Gordon Brown in talks to end ban on Catholics joining royal family
* Nicholas Watt in Brasilia
* The Guardian, Friday 27 March 2009
Gordon Brown has opened discussions with Buckingham Palace about ending the “anomaly”, dating back to the 1701 Act of Settlement, that bans Catholics from marrying into the royal family.
In a major departure from the line taken by Tony Blair, who rejected calls to overturn the ban, the prime minister has decided to take steps towards reforming laws drawn up when Britain was consumed by anti-Catholic sentiment.
Brown has raised the matter with the palace, which is said to be open to dialogue. The prime minister has also talked about the changes with leaders of commonwealth countries, who would have to give their approval…
The myriad of laws governing the position of the British monarch can only be amended with the agreement of countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand where the Queen is also head of state. Brown will raise it at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, to be attended by the Queen, that will take place in the Caribbean in November…
Brown has decided to launch a process that would create the greatest constitutional upheaval in centuries as he believes the laws on succession are highly antiquated. But he accepts it will take time.
The biggest effect of discussion to change the rules for the line of succession of the monarchy is that it breaks the spell of the monarchy as a bastion of continuous stability. The first change is the most difficult. What about a second change? What if someone finds themselves on the throne whom the public have taken a dislike to? Would public opinion polls encourage a new Prime Minister to initiate another little change to the rules of succession? How would the Commonwealth realms feel about these changes, and what would happen if one of the Commonwealth realms says no to the changes? Would an unpopular monarch lead both to a rapid modification of the rules for succession in the UK and prompt some of the Commonwealth realm nations to seek out their own arrangements for appointing an indigenous head of state for their nation?
Introduce some way to select among a pool of suitable contenders or include some form of a public vote for selecting a person to act as head of state, and even if it were all under the Crown, such a Crowned Republic would be a republic indeed. The distinguishing feature of a monarchy is the hereditary basis of succession. You could still have a Crown but without a monarchy. You just have to make sure that rules for the regular election to select a person to act as head of state under the Crown are open and democratic, sufficiently defined and are difficult to change. The strength of the British monarchy as an institution was in the Act of Settlement that defined the line of succession and that was not changed for a long time. One of the benefits of a monarchy and strict rules to define succession is that it would prevent rival family groups from trying to seize power by force in a civil war. With well defined rule of succession any power grab by a rival family would not have legitimacy, or at least not until they set down their own rules for succession in law and have someone seated on the Throne for an extended amount of time.
The Crown seems to me to be a different concept to The Throne. Many of the criticisms of republicans about models for a Crowned Republic, such as mine with state-based elections and a rotating presidency, could be based on a perspective that equates the concept of The Throne with the concept of The Crown. In Australia our ministers are ministers of the Crown. We have Crown lands. Our defence forces have a special relationship with The Crown. The legal profession has developed conventions and rules for testing the fair exercise of power by the Crown. A Throne, however, is a seat of POWER.
A throne is the official chair or seat upon which a monarch is seated on state or ceremonial occasions. “Throne” in an abstract sense can also refer to the monarchy or the Crown itself, an instance of metonymy, and is also used in many terms such as “the power behind the throne”…
In our constitutional monarchy power is vested in the monarch and the Throne but convention has it that the monarch does not exercise that power. Power is enacted through the rules of government and the Westminster conventions with the monarch being more to legitimise the exercise of that government power by the ministers of the Crown. It may be crude to say that the shift from the Throne of an absolute monarch to the Crown in a constitutional monarchy over the centuries has been a shift from the crude exercise of arbitrary power of someone like Henry VIII to the rule based principles of liberal democracy as it is under Elizabeth II. You could also make an anatomical analogy of the shift in the nature of power just as easily.
The Throne is different to the Crown, although with a monarchy the two concepts can sometimes be used interchangeably. The Throne is a seat of power while the Crown represents a more complex set of rules and practices for legitimate government. They are not quite the same thing. The monarchy is definitely associated with the Throne. The monarchy, however, need not be associated with The Crown, in my view. I think there are clear advantages for maintaining a link with our symbols of government and power to the time of kings, because it adds a perspective and context for the exercise of power in a liberal democracy. It helps with the imagination. We can learn about the excesses of people like Henry VIII and learn about the progression from tyranny to our liberal democracy. The population is less likely to be gulled by political spin if there was a wider appreciation of history.