A hereditary head of state and a system based on sexism and religious discrimination have no place in 21st-century Britain
The government’s plans to update the monarchy are welcome so far as they go, but they do not go very far. Removing the sex and religious discrimination embedded in the British constitution – the 1701 Act of Settlement – is long overdue. But the anomaly remains: why should an important public office, that of head of state, be filled, not on merit or by public election, but exclusively by the descendants of a 17th-century German princess?
Under the British constitution, it is the Act of Settlement which determines upon whom the crown shall descend. It reads today as a blood curdling anti-catholic diatribe, providing that any monarch who holds communion with the Church of Rome or marries a papist shall be unthroned immediately. It creates for the UK a white Anglo-German protestant head of state – descending from the body of the Princess Sophia of Hanover according to the feudal principle of primogeniture, which requires inheritance down the male line. This is in blatant contravention of the Sex Discrimination Act whilst the requirement that the monarch be an Anglican amounts to discrimination on grounds of religion and is contrary to the Human Rights Act. Why would Charles be unfit to be king if he became a Methodist, or a Hindu or Muslim or Rastarfarian? It is wholly unacceptable to have this primitive bigotry embodied in the rules for choosing a head of state. The laws which define and protect the royal family breach at least four articles of the European convention on human rights. They are obsolete and obnoxious.
There are many other laws relating to the royal family, most of which are merely silly (although the monarch’s immunity from any legal action may not be amusing if you are run over by a royal motorcade): I do not really object to the law which vests property in every wild white swan in the realm in the Queen, nor to the fact that every whale, sturgeon or grampus landed in the kingdom belongs to her. Actually, the law states that the heads of what it terms “the royal fish” should belong to the King and their tails to the Queen. On vital matters like these, our constitution is very explicit.
It is much less clear about trifling details such as which party gets to form the government in a hung parliament. But there you go. If you don’t write down your rules, they will be invented or manipulated by those in power at the time. We have an Alice-in-Wonderland constitution which means what the prime minister wants it to mean.
Instead of a written constitution, we have a patchwork quilt of ancient and outdated laws, supplemented by the conventions and traditions made up as we merrily and royally roll along. As a result we have no independent head of state. The monarch now accepts the advice – that’s a euphemism for obeying the directions – of the government of the day. We lack an elected and respected figurehead, whose wisdom and integrity can provide moral leadership and independent political judgment in times of crisis. One inevitable result of choosing a head of state by inheritance rather than election is that in a crisis they may lack the confidence, popularity and independence needed to make any worthwhile contribution to the governance of Britain.
That is a pity, if only because the concept of an independent elected head of state is useful in a modern constitution, as one check on the power of a government which has no other checks and balances, other than a judiciary to keep it straight at the edges and a press to yap at its more obvious blunders. It has no supreme court to pull it up short for violating the guarantees made to its citizens by a bill of rights.
The head of state should be someone who embodies the outlook that most people want to see projected onto the world stage as representative of their nation: a figure available to serve as leader in cases of government crisis or collapse. Good luck apart, the British monarchy will not provide – by sexist, racist or religiously discriminatory descent – the calibre of leadership that can be provided by elections every seven years for head of state.
The head of state is an important public office. Its occupant must be consulted by the prime minister and is required to advise and to warn the government of the day. In an emergency, the head of state’s political savvy and street wisdom might prove crucial: in Trinidad in 1990, for example, the president had to run the country for a week and deal with a crisis when the prime minister and cabinet were held as hostages in parliament by Islamic terrorists. Australians will never forget the historic misjudgement of their governor-general (and de facto head of state) in 1975, when in the name of the Queen he sacked the Whitlam government. What would the Queen do in such circumstances in Britain, or if an election resulted in a deadlock? It is demeaning to democracy to have this office filled by descent from one massively wealthy upper class family, and not by merit (eg a head of state elected by parliament) or preferably, elected by the people. It is also dangerous: no one could seriously expect the Queen herself to handle the sort of emergency that occurred in Trinidad.
Tom Paine pointed out that a hereditary head of state was as ridiculous as a hereditary poet or a hereditary mathematician. He overlooked the entertainment potential in a hereditary royal family – one reason why every tabloid will fight to preserve ours. No government could envisage their abolition, at least in the Queen’s lifetime, although the constitution could be rewritten to give the monarchy only a very small part of it. They could run castles, hold royal garden parties at Buckingham Palace, take overseas trips to maintain Commonwealth ties, and boost the trade in whisky, jam and boot polish that comes “by royal appointment.” The monarchy could, in other words, be stripped of its political status whilst retaining its symbolic position. The head of state would be a president, elected every seven years to advise the government, inspire the people and open (and if necessarily close) the parliament.
If the monarchy is to have a fighting chance of playing a useful part in the governments of 21st century Britain, it will permit itself to be stripped of the Act of Settlement’s sex and religious discrimination, and accept a secular and minimal role as custodians of its own history, a role which should be clearly defined in a written constitution.