Opinion by Sam Perry & Alastair Johnston - Modernising the Monarchy: Sex Discrimination in the 21st Centuary

Written by Sam Parry, second year LLB student, and Alastair Johnston, fourth year and Deputy Student Director.

It was impossible to escape media coverage on the build up to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. This culminated in the wedding on the 29th April which converted Kate Middleton from being a wealthy ‘commoner’ to Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge. The wedding ceremony, held in the beautiful surroundings of Westminster Abbey, attracted an estimated one million people to line the wedding procession route between the Abbey and Buckingham Palace. This appears to have reinvigorated the monarchy. No more than a decade ago a YouGov/Cambridge University survey found that 59% of the public wanted changes made to the monarchy – today, this is only 28%.

The popularity of the Royal Wedding has also thrown up another interesting issue – succession rights to the Crown. Centuries of law and tradition have entrenched the idea of male primogeniture, which is the common law right for the first born son in a family to inherit an entire estate. Brought to the UK by the Normans in 1066. It was abolished in Scotland in 1964 with regards to property inheritance, but remains in relation to succession to the Crown through the provisions of the Act of Settlement 1701. This Act also bars a Roman Catholic, or one who has married a Roman Catholic, from ascending to the throne. Both of these issues are now in the spotlight.

Under current rules, the first male son of William and Kate would be first in line to the throne after Prince Charles and Prince William, regardless of any older sisters. Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, stated recently that he, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, were “sympathetic” towards adjusting the law which seemed “a little old fashioned”. In 2008 the then Solicitor General for England and Wales, Vera Baird, described the law as “unfair” and a “load of rubbish”. There is clearly a will and momentum for change. The success of the incumbent Queen Elizabeth II, currently the third longest serving monarch in the history of the United Kingdom, has dispelled any myths that Kings make better leaders. There appears to be no reason to cling to these archaic, outdated and discriminatory laws.

Changing the law to allow other religions to succeed to the throne may prove much more contentious than changing the rules on male primogeniture. It is true that it is not only Roman Catholics that are discriminated against – only a Protestant can currently succeed to the throne. However, marrying a Hindu, a Muslim, or even a Rastafarian does not act as a bar to succession – Catholics are uniquely discriminated against. The problem with reform lies with the religious duties of the monarch – they are the supreme governor of the Protestant Church of England, and in this role they appoint Arch-Bishops and Bishops on the advice of the Prime Minister. They also hold the title, Defender of the Faith and promise to maintain the Church of England in their coronation oath, which requires the monarch to “maintaine the Laws of God the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant reformed religion established by law…[and] preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this realm and to the churches committed to their charge all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain unto them or any of them”. If any change to this was implemented, there would have to be a complete overhaul of the monarchy’s structure and would require the disestablishment of the Church of England. Constitutional experts have also warned that reform would set in motion an inevitable movement towards complete disestablishment – many see this as undesirable. However, in our modern multicultural society the legitimacy of a monarch linked so closely to a particular Church must be questioned.

A parliamentary committee has even suggested that both these rules run contrary to the European Convention of Human Rights to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. Discrimination against Catholics is arguably contrary to Article 14 [the prohibition on discrimination], in conjunction with Article 12 [the right to marriage] and Article 9 [the right to freedom of religion]. Male primogeniture also appears to fall foul of Article 14 and Article 8 [right to respect for private and family life]. Rights to inheritance have already been held to engage Article 8 in the case of Marckx v Belgium.

There is certainly plenty of momentum for change – however this will not come quickly. Not only is reforming the Act of Settlement a difficult task, with many constitutional difficulties – not least the fact that any change would have to be approved by all fifteen of the Commonwealth countries where the British monarch is the head of State – including Canada, Australia and Tuvalu. Parliament and the monarchy may therefore be hoping that Kate and William want to get used to used to marriage before having a baby; allowing time for change to be debated and affected. If not – let’s at least hope it’s a baby boy!