Reforming the British Monarchy

The decision to allow daughters of the British monarch to take precedence over younger sons is a welcome one, but hereditary monarchy remains a fundamentally irrational system.

James VI and I united the crowns of England and Scotland a century before political union. 'Triumphus Jacobi Ergis Augustaeque ipsius Prolis', printed after James' death, shows his progeny including his successor Charles I.In October it was announced at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in the Australian city of Perth that moves are to be made to reform the Act of Settlement of 1701 to allow daughters of the monarch to take precedence over younger sons in the line of succession. This will affect not just the British throne but also the 16 Queen’s realms where the British monarch serves as head of state. There are also plans to lift the ban on the monarch being married to a Roman Catholic.

The reforms, which have the support of the Queen and the Prime Minister David Cameron, have been presented as a victory for rationality. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. It is a nod, a welcome one, to contemporary mores of gender equality and religious tolerance. Edmund Burke would approve of such gentle evolution, as would the Queen’s grandfather George V, who was among the first to understand that if the monarchy did not adapt to the world as it was, it would go the way of most of the royal families of Europe. Yet hereditary monarchy remains fundamentally elitist and irrational, a living lottery that is as likely to produce a fool as a fount of wisdom.

The only way in which we can judge the value of a constitutional monarchy is empirically: does it work? For most people, though few of them are ardent monarchists, it does. There appears to be no great clamour for republicanism; if anything the Queen has become more popular as times have become harder. Shrewd and dignified, she is a symbol of continuity and stability at a time when those qualities are in short supply and she remains one of the few widely respected figures in British public life. What’s more, if we look around at other constitutional monarchies – the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Canada, for example – they tend to be rather pleasant places in which to live.

However, the process of reform will be a little more laborious than it has been portrayed in the media and history may well throw tacks on the path of good intentions. It will require amendments to various acts and bills going back more than three centuries. These include the Coronation Oaths Act of 1688, the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Crown in Parliament Act of the same year, the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 and the Accession Declaration Act of 1910. Most controversially the changes concerning religion will require amendments to the Act of Union of 1707, during which it may become apparent, at a time when Scottish nationalism is in the ascendant, that the union is simply a treaty between two separate, sovereign polities, a fact unionists tend to gloss over and one likely to further embolden Scottish cries for independence. Yet whatever the outcome to that particular struggle it seems that, on both sides of the Tweed, the same monarch and her descendants, male and female, will remain as head of state for some time to come.

Read Paul Lay's article in The Guardian on the changes to the order of succession.

From the archive:

Britain's Enchanted Monarchy

Tom Nairn looks at the role of the monarchy and its impact on British national identity.

James VI & I

Jenny Wormald reviews the career of the man who was King of Scotland for fifty-seven years and King of England for twenty-two, and whose great dream was to create a unified kingdom of Great Britain.