The British constitution is, in the famous phrase used by Andrew Marvell in his Horatian Ode on Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,
“the great work of time”, something that “restless” Cromwell “ruins”. Marvell actually admired Cromwell, and supported his Commonwealth, but his poem betrays a sympathy with the past and a suppressed shudder at the thought of violent and rapid change.
Now let us be clear that David Cameron, in wishing to make constitutional changes which will affect the succession and indeed the monarchy itself, is no Oliver Cromwell. Not in the least. Cromwell was a man of principle, deep faith, and immense vision. Cameron is more like Tony Blair, a Prime Minister addicted to constitutional tinkering. We still do not know what the effects of the devolution legislation will mean for the United Kingdom – it is far too early to tell – but there is little solid evidence that Blair undertook these potentially profound moves for anything other than short term political gain.
What about Cameron’s proposed changes to the Act of Succession, and the other pieces of legislation that underpin our enduring constitutional settlement? Why is he doing this? The Daily Telegraph reports:
Speaking before the meeting in Perth, the Prime Minister said the rules are “outdated and need to change”.
He said: “The idea that a younger son should become Monarch instead of an elder daughter, simply because he is a man just isn’t 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.”
But at no point does the Prime Minister advance any reason for what he asserts. Male primogeniture is outdated, is it? If that is the case, why has David Cameron given his surname to his children? Why don’t they bear their mother’s surname? Is that settled practice going to change too? And if the eldest child is to inherit regardless of sex, will the rules for all inherited titles change as well? And while on the topic, will the law abolish all remaining disqualifications that go with illegitimacy? Once you start to unpick the knitting, where do you stop? In fact why have a hereditary monarchy at all? Why not have a rotating monarchy, as they have in the Kingdom of Calabar, or an elective one, as they once had in Poland?
Again, on the religious question: at present the monarchy is a professedly Anglican institution, as it has been since the time of William and Mary and Queen Anne. That settlement was arrived at with great difficulty, to put it mildly. The sadly unsuccessful risings of 1715 and 1745 would have changed that settlement, but they failed. But what they failed to achieve David Cameron now intends to do by means of parliamentary legislation. But I do not think the consequences of this action have been considered. Had the patriots of 1715 or 1745 been successful, we would have had a Catholic monarchy, perhaps. Cameron’s reforms will give us a monarchy that is Anglican purely by default, but which might in future generations be Catholic, Hindu or Baptist; but which will most likely be none of the above. In other words, by removing the religious qualification, Cameron is effectively opening the monarchy up to secularisation. And why? Because he wants to abolish the last legal disqualification under which Catholic suffer? There is no evidence of that. Rather it seems to be a largely meaningless piece of political posturing, a desire to look ‘modern’. But this is one piece of political vanity for which future generations may pay a high price.
The British constitution is the great work of time: an organic whole that has grown slowly over the centuries, and as such susceptible to be damaged by ill-thought out changes that are not in continuity with the past. Mr Cameron, please leave it alone!