The Coalition rides roughshod over the Constitution

Published by Daily Mail

Queen coronationI have for many years opposed amending the Act of Settlement 1701, in particular those historic clauses which refer to the Protestant Settlement between the people, the Monarchy and the Established Church. I understand, to some, that this puts me in the ‘extremist bigot’ category, somewhere above Enoch Powell but still a little way beneath the Rev’d Dr Ian Paisley. That was the view taken by the Catholic Herald back in 2005, when they demanded that Michael Howard dismiss me as a Conservative parliamentary candidate over articles I had written on the matter for The Spectator two years earlier (which had been evaluated by the Chief Whip, no less). But there was no reasoning with the ‘something-of-the-night’ autocrat. Thankfully, more mature minds (like Charles Moore, William Rees-Mogg, Ann Widdecombe and Boris Johnson) fully understood my concerns, which were based on theological knowledge and constitutional history rather than any irrational prejudice or ‘bigotry’.

I also received a personal letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor – then leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales – which was rather critical of his more zealous journalist co-religionists. But neither my reasoning nor the intercessory pleas of moderate Roman Catholics was able to sway the leadership of the Conservative Party, and so I had to go. I refused to resign, so Howard duly sacked me (by text, though I actually found out via the BBC a few hours before). Charles Moore was incredulous that a Tory candidate ‘should be cast out for defending the current, legal form of our monarchy’, finding my view ‘an educated and thoughtful one, certainly not that of a “bigot”’.

It’s strange how things move on: back in 2005, a Tory candidate could be sacked for the implicit Romophobia inherent in a reasoned defence of the Constitution; by 2008, an approved candidate (the affable Iain Dale), was free to say that ‘the entire Catholic Church would collapse without gay clergy’, under the rather histrionic (not to say offensive) heading ‘Why doesn’t the Pope just join the BNP and have done with it?’. And now, in the context of David Cameron’s quest for ‘equal marriage’, an actual Tory MP can get away with accusing the entire Roman Catholic Church of ‘narrow minded homophobia’, as Sarah Wollaston tweeted on 29th December. If Michael Howard was concerned about the loss of Catholic votes (as John Gummer [now Lord Debden] wrote to me in 2005), it seems perfectly clear that David Cameron isn’t remotely bothered at all. Indeed, it seems now that anyone who opposes same-sex marriage – which must include all Roman Catholic bishops and clergy – is by definition discriminatory and so (in the vernacular) a ‘bigot’.

Welcome to the club.

To my mind, it was (and and still is) entirely reasonable to require the Supreme Governor of the Church of England to be in communion with that Church, and that his or her heirs and successors ought to be brought up in that faith in order to prepare them for their future constitutional role. In that regard, the Act of Settlement is not exclusively ‘anti-Catholic’ (though that was undoubtedly its historic expression): it is now manifestly a block on adherents of all those religions – the precepts of which do not permit the Monarch or his or her spouse to be ‘in communion’ with the Church of England, as the Act requires. And that’s not only Roman Catholics, as the anti-discrimination reformists often cry: you aren’t going to get many Jews, Muslims or Zoroastrians or Scientologists with much of an appetite for the eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Messiah three times a year (as the Book of Common Prayer requires).

And it might also be observed that it is the Roman Catholic Church itself which prohibits its adherents from being ‘in communion’ with the Church of England, not vice versa. Prior to his conversion, Tony Blair was famously reprimanded by Cardinal Basil Hume for receiving Holy Communion at Westminster Cathedral. As the Bishop of Leicester reminded the House of Lords a few weeks ago, the lack of full communion between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church ‘effectively renders a Catholic heir incapable of being the Supreme Governor of the Church’. The complexities are historical, theological, political, protracted and profound.

But Parliament is omnipotent in these matters, and David Cameron has determined that, while the Monarch must remain Anglican, his or her spouse may henceforth be Roman Catholic. This is odd, because by enacting such legislation now the Prime Minister is reiterating in a 21st-century Act of Parliament – the very 18th-century ‘bigotry’ for which I was dismissed seven years ago. If it be unjust and discriminatory to prohibit the Monarch from marrying a Roman Catholic, how can it not be an equal (or greater) offence and injustice to sustain the discriminatory bar on a Roman Catholic acceding to the Throne of the United Kingdom?

And as I write, I hear that Labour’s Paul Flynn MP is garnering cross-party support for an amendment to the Succession to the Crown Bill that will extend the Coalition’s equality agenda to accommodate the (homo)sexuality of the first-born of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. This seems perfectly logical and wholly consistent with the Prime Minister’s priorities: if an heir to the throne may henceforth marry a Roman Catholic, it is only reasonable that he or she should be permitted to enter into a gay marriage and have his or her same-sex partner reigning alongside. Unless, of course, it is somehow more objectionable to Parliament to have a gay or lesbian on the throne than a Roman Catholic. And if not, by what reasoning should the Flynn amendment be rejected? In this age of all-encompassing equality, if gender should not be relevant in determining succession, why should religion or sexuality?

The principal hurdle would be the constitutional requirement for members of the Royal Family who wish to keep their place in the succession to be married in accordance with the rites of the Church of England in a service performed by Anglican clergy under either a Special or Common Licence. Since the Coalition is proposing specifically to prohibit the Church of England from performing same-sex marriage services, this would be an obvious bar to an openly gay king or lesbian queen marrying their partner and having that partner recognised as consort.

And that’s before we enter then the debate over the hereditary rights of their children – conceived either by artificial insemination or surrogacy, or (breaking the ancient bloodline) by adoption – to accede to the throne. That’s the problem with the drive for absolute equality – there’s no logical end to it. Once you replace male primogeniture with gender neutrality, heterosexuality with pan-sexuality, and Protestant Christianity with a secularised mush of multi-faith spirituality, you’re left with a cult of modern selfhood in which accession to the Crown is no more important than arguing over who takes the rubbish out or picks the kids up from school.

The curious thing is that the sexuality of the heir to the throne isn’t likely to present any problems for about the next 30 years – by which time same-sex marriage may well have determined (or hastened) the course of disestablishment. And the faith of the future spouse of the first-born of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is also, quite literally, an equally-distant point of theological conjecture. Parliament could have legislated on both at leisure, debating and reflecting on the rather serious constitutional implications of amending the Act of Settlement (not least to seven other acts, including the increasingly fragile Act of Union 1707).

But the Prime Minister feels the need to dispense with Burkean incrementalism and legislate in haste to ensure that the new royal baby will accede to the throne irrespective of gender because, as Mark Harper MP (former Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform) explains, male primogeniture ‘does not reflect the values we hold today as a society’. So, in the course of just one frenzied day, the House of Commons will surgically excise from the British Constitution ‘..or marries a Papist’, without any consideration at all of the succeeding clause by which ‘in all and every such Case and Cases the People of these Realms shall be and are thereby absolved of their Allegiance (to the Crown)’.

On the 8th January, the Deputy Prime Minister told Parliament that ‘the Bill is not a capricious legislative initiative on behalf of the Government. It was solemnly agreed at the Commonwealth Summit in Perth by all the Commonwealth realms. It has also been subject to extensive discussion between officials in the Cabinet Office and the Royal Household, and between Governments and officials of this country and of the Commonwealth realms. We have said that we will take the lead in setting out the legislative provisions for the other Commonwealth realms. The legislative change is very precise, which is why we are keen to proceed as quickly as possible.’

‘Solemnly agreed’ or not, its capricious nature and ill-considered inadequacies are manifest. In response to a question from Sir Peter Tapsell, Father of the House, during PMQs on the 9th January, the Prime Minister reiterated Clegg’s assertion that changes to the constitutional arrangements relating to royal succession have been ‘settled and agreed’ after ‘very, very thorough contact’ between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. But, unlike others who have focused on issues of gender equality, Tapsell referred directly to the Coronation Oath and so (for those who have ears) to the Protestant Settlement. These are, he reminded us, ‘major constitutional changes’ which may intrude upon the Royal Prerogative and raise questions about Her Majesty’s integrity. Notwithstanding these profound concerns, the Prime Minister swiped his honourable friend away with ‘this is what the Heads of all the Commonwealth and Dominion Realms have signed up to’.

That’s nice. But 16 Heads of Commonwealth meeting in sunny Perth in 2011 have no legal authority to determine UK law, let alone amend the British Constitution. And neither is it for No10 and the Palace to present us with a ‘settled and agreed’ stitch-up, even after very thorough discussion and debate (which, as Simon Heffer disclosed, did not apparently include the Queen’s heirs and successors, who will have to reign with the unintended consequences). Nick Clegg announced to Parliament last year that if the Duke and Duchess were to have a daughter before Parliament had enacted the Succession to the Crown Bill (i.e., before it had passed through both Houses of Parliament and received Royal Assent), the legislation would be retroactive from the date agreed by the Heads of Commonwealth. This was reiterated by Mark Harper MP, when he wrote: ‘…the change would apply to all children born on or after the date of the Perth announcement on 28 October 2011 even if the birth takes place before the legislation is passed.’

This is an astonishing subversion of democracy, but wholly consistent with the oligarchical form of governance to which we are now routinely subject. As with the European Commission and 40 years of the incremental primacy of EU law over national legislation, so this Government invokes the presumed authority of the elite Commonwealth club over the sovereignty of Parliament. And to hear that No10 and the Palace have agreed this coup is even more unsettling. As Harold Macmillan stated: ‘We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts.’

The Succession to the Crown Bill will ensure that, should the Duchess of Cambridge give birth to a girl, she will one day be Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (or, depending on the next half-century of devolution and secession, at least of England). Should this Princess then decide to marry a Roman Catholic, there will be considerable pressure to permit their children to be raised as Roman Catholics, if only to progress the ‘modernisation’ of the Monarchy and the perpetuation of a completely-chilled Britannia. While dispensation may indeed be sought from the Roman Catholic Church (and is not infrequently given or unreasonably withheld) for the children of Anglican-Catholic marriages to be raised in the Church of England, this is not likely to be seriously entertained in AD2040 (or thereabouts). By then, no doubt all debates surrounding religious adherence and the Established Church will be as otiose as those now relating to the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

And that must be the ratchet-like process of ‘ever closer secularisation’ the Coalition is banking on, if not purposely conspiring to bring about. Because the alternative is likely to result in the very sort of constitutional crisis of religious and political turmoil which the Act of Settlement was designed to prevent, as it says, ‘for ever’.

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  • Trudi

    I don’t believe that the EU care for the Church of England. If the InterReg programme fulfils it’s aims, then we’re left to ponder exactly what will be left of what we know and love at all by 2040. Considering the EU have already published a map with the familiar outline but no ‘England’, we can only note that fundamental change will indeed be incremental and continual. I can’t believe that any of it is ‘unintended’ or ”accidental’.

  • jean shaw

    Brilliant article , the problem is that there are no wise heads in Parliament they are all introvert political nerds who have grown up withoiut understanding how the Country operates . They live in an ionstant world where with a flick of switch all things are possible even if you dont undertand how the switch works or the consequences of flicking it

  • Andrew Schrader

    Entirely agree with every word of this article.

  • CeeDee

    I suggest “forgive them for they know not what they do” might be appropriate, except for the fact that Clegg knows exactly what he is doing. This, to him, is another step in the direction of a Federation of European States. Cameron announces first then realises the unintended consequences, fool that he is.

  • steve

    Succession laws out of date? SO IS FEUDAL MONARCHY, for goodness’ sake. How about a clear, written Constitution, which limits the powers of completely elected government, and a Bill of Rights to protect the free people of the British Republic.

  • andy M

    an actual Tory MP can get away with accusing the entire Roman Catholic Church of ‘narrow minded homophobia’,
    Well that’ll be a rare thing: a Tory telling it how it is! What a load of abstruse religious nonsense this ‘article’ is. It’s a myth you now so don’t base your arguments on it!

  • http://www.monarchist.org.au Philip Benwell

    The prime minister is said to have recently stated: “All of the issues are settled and agreed (with the Palace) [Press Association London Jan. 10, 2013]. However, what of the oaths solemnly sworn by The Queen on her accession to: “…solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God, profess, testify and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments to secure the Protestant Succession to the Throne of my realm, uphold and maintain such enactments to the best of my power.” The enactments being the Coronation Oath Act (1688), the Act of Settlement (1701) and the various associated Acts? As George III stated in 1801: “Where is the power on earth to absolve me from the observance of every sentence of that Oath, particularly the one requiring me to maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion? … If I violate that Oath, I am no longer legal Sovereign in this country”.

  • Jo Bee

    Such an extraordinarily well researched article; a shame that this type of commentary is not reaching the front pages and stimulating debate among the public. The lack of awareness of the importance of the roots of our constitutional acts and the misunderstanding of the inevitable impact of such amendments are frightening and surely the result of grossly manipulated under-representation in the press. Mr Hilton, I hope your return to politics is imminent – your voice needs the platform of Parliament.

  • Ade

    “Well that’ll be a rare thing: a Tory telling it how it is! What a load of abstruse religious nonsense this ‘article’ is. It’s a myth you now so don’t base your arguments on it! Posted by: andy M | 01/22/2013 at 08:16 PM”………….. Er, myth it may be, but it is the basis of English Law. Any attempt to change the Constitution runs directly into the problem of the established Church, and even Cameron and Clegg can’t ride roughshod over that…