Gordon Brown’s administration recently suggested that the 1701 Act of Settlement should be reformed in two ways. Female heirs should be made equal with male heirs, so that primogeniture — the first-born of whichever sex — should inherit (as is now the case in Sweden). And the prohibition against Roman Catholics marrying an heir to the throne should be annulled.
Loyal monarchists reacted to this proposal with suspicion — “equality” is hardly an appropriate concept to be applied to an historic institution which depends on the dynastic principle. As for the Catholic question, the general response was to “leave well enough alone”. It is rarely the main topic of discourse at the Dog and Duck or even McCarthy’s Bar.
Yet I believe it is right to amend the Act of Settlement in a manner that would treat Roman Catholics similarly to persons of any other faith — Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist — marrying a royal heir. That is to say, the spouse in question is quite free to continue to practise her, or his, faith. But it is an agreed tradition that the children be brought up within the Church of England. This would mean that Catholics were no longer uniquely barred from a royal union — but that the monarchy still remained an Anglican institution.
I make this suggestion in the spirit of Burkean conservatism. Edmund Burke laid it down that to be an effective conservative, one must change. Just as, to keep a garden in order, one must prune the flowers. The British monarchy is successful partly because it has been adept at changing gradually while remaining, at its core, the same.
A vivid example of this lies in the case of King Edward VII and the “Protestant declaration”, which was required of British monarchs upon their accession. Edward VII, though described as “a cheerful Protestant” by his authorised biographer, detested sectarianism. He was comfortable in the company of people of all faiths, having many Roman Catholic friends at Marienbad and Biarritz, and indeed in England — his closest friend, Sir Ernest Cassel, though originally Jewish, was a Catholic convert. Edward hated having to make “the Protestant declaration” on his accession in 1901, since at that time it involved a blood-curdling renunciation of all Romish “superstitions”, and a particularly strong condemnation of the cult of the Blessed Virgin. As it happened, Edward had a benign experience of the Marian cult: Marienbad, “Mary’s Well”, was run by monks whom Edward befriended.
Edward also wisely realised that the expanding British Empire contained many Roman Catholics: the greater an empire, the more “inclusive” it must be. He pleaded with the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, to be allowed to alter and simplify the Protestant declaration, and to drop the stream of maledictions against Rome and all her knavish tricks. Salisbury, however, insisted that it must be retained. There would be “riots in the country” if the King did not carry out this historic duty.
The King was thus obliged to obey his Prime Minister, but he made the declaration in such a low and miserable voice that it was noted by all observers. He also impressed upon his son, the future George V, of his wish that it should be changed. And so it was. When George succeeded in 1910, Asquith agreed that the monarch should make a simple declaration that he was a faithful Protestant and would defend the Reformed faith. And that was it. There were no riots. It was received as a perfectly natural development.
Amending the Act of Settlement would, I believe, be received in the same manner. It is a natural development, in harmony with the spirit of the times. The British monarchy is historically Protestant and will stay so. Those of other faiths (or perhaps none) are free to marry heirs to the throne with that proviso.
When Carol Ann Duffy was appointed Poet Laureate last month, it was taken as a symbol of modernisation that a bisexual, socialist, working-class, secularist Glaswegian woman could inherit this honour. That is progress, and a form of progress which continues to respect the monarchy. As would be dropping the uniquely sectarian stigma against Roman Catholics devised for the Electress Sophia of Hanover in 1701.