Friday, October 14, 2011

Who Shall Wear St. Edward's Crown?

Not being British - or Canadian or Australian or any of the other nationalities directly affected by this issue - I obviously have no personal stake in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to change from a cognatic to an agnatic order of succession to the throne and to amend the 1701 Act of Settlement to allow the sovereign to marry a Roman Catholic. What any foreign country chooses to do with its constitution is rightly its business and in principle none of mine. That said, as a sometime political scientist with an appreciation for the continuity of political institutions and their role in the continuity of cultures, I can’t resist commenting.
As for the proposed changes themselves, admittedly they seem harmless in the abstract. In the real world, however, constitutional tinkering tends to have unintended or unforeseen side-effects. Also such exercises often serve as substitutes for serious public policy aimed at more pressing but somewhat more intractable actual problems. All of which warrants a certain “hermeneutic of suspicion” whenever constitutional change of any kind is proposed in any country.
In the 16th century, St. Thomas More accepted martyrdom because he opposed both King Henry VIII’s attempt to annul his marriage to Queen Katherine and its principal public policy consequence – the Act of Supremacy by which the King and Parliament usurped power over the Church. St. Thomas did, however, accept that Parliament could legislatively alter the succession to the throne. There can be no question that the laws of succession (like all political constitutions) are human contrivances which can legitimately be changed whenever circumstances warrant. In my own lifetime, Sweden and Belgium changed from male-only succession to “agnatic primogeniture,” that is, an order of succession based exclusively on birth-order without respect to sex. Hence, Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria, rather than her younger brother, will inherit the crown when her father, King Carl Gustav, dies. Even earlier in my lifetime, Denmark changed from male-only succession to “cognatic primogeniture,” that is, an order of succession in which both men and women can succeed to the throne but brothers have precedence over their sisters – the system that has long been in place in such kingdoms as Britain and Spain. Perhaps Prime Minister Cameron’s proposal reflects post-modern sentimentality – a desire to be on “the right side of history.” Even so, in societies where gender equality is now accepted as the norm, it may seem reasonable to apply the same principle to royalty.
The same might be said for allowing royal marriages to Catholics - although one wonders whether what this really reflects is actually the diminished importance of religion. A few years ago, when the current Crown Prince of the Netherlands married an Argentinian Catholic, she was expected to embrace the Protestant faith with which the Dutch Royal Family is historically identified. Likewise, when the Danish Crown Prince married an Australian Anglican, she became Danish Lutheran. The current Queen of Spain was born a Greek princess, but converted from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism before marrying Catholic Spain’s current king (much as her mother, a German princess, had converted from Protestantism to Orthodoxy to marry the future Greek King Paul). In counties which have an Established Church or even just a strong historical-cultural association with a particular Church, it has always been seen as reasonable to expect their royalty to reflect that. So I suspect that that what this really reflects is the increased irrelevance of religion in post-modern Western societies - and hence its perceived irrelevance in relation to royal consorts.
The principal problem with these proposals, however, is not in the theory but the possible political and social costs of putting them into practice. The British Crown is unique in that its wearer is king or queen of some 16 sovereign states, all of whom must agree on any change. Thanks to the 1931 Statute of Westminster, the royal succession cannot be altered in any individual Commonwealth monarchy except with the consent of all the other states involved. (It gets even worse. The Canadian constitution, if I recall correctly, requires unanimous agreement of all the provinces to make any change in the order of succession.) In other words, the process itself invites political mischief by disgruntled obstructionists within some – or even only one – of those 16 states.
This has happened before. In the 1936 Abdication Crisis, replacing Edward VIII with his brother George VI required agreement among the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The political mischief took place in Dublin, as Ireland took advantage of the crisis to pass something called the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, effectively diminishing the monarchical character of the Irish constitution.
In theory, the proposed changes are reasonable, sensible, and even desirable. But what contentious constitutional cans of worms would this process open up?
And aren’t there many much more pressing problems right now that all countries need to be attending to and expending their limited political capital on?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting speculation! Are you aware of any particular opposition to changing the rules of inheritance? Here in Britain (where I live) I think the overwhelming majority of people must be in favour of change, but the situation might be different in some of the other countries which have our monarch as head of state.

    A point worth making is that, at the present time, changing the inheritance rules would not change the identity of the heir to the throne. Now is therefore a good time to make the change. It will be more difficult to introduce reform if we get into the situation where doing so would change who the heir is.