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Messing with the monarchy

Monday, 14 January 2013 - 10:49am IST Updated: Monday, 14 January 2013 - 10:50am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
History tells us that we tinker with our unwritten constitution at our peril, says Andrew Roberts.
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The news that the Prince of Wales has expressed reservations about aspects of the Government's new Succession to the Crown Bill - and has expressed them to Richard Heaton, the permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office - is very welcome. It shows that he is already taking seriously his obligations to, in Walter Bagehot's phrase, "advise, encourage and warn" about potential constitutional problems, of which this new legislation abounds.

With the riots in Ulster reminding us that the issue of religion is still one capable of igniting strong feelings in the United Kingdom, the Government is proposing nothing less than the possibility that in time, Britain should no longer be a Protestant country, as judged by the criterion of the monarch's religious observance. The British people have not been asked in any party's general election manifesto about this massive and fundamental change. Mere opinion-polling has been deemed enough, along with Nick Clegg's intoning in Parliament that the new Bill "is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights".

Prince Charles is correct to warn that there are serious issues with the Bill that might have unintended consequences, which have simply not been thought through. When one tinkers with accepted conventions and laws reaching back centuries - the Dukedom of Cornwall was founded in 1337, for example, and the Bill of Rights was passed in 1689 - one ought to know precisely what the upshot will be of every permutation of future possibilities.

Wars have been fought, blood has been shed and the Reformation, perhaps the greatest political and cultural revolution in our history, was undertaken over precisely the issues that the Government is now blithely fiddling with - largely, one suspects, out of considerations of political correctness rather than a sense that something is severely wrong with our constitution.

It would be good to know whether Heaton was able to answer the Prince's questions, among which might have been: if the eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge marries a Roman Catholic - which could well happen in the next quarter-century or so - and his or her spouse insists under Roman canon law to bring up their child as a Catholic, will the Cambridges' grandchild nonetheless become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England on succession? Could the C of E remain the Established Church under a Catholic monarch, and could it undertake the Coronation of a Catholic according to Anglican rites? Is nearly half a millennium of Established Anglicanism and the rights of succession - which have proved central to social peace in Britain since the expulsion of James II - really going to be tossed away, largely on the basis of Clegg's fondness for the European Convention on Human Rights? If the Duchy of Cornwall is to descend down the female line in the event of the Cambridges having a girl first, what precedent might that set for other British peerages?

Prince Charles is right to be wary of tinkering with our unwritten constitution, as history shows that our system has always found ways around the rules - and prevailed.

For all that the Royal family were meant to steer clear of direct involvement in politics, King George V did a great deal of good at the time of the Round Table Conference of 1930-31 in the area of guiding India towards self-government, just as his father had been at the forefront of the creation of the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904. British post-imperial withdrawal symptoms would undoubtedly have been much worse - look at the French experience over Algeria - if the Queen hadn't flung herself into the job of making the Commonwealth worthwhile, a pretty thankless task for much of her reign, but now widely seen as far-sighted statesmanship.

It is precisely because the constitution is unwritten that the Royal family can make subtle contributions to public life behind the scenes, and Prince Charles carries on in that tradition. What isn't needed is the kind of heavy-footed alteration of the constitution by law in the manner of the Succession to the Crown Bill, especially when there is no popular outcry supporting it. This is the greatest alteration of the rules concerning the monarchy since the Abdication Crisis, yet, unlike the danger of crowning an American divorcee as Queen of England, seen in 1936 as unthinkable, there was absolutely no peril involved in carrying on as before. Such issues also give a (probably faulty) impression that the Coalition is not concentrating on the important things it ought to be doing, rather than attempting to fix something that isn't broken.

Prince Charles is understood not to oppose the proposed changes, but he has every right to wonder why he and Prince William were not involved in the deliberations from the start, especially as the direct line-of-succession Windsors are about to produce another generation.

The proposed changes, and the very mention of the European Convention on Human Rights, show how the Government is intent on treating the Headship of State as just yet another civil servant doing a public job. In so doing, they ignore the obvious fact that the entire concept of a hereditary monarchy is so ancient, so unlike any other institution in public life, and so inherently, gloriously, irrational that as soon as one attempts to apply modern criteria to it - especially today's human rights and equal opportunities legislation as laid down in the European Convention - one undermines the single strongest reason for existence: its uniqueness. It is a phenomenon upon which we should not, in Bagehot's other phrase, "let in daylight upon magic".

It is precisely because the monarchy is so wonderfully atavistic, archaic and unusual - unlike anything else in society - that it exercises such power over the imagination, connecting Britons to their pre-Norman past. To attempt to apply the values of our modern politically correct age to a concept that dates back to Saxon times is ludicrous.

When David Cameron says that sexism is a "way of thinking at odds with the modern countries that we have become", he is, of course, right. But, as these amendments to the 1701 Act of Settlement, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1772 Royal Marriages Act remind us, accession to the Throne is already grossly discriminatory on the grounds of something far more serious even than sex, age, race, sexual orientation, disability and religion, namely sheer accident of birth.

You cannot by law become monarch unless you are a direct descendant of King George II (who reigned between 1727 and 1760), which is therefore discriminatory to the 99.9999 per cent of Britons who aren't. If the law already discriminates against all but about 30 people out of the nearly seven billion on the planet, is it such a glorious blow for sexual and religious equality to abolish the right of male primogeniture in order to benefit one of Prince William's daughters?

Does Clegg also intend to apply health and safety legislation to the Coronation? (A monarch has to wear the 39oz Imperial State Crown - with four rubies, 11 emeralds, 16 sapphires, 277 pearls, and 2,783 diamonds - for three hours.) Or the European Working Time Directive to the duties of the Queen, who at 86 still carries out over 500 engagements a year?

The monarchy isn't just another civil service job offered in the Appointments section of the Guardian; it is profoundly different and ought to be treated as such. It is the very archaisms that give it strength; they reflect British history and tradition, not the passing enthusiasms of the 21st century.

There might be no reason beyond historical precedent why Prince William's younger son should succeed to the Throne before an elder sister, but neither is there any rational explanation to the solemn anointment by oil, a ceremony that can be traced back to biblical times. To attempt to apply our generational chauvinism to traditions going back centuries, on the grounds of what we today consider "fair", is absurd. Furthermore, why should the elder daughter succeed before any younger daughter of Prince William? That smacks of unacceptable age discrimination under the European Convention.

If the proposed new law had been in place in 1901, at the time of the death of Queen Victoria, one of the few truly deranged psychopathic heads of state of modern Europe, Kaiser Wilhelm II, would have become King of England on the death of his mother, Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, the Empress Vicky of Germany, later that same year. Under Clegg's proposed new rules, a man partly responsible for the outbreak of the Great War, and who advocated the gassing of Jews "like mosquitoes", would have sat on the British throne. How arrogant we are in thinking that our beliefs should trump our ancestors' when it comes to an institution as ancient as the monarchy, and how right Prince Charles is in trying to explore the unintended consequences before it's too late.

 


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