The Crown is not Britain's alone
Cosh, Colby. National Post [Don Mills, Ont] 14 Apr 2009
In a way, it's encouraging that U. K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is looking at a long-discussed modernization of the rules governing succession to the throne of Great Britain, Canada and the 14 other Commonwealth realms. There is no point in making the monarchy conform to contemporary values unless you take for granted that it will be around for a long time. If Brown privately regarded the Crown as an outmoded anomaly, as many Labour politicians surely do, he would undoubtedly prefer that its discriminatory aspects remain intact as a source of antagonism. English republicans certainly understand that Brown is trying to protect, not attack, the monarchy.
Unfortunately, by protecting it at home he may inadvertently make life difficult for monarchists elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Brown has proposed allowing potential successors to the throne to marry Roman Catholics without losing their place in line, with the stipulation that valid heirs must still be capable of allegiance to the Church of England. He would also like the rule of cognatic primogeniture -- which automatically puts male siblings and their heirs ahead of female heirs and issue in the succession order -- to be replaced by a sex-blind, first-come-first-served principle.
These two changes would increase the "fairness" of the succession in a crude, playground sense of the term. But in that sense, it is not "fair" that any person should be King or Queen at all. An indivisible inherited Crown is inherently discriminatory; it is hard to imagine a sound, purely philosophical argument whereby discrimination against younger siblings could be made more acceptable than discrimination against female ones (or spouses of Catholics).
The argument for change is, in other words, purely political. Brown is eyeballing our constitution -- the one to which he, and we, are mutually subject --as a means of signalling that sexism and prejudice against Catholic leadership, even in the most vestigial, symbolic forms, are particularly keen outrages against justice. They cannot be allowed to endure even as ghosts, and certainly not as tacit acknowledgments that the British scheme of government has, by and large, provided happiness to its subjects and promoted decency and civilization.
It is probably true that Brown could ultimately find the necessary consensus to proceed with a change. It is also true that he may be considering it for reasons related to his personal standing in the United Kingdom, and that cannot be tolerated. Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who recently introduced an unsuccessful private members' bill that would modernize the Act of Settlement, gave the game away in a recent BBC radio interview.
"Nearly 90% of people think that it is wrong that women should be discriminated against and over 80% believe that Catholics should be allowed to marry into the royal family," Harris said, referring to BBC poll figures. By "people" Harris meant British people. He added that "very few political ideas of mine or Gordon Brown's have anything like 80% support so I would have thought he should agree with the bill...and get on with it."
Even if the climate of opinion happens to be the same in Canada and Australia and New Guinea, it is inappropriate and dangerous for Harris to put forward such arguments, and for Brown to greet them with tacit approval. The great virtue of the Act of Settlement is that it establishes a method of selection for the identity of the sovereign that is automated, clearly defined and capable of ordering candidates in a multitude of hypothetical futures. Change the act to suit the times, and some of that virtue is lost for good.
Fans of constitutional monarchy have good practical reasons for supporting it, reasons that will remain persuasive even if the existing Protestant settlement is ultimately renovated. The experience of countries that abandon all the feudal failsafes and embrace republicanism has not, on the whole, been happy outside the United States; most of the worst democidal horrors of the 20th century happened in republics, many of which had seemed advanced and orderly not long before. And some of us would rather live under a bad king than the best American-style president.
But the popular case for the Canadian monarchy has come to depend, in part, on the mutuality of the underlying arrangements. We are inconvenienced by having a head of state situated abroad, but as we see, the British are no less inconvenienced by having to seek foreign approval for fundamental changes to their style of government. Their elected leaders should resist the temptation to seek transitory advantage by treating the Crown as a political preserve of the British people.