Saturday, 16 April 2011

Equal rights for Royal Princesses! (ever so gradually)

The Telegraph website runs the unintentionally amusing headline.

Royal Wedding: Prince William and Kate Middleton's daughter could become Queen

Well, that hypothetical girl certainly has rather more chance of being crowned than most of you.

But not as much chance as she ought to have (if my Republican friends will grant the premise that they, at least, have some work to do to secure public consent for the end of the monarchy).

This imagined future Princess would have to fall in line behind a next born younger brother if we do not change the male primogeniture rules in the Royal Succession.

The government may finally be getting around to changing that.

"No bar to throne for Kate's first born girl" is the Telegraph's print headline.

Or perhaps not, as this most gradualist of reforms continues to move at a snail's pace.

The case for equal rights for Royal Princesses would be a "breathtakingly modest reform" as my Fabian Executive colleague Lord Dubs said, in introducing private legislation in 2005, to give the government of the day a gentle nudge to do the obvious thing, following the moderate and sensiblist reform agenda of the Fabian Monarchy Commission. LibDem Evan Harris picked up the issue in 2009. And you know that you really do have a broad political consensus when you remember that even the (pre-disgrace) Tory peer Jeffrey Archer had earlier tried to pursue the reform back in 1998, being told the government was supportive and would bring forward its own plans to do this.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is now the latest to pursue a reform which is a complete no brainer. As those dangerous radicals who write The Times' leading articles pointed out in support of Dubs' Bill "it would be intriguing to see how any parliamentarian could publicly defend the present method of succession" given that there was "anachronistic" and "indefensible", suggesting that "The British constitution might always be puzzling. It should not take pride in being ostentatiously bonkers".

(This blog was rather amused by Tory backbench MP Phillip Davies' attempt to speak against Harris' Bill, a project which almost foundered on his being unable to think of an argument for his position. The only logical reason for refusing the change that I can identify would be tactical from a Republican fringe who, despite supporting the principle of gender equality, would prefer not to bother with the reform, in the hope that not doing so might yet discredit the Monarchy).

It should therefore be surprising that Prime Minister David Cameron, enough of a Monarchist to have slept on the Mall in 1981, is reported to be among the foot-draggers this time, being "less keen on the change due to the complications involved" according to the Telegraph, and believing there are other legislative priorities.

Nick Clegg is right to say that the issue ought now to have some priority, perhaps even urgency, as there might be some chance of the Royal couple having children in the next year or two after their marriage. It would make a rather fitting Royal wedding present from this pro-Monarchy government, as Mary Riddell argued last week.

Take one fluke scenario, where the Royal Couple were to have twins in the next year or two, with a girl being born before the boy. The boy would take precedence. And there would then be an argument about changing the Royal succession rules in a way which would advantage and disadvantage actually existing individuals.

Less dramatically, the birth of a daughter would create something of a race to complete the procedural details (which would, happily, suddenly prove much easier to expedite than Whitehall had previously thought possible).

Even in these messier "missed the boat" scenarios, the grounds for non-discrimination would remain much stronger, as grievances at the unfairness to the older girl would endure. And it would be more than stretching an argument to argue a pro-primogeniture case on the principle that this made the change 'retrospective'. The longevity of the Windsors suggests that the succession in question may well take place sometime after 2070.

Still, a standard litany of pretty pointless reasons for prevarication and delay are always available, and are faithfully wheeled out again today: the need to consult 15 other governments to make the proposal (if only there were some modern means to communicate with them!), to secure time in the Canadian and Australian legislatures, and so on. (It is particularly bizarre to worry about this precipitating the end of the Monarchy in Australia: that a question which will one day be settled by an Australian referendum on the core principle, where most people expect the country to choose to be a Republic at some point, perhaps after the Queen's reign. Maintaining male primogeniture will do nothing to alter the outcome either way, and is unlikely to dramatically effect the date of its resolution either).

It is a rather curious argument for politicians like Cameron who do give a damn about the Monarchy to argue that it should have the lowest possible legislative priority. A "progressive conservative" Tory leader ought to jump at a reform which sends a modern signal about the value of gender equality and, in doing so, bolsters the public legitimacy of a cherished traditional institution. (And few people would, however, miss the NHS bill if the current tactical "pause" could turn into more of a full stop! Cameron could then strike a chord with the British people over two of our most popular national institutions. (Such a strategy might even bolster support for the Monarchy among Liberal Democrats and the broader left!)

The Telegraph reports that Clegg "has already raised the matter at the Privy Council, and is understood to have obtained the Queen’s consent to the move if this proves to be the will of the people". That is indeed a correct interpretation of the Monarch's constitional role - and YouGov report that it is indeed "the will of the people", by 75 per cent to 17.

This advance might be even more newsworthy had government minister Lord Williams told the House of Lords for the government back in 1998 that the Queen was supportive of the reform.

I should make it clear straight away that before reaching a view the Government of course consulted the Queen. Her Majesty had no objection to the Government's view that in determining the line of succession to the throne daughters and sons should be treated in the same way. There can be no real reason for not giving equal treatment to men and women in this respect.

Williams was then criticised by some Peers for breaking the convention on expressing the Monarch's views on any public issue. But Buckingham Palace have been perfectly clear for years in public and private that they would have no problem at all with the reform - and believe it would be good for the Monarchy - but that, constitutionally, it is an issue for the elected politicians and not one that they can publicly get in front of the government on.

If it really could still take "many years" to complete the formalities, as constitutional affairs minister Mark Harper believes, then that is again an argument for expediting the process rather than continuing to prevaricate about whether to embark on it seriously.

The government could still act this year with cross-party support to address the potential problem of being overtaken by events. For example, why not pass some type of symbolic government-sponsored resolution in the House of Commons which signals a pretty unanimous cross-party consensus for the principle of overturning primogeniture and for legislating alongside Commonwealth Parliaments. This would in itself probably do enough to remove any contention about the legislation possibly not being in place before future Royal heirs arrive.

That could be extended by a statement of support for the principle from the governments concerned, coinciding with their participation in Commonwealth summit this Autumn, and to seek Parliamentary resolutions affirming that afterwards, with the process of legislation then being something that could be addressed at the current snail's pace at little cost.

It is one of the consequences of a Monarchy is that the intimately personal inevitably has political circumstances.

Few political decisions have ever reshaped British culture and society more than Henry VIII's wish to marry somebody else, breaking with Rome and so Europe to achieve it.

The constitutional insistence on a governmental and Parliamentary veto on the King's marriage plans had important and benign effects in the 1930s, fortunately removing a pro-fascist from the British throne.

Relationship breakdown and divorce did a great deal more to rock the Monarchy in the three decades since 1981's fairytale wedding than any Republican advocacy during the period, though the turbulence has ultimately left public attitudes to the Monarchy much where they were all along.

So perhaps the government has two choices about how to approach such delicate issues as to the future production of girl or boy heirs and spares.

Cameron could send Nick Clegg as an emissary to the Royal Couple to intrude in great detail into their current thinking is about birth control and the timing of starting a family, to find out how long the government might prevaricate further before attempting a "just in time" reform.

Or, which might make much more sense, he could just take Clegg's argument over his own and get on with perhaps the most incrementally British constitutional reform it is possible to imagine.


The last Labour government reformed almost ever area of the Constitution, yet was allergic to the risks of making even such modest, moderate and indeed pro-monarchy reforms. Lord Falconer rather absurdly told Dubs that the last government was not minded to rush into "complex" (!) change - perhaps strengthening Falconer's own claim to the sometimes rather heavily contested crown of 'most constitutionally conservative member of the Labour party' (though, even from that perspective, it might be as well to protect the Monarchy from what would become an obvious public fairness grievance).

As Mary Riddell wrote in The Observer back in 2006, Falconer entirely missed the point in claiming that it was 'not the right time for change' because the current heir and his sons are both male.

how bizarre that the Queen is actually a closet moderniser whose feminist instincts are being frustrated by a Labour government. Last year, Lord Dubs gave up on his modest bill, backed by the Fabian Society, to end the objectionable rule that a man must always take the throne in preference to an older sister.

A few days ago, Dubs again asked the Lord Chancellor whether the government had any plans to abolish primogeniture. Lord Falconer gave a tart answer. While deploring gender discrimination, he said there was 'no groundswell for change at the moment'. Since the heir and his two children were all male, now was 'not the time to embark on change'. This prompted a harrumphing endorsement from Earl Ferrers, who is to progressive government what William of Orange was to podcasting.

Falconer's reply was, though, doubly bad. Now is the only time to change. By the time William has children to consider, it will be too late. Soon after the House of Lords exchange, a newspaper claimed that the Palace was urging reform, and that William, in particular, was 'keen on the change to give female royals equal rights'.

It would be worrying if William took any other view. Those close to the Queen have privately told many people, me included, that she is happy to end primogeniture. Now, even the formal Palace line is that her view has not varied since Lord Williams of Mostyn told the Lords, in 1988, that Her Majesty would not object if the government were to abolish the male succession.


David Lindsay said...

Male primogeniture sends an important signal: that the male line matters means that fathers matter, and that they have to face up to their responsibilities, with every assistance (including censure where necessary) from the wider society, including when it acts politically as the State.

So, a legal presumption of equal parenting. Restoration of the tax allowance for fathers for so long as Child Benefit is being paid to mothers. Restoration of the requirement that providers of fertility treatment take account of the child’s need for a father. Repeal of the ludicrous provision for two women to be listed as a child’s parents on a birth certificate, although even that is excelled by the provision for two men to be so listed. And paternity leave to be made available at any time until the child was 18 or left school.

That last, in particular, would reassert paternal authority, and thus require paternal responsibility, at key points in childhood and adolescence. That authority and responsibility require an economic basis such as only the State can ever guarantee, and such as only the State can very often deliver. And that basis is high-wage, high-skilled, high-status employment. All aspects of public policy must take account of this urgent social and cultural need. Not least, that includes energy policy: the energy sources to be preferred by the State are those providing the high-wage, high-skilled, high-status jobs that secure the economic basis of paternal authority in the family and in the wider community. So, nuclear power. And coal, not dole.

But no more fathers’ wars, not least since those sent to war tend to come from working-class backgrounds, where starting to have children often still happens earlier than has lately become the norm. Think of those very young men whom we see going off or coming home, hugging and kissing their tiny children. Paternal authority cannot be affirmed while fathers are torn away from their children and harvested in wars. You can believe in fatherhood, or you can support wars under certainly most and possibly all circumstances, the latter especially in practice today even if not necessarily in the past or in principle. You cannot do both.

Robert said...

Interestingly, had full primogeniture prevailed, Queen Elizabeth II would not have come to the throne. Instead of the Edward VII and the Windsors, the title would have passed via Queen Victoria's eldest daughter (also Victoria) to her son... Kaiser Wilhelm II. We may have averted the Great War and the rise of Nazism, but at what expense?

Minor typo: Henry VIII broke from Rome, not his Dad.

Is there a Primogeniture Society I can join? Shall we set one up?

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. Whatever the merits of those various points, I am not convinced. I think fathers matter. I don't think it requires gender discrimination in the line of succession to establish that, or that keeping it does much or anything to do that. It will feel less like a pro-father than an anti-daughter point to most people. Why not use the same logic to bar female Monarchs entirely? Does that make a pro-father point? It would be a disproportionate one. But so is primogeniture in the succession in my view.


thanks. interesting post on your own site.

typo: thanks. I've changed that. was a typo, and it looks truly daft to say henry vii.