As the bill goes to the Lords, it might be useful to reflect further on the detail of what was said in the Commons debates on 22 and 28 January about the place of religious tests in our constitution.
Of the three tests, two – ineligibility of Catholic believers and those married to Catholics – are directed explicitly at Catholics and one – the requirement to be ‘in communion with’ the Church of England – excludes Catholics and all others unable to satisfy the requirement. The bill would abolish only the second of the three tests.
The proceedings on 28 January were dominated by the attempt of Jacob Rees-Mogg to remove the remaining tests:
‘As the discrimination on the grounds of sex is no longer necessary, or can no longer be argued for logically, nor can exclusions on the grounds of religion.’ [Hansard, Commons, 29 January 2013, col. 697]
Stressing that he was not opposed to church establishment per se, he proposed a device which, he claimed, would permit a Catholic to succeed without challenging the sovereign’s current roles in respect of the Church of England. The device turned on using the Regency Acts to identify a Protestant who could assume the sovereign’s duties much as Catholic and other non-Anglican cabinet ministers relinquish any Anglican related duties to Anglican colleagues during their term of office. Whilst the device was technically inadequate and imperfect, it gave MPs an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the bill fell short of dealing with the other remaining disqualifications affecting Catholics and others.
Understandably, this discussion – as on 22 January in a very thin House – was dominated by Catholics. Interestingly, they appear to have felt obliged simultaneously to object to the disqualifications and declare something like reverence for Anglicanism – the latter position slipping slightly only once (col. 708) when the alleged elasticity of Anglican’s demands on adherents was naughtily raised. Loyalty to the monarchy was also stressed, as if that were nowadays still in question for Catholics. Jacob Rees-Mogg pressed the matter to a division and lost by three to one.
What may be made from all this? As a proportion of those voting on a probably lightly whipped occasion, the supporters of the amendment (not all Catholics and not joined by the Opposition front bench) constituted just over nine per cent but still nearly six per cent of the whole House. Only rarely in the two days was the point being circled and not expressed voiced explicitly, that is whether the headship of the state needs any longer to be yoked to a particular religious denomination. An SNP Catholic, Angus MacNeil, said of the bill:
‘It is only a halfway house – a real dog’s breakfast of broken biscuits. It deals with succession and partially with freedom of religion, but it leaves the question of full freedom of religion untouched.’ [Hansard, Commons, 22 January 2013, col. 226]
Another MP, Nia Griffith, thought that there was a further downside in persisting with the religious tests:
‘…if someone is expected to take on the role of monarch, we are putting them in a situation in which they will have to pay lip service to a faith, possibly one in which they do not believe, making a mockery of those who have a true faith.’ [Hansard, Commons, 22 January 2013, col. 237]
The government was, of course, not having any of this. To be fair, the bill was after all a strictly limited exercise pre-agreed with no fewer than fifteen Commonwealth countries. The minister, Chloe Smith, in what appears to have been a carefully pre-scripted formula, was adamant:
‘…let me state again that the Government are absolutely committed to the Church of England as the established Church, with the sovereign as its Supreme Governor. We consider that the relationship between Church and state in England is an important part of the constitutional framework. It has evolved over centuries and the Government have no intention of legislating to disestablish the Church of England. It is important to state that. The Government’s view is that allowing a person of the Roman Catholic faith to accede to the throne would clearly be incompatible with the requirement for the sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England.’
[Hansard, Commons, 28 January 2013, col. 721]
She said this in reply to the senior government backbencher, Nicholas Soames, who asked the minister whether she agreed that what Rees-Mogg had with his interventions ‘just shown is that what has been completely settled and without question can now be open to challenge? Does she believe that this is a sensible way to proceed when overturning 1,000 years of British history?’. (col. 721)
Has the genie been now let out of the bottle? No doubt the government will get its way in the Lords, but it will be interesting to see what the current range of opinion now is there. How many, for example, will be with Gerald Howarth –
• ‘I believe that the established Church and the Crown are indissolubly linked.’ [Hansard, Commons, 22 January 2013, cols 252-3.]
how many with Chris Bryant –
• ‘I do not want to disestablish the Church of England, but I think it could be established in a different way.’ (col. 233)
and how many again with Nia Griffith –
• ‘The clause is a missed opportunity. It misses the opportunity to decouple the role of monarch from a specific role in the Church of England.’ (col. 237)