The Royal baby, the Rules of Succession, and the Realms

15th July 2013

In anticipation of the birth of the Royal baby, Parliament passed the Succession to the Crown Act in April 2013.  It provides that in future the eldest child will be next in line of succession, whether it is a girl or a boy.  The law will not come into force in time for the Royal birth, but the new baby when born will be next in line.  This Blog post explains the background, and the difficulties involved in changing the rules of succession.

Why have the rules of succession been changed?

Over the last 20 years a series of Private Member’s bills have been introduced into both Houses of Parliament to provide for gender equality in the rules of succession to the Crown.  The Labour government did not resist the principle of the change; but it explained that such a change could be initiated only by the government, because of the need to engage with the 15 other countries of which the Queen is head of state (the Realms).  The government supported the change because of the equalities legislation it had itself introduced.  Another motivating factor was that the other European monarchies were all amending their laws to introduce equal primogeniture.  Sweden was the first to change, in 1980, followed by the Netherlands in 1983, Norway in 1990, Belgium in 1991, Denmark in 2009, and Luxembourg in 2011.  Spain has said it will switch to equal primogeniture, but the Spanish constitution has not yet been amended.

Although supportive of the change, the Labour government ultimately failed to act because it was daunted by the size of the task involved in engaging with the Realms; by further complications, such as whether to address the discrimination against Catholics which is also built into the rules of succession; and because there was no immediate reason to do so.

Why now?

The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011 provided a spur to action.  What had been a hypothetical problem became a real possibility.  Having written to them beforehand, in October 2011 David Cameron used the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, to engage with those Commonwealth countries that are also Realms and seek their agreement to change their own laws.  The UK government has said that it will not bring the new law into force until all the Realms have made the change.  When the change is made, it will be backdated to 28 October 2011, the date of the agreement announced in Perth.

Why has changing the law taken so long?  The Realms

Changing the rules of succession for the UK is complicated because the British monarch is head of state of 15 other countries, known as the Realms.  These include large countries such as Australia, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand; and small countries such as St Vincent, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands.  (The full list is Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and The Bahamas).

The UK government and Buckingham Palace want any change in the rules of succession to be introduced throughout the Realms (if there were different rules, that could lead in time to different members of the Royal family succeeding in different countries).  Under the Perth agreement all the Realms agreed to make the necessary changes to their own laws.  The nature of the change required varies roughly in proportion to the size of the country: the smallest countries may simply pass a Cabinet resolution, others will legislate in parliament, while the largest countries may need to amend their constitutions.

Australia and Canada face particular difficulties because they are federations, where the consent of the states (in Australia) or the provinces (in Canada) is required for any constitutional amendment.  In Australia a compromise has been agreed that the State Parliaments will request the federal Parliament to change the law.  In Canada a minimalist law passed by the federal Parliament has since been challenged on the ground that changing the office of the Crown properly requires amendment of the Canadian constitution.

Will the Royal baby be next in line?

As the eldest child, the Royal baby will be next in line of succession after Prince William, whether it is a girl or a boy.  It does not matter that the new law has not been brought into force providing for equal primogeniture: so long as there is only one child, it is next in line.  The new law would only be needed if the eldest child is a girl, and a second child is subsequently born which is a boy.  The UK government hopes and expects that all the Realms will have come into line in the next 6-12 months, so the new law should have come into force by the time of the birth of any second child.

What other changes were made to the rules of succession?

Two other changes were made.  The Royal Marriages Act 1772 was repealed, and in future only the first six persons in line to the throne will require the Sovereign’s approval to marry.  Second, marrying a Roman Catholic will no longer disqualify a person from being in the line of succession.  But the prohibitions on the Monarch being a Roman Catholic remain: the Sovereign continues to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and must be in communion with the Church of England.

What does this change tell us about the British constitution?

Being unwritten, the British constitution is very easy to amend. Big changes, such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, reforming the House of Lords, or the Human Rights Act can be introduced by simple Act of Parliament.  What this episode shows is that changes to the succession to the Crown are much more difficult, because the change needs to involve not just the UK but the 15 other Realms.

It will have taken two to three years to effect this small change.  The difficulties in the Realms are multiple and varied.  Some saw this as a project of the UK government, and little to do with them.  Some struggled to realise what was required.  Some did not wish to provoke a wider debate about the monarchy.  At the other end of the scale, the two largest countries, Australia and Canada, have constitutions which are notoriously difficult to change.  So if any future change requires a constitutional amendment in either of those countries, the difficulties are further compounded.

It is too early to tell whether this small change has further consequences for the Realms themselves.  They are a widely scattered group of countries, most of whom have little in common.  It is possible that this exercise will have brought them a little closer together; it is also possible that it prompts some to question the link with the monarchy of a country so far away.

Mrs Thatcher and State Funerals

12th April 2013

So, what is the difference between Mrs Thatcher’s and a state funeral?  Doing media interviews this week, I have confidently stated that a state funeral involves:

  • A vote in Parliament
  • The coffin lying in state in Westminster Hall
  • The gun carriage bearing the coffin being drawn by sailors rather than horses.

My reliable source?  An unusually authoritative and detailed entry in Wikipedia, titled State Funerals in the UK.

But now I am not so sure.  If the purpose of the vote in Parliament is to authorise the spending of public money on the funeral, how is it that Mrs Thatcher’s funeral will be largely funded by the state, but without any parliamentary authorisation?  (Someone from the Treasury please answer).  And can Parliament authorise expenditure by simple resolution, based on a humble Address?  Here is the text of the parliamentary approval for Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral:

‘That a humble Address be presented to her Majesty, humbly to thank her Majesty for having given directions for the body of the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, Knight of the Garter, to lie in state in Westminster Hall and for the funeral service to be held in the Cathedral Church of St Paul and assuring her Majesty of our cordial aid and concurrence in these measures …’  (Hansard 25 Jan 1965).

The second element, lying in state, is clearly not a defining element of state funerals, since the Queen Mother had a lying in state in Westminster Hall in 2002, as part of her ceremonial funeral.

That leaves us with the third element, the gun carriage being drawn by sailors.  Wiki explains that the tradition dates back to the funeral of Queen Victoria, when ‘the horses drawing the gun carriage bolted, and so ratings from the Royal Navy hauled it to the Chapel at Windsor’.  That sounds alarming: a gun carriage careering out of control, the coffin sliding off …  The reality was less dramatic: the horses seemed restive, and so the sailors were substituted to be on the safe side.  The Buckingham Palace website records:  ‘The horses that were supposed to pull the gun-carriage became restless standing in the cold and were behaving in a dangerous manner, so  a team of sailors took over the task of pulling the gun carriage to St George’s Chapel’.

So, what is a state funeral?  I now think that it is a funeral for a head of state, a state occasion attended by other heads of state.

And who apart from the Sovereign has been accorded a state funeral?  Wikipedia gives a full list: remember these for your next Constitution Unit quiz.  It includes:

  • Four Prime Ministers (Wellington, Palmerston, Gladstone, Churchill)
  • Three Field Marshals (Napier, Roberts and Haig)
  • Two Admirals (Blake and Nelson)
  • Plus Sir Philip Sidney (1586), Sir Isaac Newton (1727), and that old rogue Lord Carson (1935).

Shouldn’t we allow our Monarchs to abdicate, like the Dutch?

19th February 2013

When Hilary Mantel was giving her lecture in which she mentioned the sacrifices demanded of the Duchess of Cambridge, I was giving a talk in the Middle Temple in which I discussed the sacrifices expected of the Queen, and the heir apparent.  At the same time as we take a step forward by reforming the rules of succession, we are in danger of drifting into a step backward.  The step forward is the abolition of male primogeniture, so that in future the eldest child will succeed, whether a girl or a boy; and abolition of the rule that any heir who marries a Catholic must step out of the line of succession.  This is being legislated by the Succession to the Crown Bill, currently going through Parliament this month: at great speed, with no Green Paper or White Paper, and almost no public debate.

Where I hope we might start to have a public debate is the gradual step backward into a monarchy which risks becoming a gerontocracy.  This is not said out of any criticism of those involved; quite the reverse.  Their sacrifice is extraordinary; and is the consequence of the inevitable effects of people living longer.  The Queen has been on the throne for 60 years, and will shortly be 87.  If she lives as long as her mother,  who died aged 101, she may reign for another 15 years.  If that happens Prince Charles will be 80 when he becomes King.  If he in turn lived to 100, Prince William would succeed to the throne at the age of 67.  And his child to be born later this year might succeed at the age of 70 …

My forecast ages may be wrong, but the point remains.  We are asking our senior Royals to take on the responsibilities of the Monarchy at an age when most people are retired.  And we are asking the heir apparent to spend all his adult life in waiting, and not to assume the throne until old age.  If we asked anyone else in their mid 80s to undertake the punishing schedule of the Queen’s public engagements  it would be called Granny abuse.  It is not kind to the Queen to expect her to go on like this; and it may not be kind to her people to live under a succession of monarchs who are all very old.

Is there any way out?  Look across the Channel to the Netherlands, where the last three Queens have abdicated at around the age of 70.  Queen Beatrix announced her abdication last month at the age of 75.  And look to Rome, where last week the Pope announced his retirement at the age of 85, before (as he put it) he loses his strength of mind and body.  But for our Queen abdication is unthinkable, the A-word is unmentionable, because of the abdication crisis of 1936, in what is seen by the Royal family as shamefully self-indulgent behaviour by Edward VIII.

It is also made much more difficult by the fact that our monarch is head of state of 15 other countries, the Realms, all of whom would have to agree to an abdication.  It has taken over a year for the realms to agree to the change in the rules of succession now being legislated for, with big legal and political difficulties in Australia and Canada, and a lot of shepherding required of the smaller realms.  So I don’t pretend it’s easy, it is not something which governments will readily want to tackle; but it is something that merits public debate, whether we want to have a succession of very elderly monarchs.

Defeat of Lords reform a blow for Clegg and the Coalition

Nick Clegg’s announcement on 6 August that he is abandoning his bill for an elected second chamber is a serious defeat for the Deputy Prime Minister which also marks a turning point for the coalition.  For the coalition, it underlines a point repeatedly made in our book The Politics of Coalition that we have a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament.  Conservative and Lib Dem backbenchers have little love for the coalition, and have rebelled in this Parliament with unprecedented frequency.  But because they tend to rebel on different issues, the government’s majority is generally safe.  Generally, but not always, as the 91 Conservative rebels signalled over Lords reform.  Parliament cannot be taken for granted.

Some Conservative MPs will privately be relieved at Nick Clegg’s announcement that the Lib Dems will no longer support the constituency boundary changes, because in the musical chairs involved in shrinking the Commons from 650 to 600 MPs several of them stood to lose their seats.  But publicly this retaliation signals a harsher tone between Clegg and Cameron, an end to the spirit of generosity and give and take which characterised the first two years, and a more narrowly contractual approach to their coalition partnership.  There is even less hope now for ‘Coalition 2.0’, a mid term coalition review announcing renewed plans for the second half of the Parliament.  But the dangers of a narrowly contractual approach are twofold:  first, that the original coalition agreement  will not stand up to that kind of detailed scrutiny, because it was negotiated in such haste after the election; second, that circumstances have moved on since May 2010, particularly in the worsening of the economy.  The coalition partners need to keep ahead of the game, and not continually going back to a document now over two years old.

Lords reform provides a good example.  An elected second chamber is clearly dead, at least in this Parliament, because there is not a majority in either House to support it.  Only a referendum can now overcome the opposition of the parliamentarians; and Clegg should have held a pre-legislative referendum to test the will of the people, as Labour shrewdly did with devolution in 1997.  But that is looking back.  Looking ahead, Clegg need not give up on Lords reform.  As his Liberal predecessor David Steel has repeatedly suggested, there are more modest reforms which could be put in place now. These would cap the size of the House, which is ballooning out of control; allow peers to retire; give the House proper powers to discipline its members; and remove the remaining hereditary peers.  For these incremental reforms there would be a better chance of support in both Houses.  The whole story of Lords reform has been a series of incremental reforms, each building on the last.   It will be a test of Clegg’s leadership whether he is willing to opt for some reforms rather than none.

Failure of Lords reform does not threaten the Coalition

There has been lots of excited talk about whether the stand off on Lords reform spells the end of the coalition.  It doesn’t.  It suits the media to talk it up as a crisis, but people need to keep things in perspective.  What this episode demonstrates, as we argued in our book The Politics of Coalition, is that we have a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament.  The coalition government remains remarkably solid; but from time to time it will encounter difficulties in Parliament, as all governments do.

Clegg and Cameron remain strongly united within the government.  Cameron did his best to deliver on Lords reform, showing his solidarity and support for the Lib Dems.  The Cabinet remains united and supportive of both leaders.  Our interviews for the book showed that this is a far more co-operative and consultative Cabinet than it was under Blair or Brown.  There is no credible challenger to Cameron or Clegg within the Cabinet or outside it.  Neither party is about to split, and neither is going to leave the coalition over this kind of issue.  The Lib Dems in particular have nowhere to go.  They will conclude, as previous governments have done, that it is far better to hang together than to hang separately.

In Parliament the rebellion was big, with 91 Conservative MPs voting against Second Reading of the bill, and a further 20 abstaining.  But it was a backbench rebellion, supported by few senior figures in the party, and no leadership challengers.  It was more of a defeat for the Lib Dems than for Cameron.  The upset will create bad feeling between the parties in Parliament: but again, our interviews for the book showed that there was already little love lost between the Conservatives and Lib Dems in Parliament, so this is not new.  On future votes in Parliament the government will continue to rely on its comfortable majority of around 80 MPs, and on the fact that when there are rebellions, the Conservatives and Lib Dems tend to revolt over different issues.

The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, by Robert Hazell and Ben Yong, was published by Hart Publishing in June 2012.