There is something wonderfully oxymoronic about the idea of a “Royal Equality Act“. After all, this is an institution based on the profoundly unequal principle of hereditary rule. Monarchy and equality aren’t just odd bedfellows, they’re incompatible.
But after that necessary qualification, let’s look at what’s proposed. Commonwealth leaders will today agree to abolish the law of primogeniture so that a younger son no longer takes precedence over an elder daughter in the line of succession. In addition, the sectarian Act of Settlement will be amended so that potential monarchs will no longer be barred from marrying a Catholic. The reforms were, of course, first mooted by Gordon Brown, who subsequently failed to set aside enough parliamentary time.
Cameron will tell the meeting:
The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter, simply because he is a man, just is not acceptable any more.
Nor does it make any sense that a potential monarch can marry someone of any faith other than Catholic.
The thinking behind these rules is wrong. That’s why people have been talking about changing them for some time. We need to get on and do it.
The prospect of a monarchy free of discrimination based on religion or sex might appeal to some. But it’s worth noting that the act fails even on its own terms. The requirement that all future monarchs be Protestant remains intact [the 1701 Act of Settlement states that he who “shall profess the popish religion” cannot be monarch]. As the monarch is both the head of the state and the head of the church [the Anglican Church of England] it is deemed unconscionable for her to belong to a religion other than Protestantism. Indeed, the removal of the ban would require the disestablishment of the Church of the England. But why should this be unthinkable? In an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (who went on to famously guest-edit the magazine) suggested that the church might benefit from such a move:
I can see that it’s by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn’t have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.
In an increasingly atheistic and multi-faith society, a secular state, which protects all religions and privileges none, is a model to embrace. Now is as good a time as any to do so.