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Can an unborn baby really inherit the British Crown (and what's that got to do with Game of Thrones?)

Yes, it could have repercussions for Westeros.

Is the collection of cells currently coalescing into an adorable new cost to the taxpayer in the Duchess of Cambridge’s womb now fifth in the line of succession to the British throne? Or does it have to be born before that can happen?

That, in not so many words, was the question my colleague Stephen asked the Mail on Sunday reporter and noted primogeniture nerd Ned Donovan on Twitter yesterday. My entirely unwanted response was predictably scathing.

Except, as so often happens when I’m being publicly smug about something, it turned out I might be wrong. This isn’t a stupid question at all.

Which is, in itself, pretty stupid.

The rules

Firstly, a line about how succession works. Once upon a time there were all sorts of ways of getting hold of a crown: not just inheritance, but conquest, election by the powerful, nomination by the previous sovereign…. Then there was "prescription", or to put it more plainly, de facto possession – that, to put it more plainly still, meant having the crown and refusing to let go of the bloody thing.

All of this made succession a tricky business – the moment when a kingdom was most at risk of internal conflict as rival parties pushed different candidates. The fact there were so many different sources of legitimacy – parentage, the views of the previous monarch, a great big bloody army – meant that there was sometimes no "right" answer. We think of the Norman Conquest of 1066 as an invasion, which to be fair it was – but it was also a succession crisis that got really, really out of hand.

Gradually over time the rules settled down a bit, to be based, largely, on male-preference primogeniture. In other words, the heir to the throne is the monarch’s eldest living son.

Should the eldest son die before the monarch, and without any kids of his own, next in the line of succession come the monarch’s younger sons. The rule was that only when you ran out of men in the direct line did you consider female candidates. If you run out of heirs altogether, you jump back a generation and start again with the oldest available bloke and his family.  

Still with me? Good.

The state has fiddled with this a bit over the years. The big one was the 1701 Act of Settlement which ruled that the Crown couldn’t pass to either a Catholic or someone married to one.

This not only cut out a whole bunch of plausible candidates with dodgy foreign connections: it also made clear that parliament could regulate that line of succession. So it was that the Cameron government could rewrite the rules again in the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act, which stated that, among those born after 28 October 2011, girls had the same inheritance rights as their brothers and being a Catholic was basically fine.

At any rate, according to the Royal Family’s own website, the line of succession as it stands is as follows:

1. The Prince of Wales (Charles)

2. The Duke of Cambridge (William)

3. Prince George of Cambridge

4. Princess Charlotte of Cambridge

5. Prince Henry of Wales

6. The Duke of York (Andrew)

...and so on, down to:

16. Mrs Michael Tindall, Princess Anne’s daughter, Zara.

Where do the unborn fit into this?

Back to Stephen’s question. At first glance, the idea of the crown passing to an unborn child is patently ridiculous. But in the world of royalty, many things are ridiculous, and that doesn’t stop them happening.

And there are two reasons to think that the child might already be in the line of succession already. One is the Regency Act 1830, in which parliament aimed to settle what would happen on the death of William IV. That ruled that, in the event his heir was under 18 at the time of his death, a regent would rule until they were of age; if no such child existed, the crown would pass to his niece, Princess Victoria.

So far, so straightforward. But the strange thing about that act is that it also ruled that, should William have a posthumous child, the crown would pass to Victoria on his death, and then onto the child at the moment it was born. That child would take precedence over a living breathing heir, even though it was still, at the time of succession, in the womb.

It never happened, of course – but it’s the reason why Victoria’s accession proclamation contained this faintly bizarre caveat:

“…the Imperial Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is solely and rightfully come to the high and mighty Princess Alexandrina Victoria, saving the rights of any issue of his late Majesty King William IV, which may be born of his late Majesty’s consort…”

This all sounds ridiculous, except that, half a century later in Spain, it basically happened. King Alfonso XII died in November 1885. His son, Alfonso XIII, wasn’t born until the following May. In the months between, his mother Maria, the heavily pregnant Queen Maria Christina, served as acting head of state and regent for her daughter, the five year old Maria Mercedes.

The thinking seems to have been that there was definitely a Spanish monarch somewhere – the famous phrase, “The king is dead, long live the king” communicates the fact that the new monarch magically takes over the instant the old one dies – but that nobody actually knew who it was. If Maria Christina’s child turned out to be a daughter or died, then it would magically turn out that Maria Mercedes had been queen all along. In the event, he was a son, who came before his big sister in the line of succession – and so, even though there was a slight interregnum, he was always the legitimate heir, and neither Maria features on the official list of Spanish monarchs.

Look, I did tell you this was ridiculous.

The important stuff

So in theory, in the extremely unlikely event that something terrible happens to Charles, and William, and George, and Charlotte, it’s plausible that something similar could happen in Britain today. William and Kate’s third child would be next in line to the throne, but the gap would be covered by some kind of regency (presumably by either Harry or Kate).

In practice, of course, this is absurd, for several reasons. One is that it’s vanishingly unlikely that something that enormously, but specifically, terrible could ever happen to the royal family. Another is that, as stated several million words back, parliament gets a say: any ambiguity would be ironed out there. For what it’s worth, as it stands, the line of succession on the royals’ own website doesn’t include the unborn child.

Nonetheless, there’s another reason we should be concerned about all this: something even more important than the British state. Game of Thrones.

A spoiler, like winter, is coming, so here’s a picture, in case you want to click away now.

Still with us? Good. Here’s another tweet:

Can't believe no-one has done a piece on the GoT ramifications of this. Jon Snow born after Rhaegar & Mad King killed: his claim vs Viserys?

— Greg Callus (@Greg_Callus) September 5, 2017

Jon Snow, we learned in last week’s season finale, is really Aegon Targaryen: the posthumous son of the crown prince Rhaegar Targaryen and his second wife Lyanna Stark.

Except the key word there is “posthumous”. Can JonAegon have been a legitimate heir when he literally hadn’t been born at the time he should have succeeded? Well if Westeros follows the rules of male preference primogeniture then yes, he could. 

In practice, of course, neither he nor any of the other Targaryens got to be king, because the usurper Robert Baratheon had seized the Iron Throne. As things stand, it’s occupied by Queen Cersei, who has no claim at all, except being the last member of that new royal family standing.

I did say there were many ways of getting hold of a crown. In the absence of a parliamentary decree, control of a bloody big army will do the job nicely.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.