The news that Gordon Brown has opened talks with Buckingham Palace over altering the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bars members of the Royal family from succeeding to the throne if they marry Roman Catholics, has profound implications for the long-term future of this country. For the Act of Settlement is not the bigoted, irrelevant and obsolete law that Downing Street presents it as – it is one of the key pieces of legislation that has defined what Britain was and still is. For a Prime Minister who claims to care deeply about the concept of Britishness, the Act should be sacrosanct, rather than sacrificed in a gross bout of politically correct gimmickry.
Britain is a Protestant country today largely because of the Act of Settlement. It secured the Hanoverian succession 13 years after the Glorious Revolution replaced the Catholic King James II with the Protestant William III (of Orange) and Mary II. Since the only surviving son of their daughter, the future Queen Anne, had died, it settled the Crown after her upon the Electoress Sophia of Hanover, a granddaughter of James I, and her heirs – if they were Protestants, and married to Protestants, as indeed the four King Georges were.
Because it is a central tenet of the Catholic Church that the children of Catholics should be raised as Catholics, it was understood that marriage of a Royal opened up the possibility either of a Catholic one day sitting on the Throne, or a Catholic parent committing apostasy by allowing their child to be raised as a Protestant – neither of which were desirable outcomes politically, religiously or morally. Since the monarch is also Supreme Head of the (Protestant) Church of England, above whom there is no one in the Church hierarchy – including the Pope – the ban on Catholics makes further sense.
The Glorious Revolution, Act of Settlement and Protestant succession ushered in a long period of prosperity and order for Britain, and ended a lengthy period of bloodshed and civil war. Religious turmoil was over, and the knowledge that the head of state would always be of the same faith as the national, Established, Anglican Church greatly contributed to that. The emancipation of Catholics proceeded throughout the 19th century, and in 1926 all restrictions were abolished except that the Sovereign, Regent, Lord Chancellor and Lord Keeper could not be Catholics, and that Roman Catholic priests could not sit in the House of Commons. There is no law preventing Catholics marrying into the Royal family, merely from inheriting the Throne if they do. Prince Michael, for example, nobly and uncomplainingly gave up his right to the Throne when he married.
So there is a "discriminatory" ban on Catholics becoming monarch – but since only direct descendants of King George II can do that, 99.9 per cent of us are discriminated against on that basis, whatever our religion. Similarly, the proposals to "open up" the monarchy to women, by scrapping the laws of primogeniture, is another way in which Gordon Brown is treating our thousand-year-old monarchy as though it is just another public-sector job, like those advertised in the Guardian, subject to anti-discrimination legislation.
It is also worth looking at what Brown's proposals would have meant in the past. If they had been in place a century ago, it would have meant that Kaiser Wilhelm II – the only true psychopath to sit on the throne of a major country in recent history – would have become King of England, as the eldest child of the eldest child of Queen Victoria.
Of course, the proposal to have the eldest child inherit regardless of gender is itself just the kind of discriminatory ageism to which Mr Brown is supposed to be opposed. Perhaps there ought to be an examination among the children of the monarch, along the lines of the old civil service exams? Or maybe Mr Brown could set up an interview panel to see who was the best candidate? Why not award the Crown to whoever got the best GCSE results?
The obvious truth is that the whole concept of monarchy – with its coronations, anointings, ancient traditions and customs and usages – is simply not logical in the modern business sense. Attempting to legislate for it rationally leads to absurdities like Mr Brown's.
Considering that these proposed new laws are unlikely to come into practical effect for a couple of decades – assuming Prince William marries the Anglican Kate Middleton – one wonders why the Prime Minister should be bringing this up now? With New Labour's track record for "burying bad news", might this be merely an attempt to detract attention from what really matters?
With the world in a cataclysmic economic meltdown, Gordon Brown has chosen to put forward the proposal that the presently unmarried Prince William's as-yet-unborn children should be allowed to marry Catholics without losing their right to the Throne, and should themselves inherit on the basis of age rather than gender. Is this not a quite deranged set of priorities for our Prime Minister, quite apart from the inherent weakness of the arguments themselves?