not wholly impossible), and assuming that there still is a monarchy, it is unlikely that a younger son would be able to accede to the throne with popular support. But that is a bridge that can easily be jumped when or if it is reached. If it's a girl, changing the rule might be done on the nod and in a matter of days; if it's a boy, the need would not arise. Although I suppose the birth of royal mixed-sex twins might complicate matters. Given that it is for the moment a purely theoretical question, there seems little reason to draw attention to the anomaly now. Overturning a hypothetical discrimination against a person who does not exist and might never be born seems a strange priority when there are so many people who do exist and are discriminated against for real.

The monarchy is, at least in the context of the 21st century, an irrational institution. It shouldn't be expected to follow strict utilitarian principles when arranging for the succession. If it is unfair to privilege boys over girls, or to exclude Roman Catholics, then it just as unfair to prefer Prince William over Prince Harry, or either of them over me. A truly modern monarchy would decide the identity of the next king or queen through public vote, perhaps following an apprentice-style knockout competition. But then a truly modern monarchy wouldn't even exist. A monarchy is not about modernity but exists as a living reminder of our history as a nation. Its anomalies are like vestigial organs, showing evidence of evolution, disproving ideas of intelligent design. It is in itself an anomaly. That, arguably, is part of what it is for.

Which brings me to the other allegedly objectionable feature of the succession law, the exclusion of Roman Catholics.

The modernisers would have us believe that our history has been dominated by religious oppression, of which the Act of Settlement embodied. But it would be unfair to dismiss the anti-Catholicism of previous centuries merely as bigotry. It was also - primarily, in fact - opposition to absolutism and the divine right of kings. It was "progressive" (some Guardianistas still seem to think so, judging by what happens whenever Ratzinger opens his mouth). It was noticed, towards the end of the seventeenth century, that English kings who converted to Catholicism aspired to the condition of Louis XIV, whereas Protestant monarchs tended to be low-key and (for the times) democratic. In such circumstances excluding Catholics from the throne must have seemed merely a sensible precaution.

It worked. It worked so well that Britain was spared the constitutional upheavals that afflicted most of Europe and created the world's first modern industrial economy. The clause in the Act of Settlement excluding Catholics would not be passed today, of course; but it is not as a result of today's mindset that the House of Hanover, now renamed Windsor, sits on the throne at all. It may be that after two hundred years the dynasty has served its purpose, as the Tudors and Stuarts (who also lasted around 200 years) served their purpose and were displaced, as the Plantagenets before them came to a murky and bloodsoaked end. In which case, our historical traditions might best be maintained by changing the cast at Buckingham palace and choosing a new royal family more in tune with the modern age. Such a solution would surely catch the public imagination. It could even be Gordon Brown's legacy.


Anonymous said...

the monarchy enables women to stay at home and run things whilst men go off and play at soldiers.

asquith said...

As much as we can point to the obvious ways in which the Vatican is illiberal, & I agree with your point that business such as the Reformation, the Civil War & the Glortious Revolution were driven by forward-thinking (for their times) attitudes, it is also true that the same people* who were responsible for this went on to support Catholic Emancipation, which to make a wild generalisation liberals supported & conservatives opposed.

We seem to have acquired the ability to distinguish between "Catholics" & "the Vatican" some time ago. This is basically because as England became stronger, the threat to it diminished so we could afford tolerance as we were no longer fighting for our lives. A case could certainly be made that the monarch marrying a "Catholic" girl (who may not even be observant) isn't going to cause us any trouble now.

Re: the question of monarchy, I have no great enthusiasm for it & never have, but I think it should be left as it is as there is no pressing case for abolition. The "reform" of the House of Lords demonstrates that this government meddling with the constitution serves no one but them.

*Not literally the same people, I mean people of broadly the same stamp.

The Heresiarch said...

You're right that people can distinguish between Catholics and "the Vatican". The fact remains, however, that Catholicism still gets a very bad press from "liberals". It seems terrible to discriminate against Catholics, even theoretically. In practice, though, I can foresee problems. Imagine, for example, a Catholic monarch being required to give royal assent to an abortion act that had been condemned by the Pope.

mogsmar5 said...

The Monarchy is an anachronism, but that doesn't give cause for its immediate abolition. The Tower of London is an anachronism, but there is no need for it to be demolished. Of course, the Tower of London doesn't have appoint the Prime Minister or own Parliament, but then the Queen only has this power de jure. Is the Monarchy not just a harmless piece of tradition?

asquith said...

It isn't particularly hard for supposedly Catholic politicians in America (& the rest of the western world) to ignore the Pope, though!

I wonder why these people bother to stay in the Church when they could just as easily be atheists, but still.

I haven't taken a view on these proposals, just making general observations & moaning :)

Tom said...

This kind of tinkering just gives us the worst of all possible worlds.

If Catholics are to be allowed into the monarchy then there has to be a way of getting them out again.

Mark Etherton said...

In 1990 King Baudoin of Belgium had exactly the difficulty the Heresiarch mentions about signing an abortion bill. Depending on who you ask, Baudoin either abdicated or was declared temporarily unable to reign from 3 to 5 April. This expedient, although constitutionally a bit dodgy, was generally accepted and since the Belgian government acts as collective Regent when the monarch is unable to reign, they all signed the bill into law. Presumably something similar could be cooked up for a Catholic monarch in the UK.

valdemar squelch said...

An obvious way to reform the monarchy is to have a perpetual 'King/Queen for a Year' TV show with a panel of expert judges. I nominate Dave 'Get ouf of my sight, you vile excresence!' Starkey, Ricky 'One more remark about your spiritual side and I'll give you a microphone enema!' Dawkins, and Steve 'Stop gyrating at once and put your plebeian habiliments back on!' Fry.