An Unsettling Act That Must Be Banished; Unhappy Anniversary for Religious Law That Shames Nation

Article excerpt


TODAY is the 300th anniversary of the passing of the Act of Settlement, but do not expect any celebratory street parties - except, perhaps, in the more Paisleyite enclaves of Northern Ireland.

This statute is institutionalised sectarianism. The Act of Settlement, which became law on June 12, 1701, excluded from the succession to the throne of England all those who 'are or shall be reconciled to, or shall hold communion with, the see or Church of Rome, or shall profess the popish religion or shall marry a papist'.

In 1707, by Article III of the Act of Union, these provisions were extended to the Scottish succession. They continue, to this day, to govern the succession to the throne of the United Kingdom - a monstrous affront to around 10 per cent of the Queen's subjects who are Roman Catholics.

It is often assumed, even by its opponents, that the Act of Settlement reflects the bitter bigotry of the early 18th century and may be regarded as a reflection of those times. That is less than fair to our ancestors. Even in 1701, the Act was so repellent to a majority of people that it passed the House of Commons by a majority of just one vote.

Its immediate consequences were to settle the royal succession on the Electress Sophia of Hanover and, after her, on her son who became George I.

When George succeeded to the British throne in 1714, the Act passed over 53 people who were genealogically senior to him, but were all Roman Catholics.

By 1903, when the Act was two centuries old, it had excluded 6,039 people, of whom 858 were then alive. So Edward VII, who had recently become king, was genealogically 859th in line of succession to the throne which he occupied.

That might seem remote and academic. But the Act of Settlement is not a fusty but harmless law which has lingered picturesquely on the statute book, like some prohibition against football passed by the Stuart kings.

The Act has real teeth - and it has bitten Catholic royal brides in recent times.

When Prince Michael of Kent married Baroness Marie-Christine von Reibnitz, a Catholic, in 1978, he was removed from the line of succession. Only tortuous negotiations concerning their religious upbringing preserved the rights of the children of this marriage, Lord Frederick and Lady Gabriella Windsor.

In 1998, when the Duke of Kent's elder son, the Earl of St Andrews, married Sylvana Tomaselli, who had been brought up as a Catholic, he similarly lost his succession rights.

This churlish wedding present to Catholic royal brides from the British Establishment aroused such public unease that, when Princess Alexandra's daughter Marina Ogilvy married Paul Mowatt in 1990, despite allegations of his Catholic background, the Act was not enforced.

Nevertheless, by then there was such widespread disquiet about the sectarian and human rights aspects of the Act that pressure for its amendment began to increase. Today that pressure is almost irresistible.

It is important to understand the technicalities. To talk of 'repeal' of the Act of Settlement is unrealistic. The Act is the nearest thing we have to a written constitution. It is the definitive charter of the Queen in Parliament. To repeal it would create a constitutional void; all that is necessary is to amend the offensive provisions of Section 2 and to delete one sentence from Section 3.

In 1999, a Bill designed to do exactly that, entitled the Succession to the Crown (Amendment) Bill, was introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth). It is a measure of how simple a remedy is required that this Bill covered less than one page, plus an attached Schedule detailing the minute alterations to be inserted into five related statutes. …