There have been reports this week that Downing Street will back a bill arising from plans by Labour MP Chris Bryant to overturn the constitutional bar on Catholics becoming monarch, to be implemented in the government's 4th term- if it ever happens. It has long been argued that the exclusion of non-Anglicans runs contrary to the modern-day standards of equality under the law, as reinforced by the European Convention on Human Rights which became entwined with British law by the Human Rights Act 2000, and the Guardian newspaper has even previously backed a legal challenge to the Act of Settlement 1701 on these grounds.
The reforms have been given a broad welcome by constitutional pressure groups although it is not clear that the British government understands the constitutional complexity that the move is likely to become embroiled in. Such a change will require amendments to a plethora of statute law such as the 1688 Bill of Rights , the Act of Settlement in 1701, Act of Union in 1707 and provisions of the Coronation Oath Act 1688. It also will require the consent of the governments in the Commonwealth.
Much of the legislation was passed in a time of great animosity between Protestants and Catholics in England and has remained in place ever since, even if the religious split has largely healed. While the proposals in themselves are laudable in bringing the institution of monarchy into the 21st century I cannot help feeling that the institution itself does not belong in this century no matter how reformed it may be. While it is rational to deplore the discrimination against non-Anglicans it is irrational not to look further at the anachronistic concept of hereditary monarchy itself, the primogeniture rule entrenching the dominance of the eldest child and the establishment of the Anglican Church in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It might just be that this particular reform is the thin end of the wedge and that the whole constitutional construct providing the source of the monarchy's legitimacy will unravel in front of us. This would be a welcome development. Hereditary monarchy is a concept that belongs in the past and that has no place in a society marked by growing secularisation. Let us hope that this reform leads ultimately to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, the removal of Bishops from the House of Lords (indeed, the removal of the existence of an appointed or hereditary upper chamber altogether) and the creation of an elected head of state for Britain. Vive la république! Not the one we hope for on this blog but a start nonetheless.