Magazine article The Spectator

The Price of Liberty

Magazine article The Spectator

The Price of Liberty

Article excerpt

Across the whole gamut of constitutional issues that have preoccupied New Labour, many consider that the only justifiable reform would have been the repeal of the Act of Settlement 1701, to remove the discriminatoiy anti-Catholic provisions; to eliminate the institutionalised bigotry of the constitution.

In recent years there have been numerous such calls from Roman Catholic members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Members of the Scottish Parliament, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the Archbishop of York, and also from many politicians - notably Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who described the Act as Britain's 'grubby little secret'. The Guardian adopted the mission, challenging the Act as being incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998, and, according to Lord Ashdown, the Prince of Wales is also known to want the religious restrictions on the monarchy changed.

So maybe this is a cause whose time has come. After three centuries, the Protestant monarchy will finally be abolished by the ecumenical/multifaith/secular Parliament that swears allegiance to it, and by a complicit Church of England, which, devoid of all conviction, has developed a total distrust of anything mildly dogmatic. Now that all creeds and moral codes are perceived as being equal and should be treated as such, none should be regarded as being superior to the others, and the law should not discriminate between them. To do so is to risk being labelled bigoted, sectarian or authoritarian, and therefore a threat to tolerance, peace and unity.

New Britain is, after all, a modern 21st-century multifaith nation. But as the Act is attacked by Muslims, Hindus and those of no religion, the consensus for reform begins to fracture. While these groups cry 'repeal', Roman Catholics and High Church adherents cry 'amend'. The vast legislative complexities of repealing the Act are a deterrent for any government, since our forebears made the Protestant constitution so watertight that it would be immensely difficult to undo; indeed, one clause declares that the terms of the Settlement are 'for ever'. Repeal of the Act would demand the consequent repeal of nine further Acts. On top of this, 15 Commonwealth countries of which the Queen is head of state would also have to enact similar legislation. Even with minimal opposition, the parliamentary time involved would be colossal. Amendment, however, would be infinitely easier, and would leave the throne and an established Church intact for re-absorption into the Catholic fold.

Such an amendment would demand that the monarch must be 'Christian' but not necessarily Protestant. This would unfortunately perpetuate the objections of the Muslims, Hindus, atheists and agnostics, leaving yet another complex constitutional issue resolved in the inimitable Blairite half-baked fashion, but it would be a prized Roman goal. Since canon law requires that all children of Roman Catholics be brought up in that faith, such a proposed amendment would eventually create an exclusively Catholic royal dynasty, whose primary allegiance would be to the higher spiritual and temporal authority - the Papacy.

Only those ignorant of history or the complex checks and balances of the constitution would be persuaded of this course of action. If one bothers to read the Act, it is evident that it is not the result of some irrational prejudice or blind bigotry. It represents the effort of people who had experienced oppression to preserve their successors from having to suffer autocratic and despotic government. It is one of those foundations on which British liberties rest. In that regard it is inseparable from other pieces of legislation that have the same objective: the Bill of Rights (1688); the Coronation Oaths Act (1688); the Crown in Parliament Act (1689); the Act of Union (1706); and the Royal Marriages Act (1772).

The wording of the Bill of Rights explains, 'And whereas it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant Kingdom to be governed by a Popish Prince or by any king or queen marrying a Papist. …

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