Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Equal rights for Royal Princesses ... the curious case of succession reform

Good luck to Evan Harris, LibDem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, who is to introduce a Private Members' Bill to reform the Royal Succession rules.

'Equal rights for Royal Princesses' is not the most radical of slogans. But we have a settled consensus on a constitutional monarchy, and it ought not to enshrine gender discrimination which persists only through inertia. Who will make a principled defence of male primogeniture? And removing the bar on heirs marrying a Catholic is sensible and overdue. The idea that this threatens the position of the Established Church is a red herring. (After all, there is no current requirement that the Monarch's spouse be a Protestant: they can be an agnostic, atheist, Sikh, Muslim or Hindu. It is a purely anti-Catholic offensive anachronism).

Similar reforms were proposed by the Fabian Monarchy Commission in 2003. Lord Dubs - Alf to his friends - made a previous attempt in 2005 to bring forward a Parliamentary Bill for what he called these "breathtakingly modest" reforms,backed by Ann Taylor, former Leader of the Commons (and no fiery radical), who said the Bill was intended as a "gentle nudge" to the government to finally act on this issue.

The Times' leader writers were thunderingly in favour of reform.

The rules that surround the succession to the throne are among the most anachronistic and indefensible. The reform proposals would provide for new and far more relevant arrangements... it would be intriguing to see how any parliamentarian could publicly defend the present method of succession. The British constitution might always be puzzling. It should not take pride in being ostentatiously bonkers."

So how bizarre that this move was stonewalled as too difficult by Lord Falconer, in just about the most timid and conservative response imaginable. (It would all be very complicated; the government would have to write to the Commonwealth; perhaps there would be unintended consequences. His worst argument: there was no pressing need given that no individuals were affected. Of course, the best time to reform is before any specific individuals would be affected).

What few remember - and which the government itself seemed to have forgotten - is that it had announced its support for changing the rules on male primogeniture, and promised to bring forward its own measures (because a private members' bill was not an appropriate way to proceed) to reform the succession laws. That was 11 years ago!

This is what Lord Williams told the House of Lords, on behalf of the government, on 27th February 1998, in response to a Bill from none other than Lord (Jeffrey) Archer of Weston Super Mare.

There can be no real reason for not giving equal treatment to men and women in this respect. We do not think that, whatever its merits, a Private Peer's Bill is an appropriate vehicle for so important a change as the one we have been debating. A major constitutional measure of this sort ought properly to be the subject of a government Bill. We shall be considering how best to carry this forward within government and in consultation with the Royal Family.

Under the Statute of Westminster 1931, before any alteration in the law touching the succession to the Throne can take effect the assent of all those countries of which Her Majesty is Queen is required. The United Kingdom cannot act unilaterally. That is another good reason for introducing a government measure. It would seem very odd to the legislatures of the 15 Realms to be invited to consider assenting to legislation instigated by an individual Member of your Lordships' House.

I cannot tell noble Lords today precisely how we shall be taking this forward. A number of suggestions have been made today for further changes in the law governing succession to the Throne. We shall of course look at these - in consultation of course with the Royal Family - but the only issue on which a decision has been taken is that which is the subject of the noble Lord's Bill: equality of treatment for men and women in relation to the succession to the Throne.

Lord Williams also revealed that the Queen was quite happy with the measure. Indeed Buckingham Palace have again signalled more recently that they think it would be a useful move. (After all, who would get the flak if Prince William had a first born girl who was then discriminated against in the line of succession?). I have been told by Buckingham Palace that they must take the view that it is not for the Palace to publicly intervene in this issue of public politics and policy, as in any other, which are for government and Parliament to decide. At the same time, Parliament fears going anywhere near the Monarchy for fear of 'politicisation'. This risks making the Monarchy not just the apex of our Constitution, but its Bermuda Triangle.

So the government should use Evan Harris' Bill to finally move. Otherwise we will continue to have, as Mary Riddell has written, the curious case where "the Queen is actually a closet moderniser whose feminist instincts are being frustrated by a Labour government".

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