Lib Dem peer: let the Royals marry Catholics

by Stephen Tall on August 4, 2007

This according to the Daily Telegraph:

Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer drafted in by the Prime Minister to advise on constitutional issues, told The Daily Telegraph that the centuries-old ban was “an injustice” that should now go.

The outspoken comments from the respected peer came after it emerged that Peter Phillips, the Queen’s eldest grandson and 10th in line to the throne, might have to surrender his place in the succession. Mr Phillips, 29, the son of the Princess Royal, is now engaged to Autumn Kelly, 31, a Canadian management consultant who was baptised a Catholic. The fact was not mentioned in the Buckingham Palace announcement of the engagement last week.

But in a never-repealed provision of the 1701 Act of Settlement, which enshrined the Protestant ascendancy, British monarchs and their heirs are forbidden to become or even marry Catholics. The legislation means that either Mr Phillips must give up his place in the line of succession or Miss Kelly must formally renounce the faith into which she was baptised.

I’m neither a Royalist nor a Catholic, but this law is clearly an ass – the only reason the Telegraph identifies why it has not long since been consigned to the dustbin of archaic constitutional absurdities is, “that legislating now to end the ban on monarchs themselves being Catholics would raise the thorny issue of whether the Church of England should be disestablished”. To which the easy answer is: of course it should.

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Some obscure bits of anti-Catholic legislation survived a long time.

It was only in 2001 that the bar on Catholic priests standing for Westminster was lifted.

by Hywel Morgan on August 4, 2007 at 11:57 am. Reply #

Why not go one better and scrap the monarchy, and then they can marry who they like?
That said, the law as it stands is absurd. Why didn’t Blair do anything about it?

by Geoffrey Payne on August 4, 2007 at 1:09 pm. Reply #

Of Course the monarchy should be abolished.

But there’s actually very good reason for this anti-catholic legislation – it would be absurd to have the head of state subservient to Rome.

by Steven Ronald on August 4, 2007 at 1:13 pm. Reply #

What scrap the monarchy and replace it with a ‘George Bush’ model? Now that is what I call absurb!

by Neil Woollcott on August 4, 2007 at 1:24 pm. Reply #

“George Bush”??? – Are you calling Republicism a “Gearge Bush” model?? – I find that absurd. Yeah, yeah i know all about the “President Thatcher” problem of republicism but heh that’s democracy for you.

by Steven Ronald on August 4, 2007 at 1:50 pm. Reply #

Lord Lester told The Daily Telegraph that the centuries-old ban was “an injustice” that should now go.

Bit like the monarchy itself then.

by Laurence Boyce on August 4, 2007 at 4:38 pm. Reply #

Err… why on earth would scrapping the monarchy automatically lead to a George Bush model in power…?

There are actually two separate questions involved in that – should the head of state be chosen? (yes), and should the executive be elected independently of the legislature? (yes). I personally believe that since I answer yes to both of those, we may as well combine the two in a single executive Head of State, along the lines of the American or French model.

The argument ‘I don’t want a President Blair/Thatcher’ is really very silly – it’s not a criticism of the model, but of people who may or may not have been chosen by the people to fill it – remember, with an elected executive it would have been possible for, say, Labour voters to vote against Blair whilst still voting for their local Labour MP. Nobody actually got to vote on whether or not Blair should be PM (well – 70,000 in Sedgefield arguably did) – we would all have gotten a vote on whether or not he should have been President. It’s also worth noting that a British Prime Minister actually occupies a more powerful position than an American or French President, as they are constitutionally restricted to handling foreign affairs and little else, unless they are personally powerful enough to overcome this and enable them to interact in domestic affairs – no such restriction exists on the British executive.

by Greg Lowis on August 4, 2007 at 5:37 pm. Reply #

Well said Greg. Whatever one may think of their elected representatives, the American system seems eminently sensible in many ways. This is possibly due to the fact that it was designed in relatively recent times by people who had a vague idea of what they wished to accomplish, as opposed to our system which is pure anachronism really.

Arguing the case for a British republic is just the sort of distinctive and radical policy stance which the Liberal Democrats should be adopting. So could somebody please explain why it is that, together with secularism, this is something we literally never hear about?

by Laurence Boyce on August 4, 2007 at 6:34 pm. Reply #

I suppose, given our sound environmental credentials, that any manifesto that included a pledge to abolish the monarchy would be the greenest suicide note in history.

by Paul Griffiths on August 4, 2007 at 6:49 pm. Reply #

The bit about Catholic priests not being allowed to stand is a bit of a red herring since they are formally forbidden from serving in parliament anyway as they cannot make any oaths other than to the Church. But of course this is an area of law that needs to be re-examined urgently; there should be no bar on members of the royal family being catholic – or indeed any other religion.

On the monarchy, I take the rather unpopular view that the continuity of historical legitimacy and non-partisan nature of the monarchy is perfectly compatible with liberal democracy in our system. If the king or queen’s only roles are to sign parliament’s laws into being, welcome dignitaries and officiate at formal ceremonies on behalf of the nation then it makes absolute sense that that person does not derive their role from the ballot box. Democracy has many excellent qualities but one thing it does not do is unite – it is essentially divisive and it would seriously detract from the uniting, ceremonial role of the head of state if only half the people voted for them.
Let’s reform our politics. Let’s have a big clear-out of all the powers that still fall to the monarch or to the executive by royal prerogative and let’s put them where they belong – in parliament; but our head of state is not Sarkozy or Bush or any of the other executive heads of state, it is an office of great dignity and unifying power which apolitically exercises the decisions of parliament and in being elected by none of the British people represents us all. The UK’s head of state has less political power than the presidents of Germany, Italy or a hundred other countries and yet people come to see ours from all over the world, when she visits somewhere people care about it and when diplomats and bigwigs meet her they are impressed above and beyond all of that and that is useful and valuable to Britain and it would be a huge loss to our constitution and culture if we got rid of the monarchy out of some misplaced crusade for an unatainable perfect democracy. There are much more productive uses of our time on that score.

by Benjamin Mathis on August 4, 2007 at 6:52 pm. Reply #

Democracy is not inherently divisive – the manner in which we practise it is. Mary McAleese, the non-partisan President of Ireland was chosen by the Irish people. She’s perfectly capable of signing Irish law and welcoming dignatories, but the hand and the voice used for those were chosen by the people, giving her the right to do so in their name that our head of state lacks. There is no more divisive influence that announcing ‘from birth, I am better than you’. No British person has ever told Mrs Windsor she can act for us – yet she assumes she can do so every day. That is not merely divisive, it is offensive and wrong.

Equally, the Icelandic President is so uniting an influence that an incumbent standing for re-election has only been challenged twice, I think, in the sixty years the Icelandic Republic has been in existence – easily winning both times.

This is no ‘misplaced crusade for an unattainable perfect democracy’ – it’s the bare minimum necessary to move slowly in the direction of a modern state, the officers of which must hold their position through right, rather than accident of history.

by Greg Lowis on August 4, 2007 at 7:20 pm. Reply #

Well said Greg. Again! And let’s not forget that while many people hold the Queen in high regard, we all know who’s coming next.

by Laurence Boyce on August 4, 2007 at 7:28 pm. Reply #

Yes – someone who speaks his mind regardless of whether it’s popular. What a frightful idea!

Nobody has ever been asked “do you want to live in a free democracy or would you prefer a dictatorship”, none of us was actually ASKED any of this, we exercise our consent by virtue of living under the rules laid down long before we were born.

I tip my hat to Mrs McAleese et al and I’m sure they do their jobs very well but we have something better – someone who represents our thousand year history and who people actually give a crap about. Monarch is not a law-making role, it isn’t one whose acts in office make any difference, it is about administering the tasks given to you by the constitution – shake a hand, sign a document, pose for a stamp – if the people are happy with the arrangement there is nothing wrong with it at all and it brings all manner of benefits.

by Benjamin Mathis on August 4, 2007 at 7:44 pm. Reply #

Yes – someone who speaks his mind regardless of whether it’s popular. What a frightful idea!

Actually, homeopathy is very popular, to pick one example. But I’m afraid that for Prince Charles to actively support and promote it, together with other forms of “alternative” medicine, is both ignorant and irresponsible.

by Laurence Boyce on August 4, 2007 at 8:01 pm. Reply #

“but our head of state is not Sarkozy or Bush or any of the other executive heads of state, it is an office of great dignity and unifying power which apolitically exercises the decisions of parliament and in being elected by none of the British people represents us all.”

Only the first of the above statements is correct.

Where is the dignity? Only the present Queen has behaved with any dignity. None of the rest of them has. They’re a bunch of largely useless upper-class rakes, in point of fact. And how is the monarchy “apolitical”? Do not the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas hold opinions that are decidedly to the neo-Hegelian right? Or are they mysteriously devoid of the values and prejudices of the rest of the aristocracy?

Remembeer this. In the not-too-distant future, we will be faced, not with Queen Elizabeth, but with King Charles and Queen Camilla, a gruesome twosome worthy of the deepest contempt for their callousness, cowardice and abominable behaviour. No-one but the most sycophantic, blinkered royalist has the slightest respect for either.

The remaining 20 odd years of the present Queen’s reign should give us plenty of time to consider what constitutional arrangements we should put in place when Elizabeth II dies.

If people really want King Charles, then let them have him. Not as a constitutional monarch, however, but as a private individual doing many of the things that monarchs do – opening flower shows, sitting in the Royal Box at Ascot, perhaps even dishing out meaningless “honours”. A “ghost monarchy” if you like.

Giving one particular family special legal status and treating them as superior forms of creation chosen by God is unacceptable in a democracy.

“someone who represents our thousand year history and who people actually give a crap about”

Again, total utter nonsense. The British monarchy derives its legitimacy from an 11th century French settler who invaded and conquered this country and enslaved its people under the feudal system.

In reality, the modern monarchy is a very un-British institution, most of its members being of German descent. George I and George II were unable to speak a word of English, and the Duke of Edinburgh is of wholly German ancestry, his surname being Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glück-Beck (hope I got that right).

Our history is much, much older than 1,000 years, but I suppose the pre-Norman part of it is worthless to a sycophantic monarchist.

Those who want to learn the truth about the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas should read Kitty Kelly’s “The Royals”. It’s banned in this country, but I have a copy.

by Angus Huck on August 4, 2007 at 11:14 pm. Reply #

Talking of ‘King Charles’ recalls what happened on the occasion this country did ‘abolish’ the monarchy: it led to a unifying position of persistent conflict which was only resolved when the positions of head of state and government were made distinct and seperate. The manner in which the abolition was achieved is one of the most shocking episodes we have experienced in Britain – shouldn’t we learn from history in order to avoid repeating our mistakes?

The problem with an exalted soap opera of royal celebrity is related to the measure of fairness involved.

Heredity primogeniture with constitutional exemptions place such a large restriction on the role that public confidence and perception of the role come to be totally divorced from the practicalities of everyday duties required in it’s undertaking.

The historical evolution of the way in which power is exerted and exercised has lead us to here, and while I think reform is urgent and necessary within the confines of wide-ranging renewal of the constitutional settlement (particularly the House of Lords), abolition and disestablishment are to be feared by any liberal for the opportunity that would be presented to an ambitious autocratic tyrant.

Dogmatic adherence to a model that seems ‘sensible enough’, and fulfils any checklist of ideology is the most exact perversion of a democratic and apolitical decision-making process imaginable.

If your criticisms can be boiled down to a preference based on personal prejudice regarding the personalities involved, or an assumption of the realities, this only exposes your own biases, and I think you’d better think again.

Moreover, the British monarchy is an institution which has helped initiate the successful internationalisation and integration of the modern improved political state. Yes, it is imperfect, but to ignore the intangible benefit to our stability provided by our monarchy is to undermine and downplay the contribution of British history to human advancement.

This issue represents a parallel philosophical question posed to a ‘soft’, or ’emotional’ liberalism (defined as in opposition to authority) which seeks to gain political office in government. Liberty and authority are not inherently contradictory, in fact they represent a necessary coalition of argument to be balanced and reconciled before any job can be done properly.

When we get it right (and we always do eventually) nobody does it better. This is our challenge.

by James S on August 5, 2007 at 11:30 am. Reply #

The pope should immediately excommunicate any person – toff or commoner – who marries into the British royalty … and then we as parliamentary democrats should make them apply for their own jobs and pay them all the going rate for minor celebs and tourism workers. We should call republicanism Cromwellism and the president the Lord Protector to save any unfair analogies.

by Chris Paul on August 5, 2007 at 11:54 am. Reply #

10 – even former Catholic priests were barred from Parliament until 2001

by Hywel Morgan on August 5, 2007 at 2:01 pm. Reply #

If we’re going to be pedantic then yes, the lineage of the British (and before them, English) kings goes back more than a thousand years but I just can’t resist a good soundbite.

Now, I hesitate to continue an arguement that has already led to me being advised to Read All About It in a book by Hollywood hatchet-job biographer, Kitty Kelly but let’s try. There is much to recommend a republic in the case of a “start-up” country that can identify the hour and date of its birth but in the case of the UK, whose continuity and integrity of existance is its greatest strength, the link with our past is very important.
So much of the opposition to the monarchy seems to be based on petty lefty toff-bashing, personal abuse of people (Charles and Camilla) none of us knows or can possibly empathise with, the idea that a modern constitutional monarchy still requires doffing of caps and adherence to backward customs that went out with the ark or worse, rank xenophobia.
Now I want a fair society as much as the next person, I want inner city kids not to grown up with drugs and guns, I want anyone to be able to aspire to the most powerful political offices – and on these we have a hell of a long way to go. But I also want modern Britain to retain an appreciation of the history that makes it what it is. We belong to a country with the longest continuous existance in the Western world and unlike a lot of countries we don’t trace our nation’s legitimacy from a document 200 years ago but from an unbroken line of succession that connects us to the past and the future. When the Queen opens parliament or signs a bill into law it carries with it the authority of ages and, like it or not, representing the entire nation is a job no other person can do so well. Power to the people by all means and a slimmed-down modernised monarchy but we have had ten years of a government with no sense of the value of history and a Special Relationship with a whole country that has the same problem. Don’t let’s go the same way.

by Benjamin Mathis on August 5, 2007 at 6:22 pm. Reply #

Talking of ‘King Charles’ recalls what happened on the occasion this country did ‘abolish’ the monarchy: it led to a unifying position of persistent conflict which was only resolved when the positions of head of state and government were made distinct and separate. The manner in which the abolition was achieved is one of the most shocking episodes we have experienced in Britain – shouldn’t we learn from history in order to avoid repeating our mistakes?

There’s one crucial difference though, isn’t there? That was the seventeenth century; this is the twenty-first.

by Laurence Boyce on August 5, 2007 at 6:59 pm. Reply #

It is quite evident from reading the above posts that lickers of Royal boot polish have no coherent argument. Well, actually they do, but they are reluctant to articulate it in its undiluted form. And it is this. The monarch is chosen by God to rule over us, so it is the duty of each and every one of us to bow down and worship him or her, or risk eternal hellfire.

This was precisely what Charles I and James II said. It is why we had to fight a civil war. It is what James I meant when he spoke of the “Divine Right of Kings”. It is why Caesar Augustus made his father a god. And it is also why the participants of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation were required to abstain from sexual intercourse for 24 hours.

I can just about see the argument from stability and continuity in drawing the head of state from one single family, but why the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas? Why not the Beckhams?

It is also sometimes said that unsuitable monarchs can be forced aside. As was Charles I when he tried to levy ship money, and James II when he went behind the back of Parliament. But was George IV ever forced aside? Of Edward VII? (Bill Wyman had nothing on these guys.) And recall that Edward VIII was forced to abdicate, not because he was a twit, or because he supported Hitler, but because he wished to marry a divorced woman.

Prince Charles is a berk. No two ways about it. When the press uncovered Charles in flagrante with Anna Wallace in the bushes at Balmoral, Charles did a runner and left Anna Wallace to face the music. Oh, and Charles’ ladyfriends are required to call him “Sir” even while they are doing it. And as for Charles encouraging his courtiers to spread gossip about his wife in the media, well it is difficult to imagine what kind of cad could do that.

by Angus Huck on August 6, 2007 at 9:56 pm. Reply #

I might be persuaded to vote Charles Windsor for President.

by tony hill on August 6, 2007 at 10:43 pm. Reply #

Me too. For a million dollars, say.

by Laurence Boyce on August 6, 2007 at 11:10 pm. Reply #

No-one is argueing Divine Right of Kings, and fascinating as palace intrigue, rumour and personal insult might be, Angus dosn’t really seem to have a coherent approach either.
The appeal of monarchy is emotional and irrational, I fully accept that, but it is the system we have inherited from history and a lot of people seem to be quite happy with it as long as it doesn’t interfere so te challenge, surely is to find a way of making it work without conflicting with the democratic running of the state. We can formulate a model where the government is of the people but the historical legacy of the crown-as-the-nation remains part of the constitution and if we are to follow the will of the people to retain the monarchy then, as democrats, we must.

by Benjamin Mathis on August 7, 2007 at 12:57 am. Reply #

“Angus dosn’t really seem to have a coherent approach either”

Wrong, Mr Mathis. Try reading what I have actually written.

My position is that in a democracy giving special legal status to one family is unacceptable. In a democracy, the head of state should be elected (if it’s President Major or President Prescott, then so be it – we don’t all have to like the decisions the electorate makes). Moreover, the mass deference and sycophancy that goes with the monarchy is deeply unhealthy.

How is that incoherent?

“No-one is argueing Divine Right of King”

You might not be, but most monarchists do.

“and fascinating as palace intrigue, rumour and personal insult might be”

Mr Mathis makes no secret of his headmasterly contempt for those who speak the (often unspeakable) truth. The monarchy feeds on the notion that its members are special (worthy of their divinely chosen status), that they are inherently virtuous and courageous, and that no commoner can possibly compare with them. That’s the reason we have to tell people what a dreadful shower they are.

“The appeal of monarchy is emotional and irrational,”

Correct. At least you are honest enough to admit it, rather than merely rationalise your support for the monarchy, as many royalists do.


Sorry. We are liberals. Not neo-Hegelian cultists. To be British it is not necessary to believe in any particular value system. The monarchy means absolutely nothing to me. Does that make me a second class citizen, some kind of untermensch?

“if we are to follow the will of the people to retain the monarchy then, as democrats, we must.”

The people have spoken on the subject of the monarchy only twice in the last 500 years. On the first occasion, they fought a Civil War to get rid of a pretender to absolutism. On the second, they tried, and failed, at the Battle of Sedgemoor, to oust James II. Unless Mr Mathis speaks FOR the people, that is.

Mr Mathis has the bare-faced effrontery to accuse me of “rank xenophobia”, when I point out that the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas are of German descent, but then goes on to tell us that said family represents 1,000 years of British history. Can’t have it both ways.

One of the best ever “Private Eye” front covers showed the Queen on her first official visit to Germany shaking hands with German officers. “Hello Uncle Otto, Cousin Fritz, Cousin Karl,” she said.

by Angus Huck on August 7, 2007 at 7:37 pm. Reply #

Angus, I enjoy reading most of your posts for their lucid and balanced analysis, but on this occasion it seems someone has pushed your buttons and the countdown began…

Firstly, British sovereignty provides and protects our fabulous democratic heritage, long may we have the freedom to adapt it to suit our demands!

The British monarchy is hardly absolutist in it’s current format, what’s more every succession provides an opportunity for parliament to redefine the role of the crown within the confines of public acceptability.

We require good government and we must utilise every form of leverage we can in order to get it – who else would cave in to the threats of our blackmail disguised as political pressure, except an institutionalised embodiment of the state?

So why not the Beckhams? Well indeed! I think their relative elevation is precisely the example we should be able to present as evidence of the benevolence of our constitution (which may not be quite the same were ‘Goldenballs’ ever actually likely to mount a real challenge to wrest the golden orb and sceptre into his hands – I’m thinking he’s not John O’Gaunt) – surely Beck’s biography shows how society evolves by diversifying and is capable of equalising real status levels on a basis of individual merit, not totality of power.

It particularly strikes me as unenlightened to interpret history according to the contingency of modern value systems, as the same problem of securing succession or safely transfering power remains, in whichever century, whether beset by issues of inheritance, senatorial factionalism, revolting baron’s or peasants or religious, social and civil wars – without a requisite rubber-stamp even wee Gordy Broon may have been tempted to use drastic force to establish his pre-eminence by overwhelming Blair.

Such bitter hunger for power must be restrained at all costs and we should be glad that our head of state has been successfully depoliticised to the extent that this is made possible. We only need look abroad to where the roles of heads of state and government are combined into single offices to see that heads roll with scary frequency.

No, our problem lies within royalty, not monarchy per se.

Diminished access and accountability attack public confidence in the institution, while also undermining the relationships within it.

Our royal family does need reform and they could certainly do with more fresh blood. I’m also sure their enthusiasm and conscientiousness could be heightened with greater specialisation and role identification. Elections are necessary, but here I’d favour an indirect college vote within a reformed HoL over a public referendum on a premature personality issue.

by James S on August 8, 2007 at 12:49 am. Reply #

James S – I hope I didn’t say the UK monarchy is absolutist. It isn’t, and hasn’t been since King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta.

Charles I tried to make it absolutist, and he and many of his supporters genuinely believed that kings were chosen by God. He launched the Civil War and went to the scaffold because he refused to back down from his adherence to the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

His most ardent supporters even built a church in Tunbridge Wells which they dedicated to “King Charles the Martyr” – a martyr to the divine right doctrine. (The Puritans, in retaliation, named a local hill “Mount Ephraim”.)

I think a useful model for an apolitical or semi-political head of state is that of the municipal mayoralty. Switch him/her from party to party and change him/her from year to year. We would have a succession of Parliamentarians with egos big enough to enjoy the ceremonial, but with insufficient intellect and drive to be serious threats to their adversaries. Ideal heads of state.

Those who want to go on worshipping a private monarchy should be free to do so.

by Angus Huck on August 8, 2007 at 1:24 am. Reply #

Angus, this is where I assert the liberality of Machiavelli’s analysis, that weakness in each form of rule will see monarchy degrade into monstrous tyranny, aristocracy into conspiratorial oligarchy, while democracy will degrade into opinionated anarchy.

He goes on: that whenever a political system does degrade it sees freedoms reduced and violent upheaval is forthcoming, although it is a matter of evidence whether this cycle provokes evolution to a higher form of polity or whether the damage to the society ought to be emphasised.

Whichever style you may aspire to or idealise is immaterial when you start trying to ensure the stability of your society and begin to identify the strengths inherent in each system form.

What we have currently incorporates various aspects of a mixed society – maybe the balance isn’t quite right, but, as a liberal, I would be against initiating a series of futile purges.

by James S on August 8, 2007 at 12:46 pm. Reply #

Nah. Off with their heads!

by Laurence Boyce on August 8, 2007 at 1:56 pm. Reply #

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