Cameron bites off more than he can chew
When he took office last year, David Cameron made it clear that the overriding policy priorities of the Coalition would be to reduce the deficit and pay down the nation’s debt. The priority reforms would be in health, welfare and education: anything else would be a peripheral distraction. So it beggars belief that, just a year into government, he is intent on fomenting one of the most seismic Church-State spats in decades. Perhaps it is a measure of the corrupting influence of power, or the sense of delusional omnipotence which appears to afflict some of our politicians who appear to believe that the British Constitution is of no greater significance than Hello magazing, and theirs to do with as they wish.
Just before the last General Election David Cameron said unequivocally that he didn’t want to get into a huge row with the Archbishop of Canterbury over ‘gay’ matters. Well, he’s heading straight for one. Or even two.
We are aware of his intention to redefine marriage to include the union of same-sex couples (to which His Grace will return). Not content with that, however, it has been announced that he intends to seek amendment of the Act of Settlement – not only on primogeniture, but also on the prohibition upon the Monarch to be married to a Roman Catholic. Bizarrely, the Daily Mail reports that he had not been in favour of gender equality because ‘the government's focus should be on more pressing matters such as the economic issues facing the country'. Quite. Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed this just a few months ago. Yet here we are, a Conservative Prime Minister, about to throw the switch which will open up the most convoluted can of worms imaginable, and take up literally hundreds of hours of parliamentary time. The Guardian reports:
Cameron is also proposing that Catholics should continue to be debarred from being head of state, but that anyone who marries a Catholic should not be debarred. The family would be entitled to bring up their children as Catholics as long as heirs do not seek to take the throne as a Catholic. This rule is a historical anomaly – it does not, for example, bar those who marry spouses of other faiths – and we do not think it can continue to be justified," Cameron wrote.How on earth does this dog's breakfast of a proposal rectify the ‘historical anomaly’? If it be offensive to Roman Catholics that the Monarch may neither be Roman Catholic nor married to one, how does the repeal of half of the prohibition resolve the injustice? If it be bigotry to bar the Monarch from marrying a Roman Catholic, it must a fortiori be bigotry to bar them from the Throne.
That aside, the Church of England has already made it clear that it is not in favour of any amendment to the Act of Settlement. And what are we to make of this bizarre proposal:
The family would be entitled to bring up their children as Catholics as long as heirs do not seek to take the throne as a Catholic.So, if the Heir to the Throne is brought up in the Roman Catholic faith (as the Royal Family would be ‘entitled’ to do), when the Monarch dies, the Heir would be forced, in the midst of profound grief, to choose immediately between Rome or the Throne of the United Kingdom. That’ll go down well, won’t it? ‘The Prince of Wales puts temporal power before God’, leads The Telegraph; ‘Prince abdicates and bows to the Pope’, cries The Times; ‘UK gets anti-Papist Prince’, splutters the Catholic Herald; ‘The Audacity of Pope’, spouts the Mail. The Heir would be damned if he (or she) did, and damned if he (or she) didn’t.
But that personal inconvenience aside...
Of course it is ‘unfair’ and ‘discriminatory’ that the monarch may not be or marry a Roman Catholic, but the very act of choosing a religion manifestly necessitates discrimination against all the others. It is also ‘discriminatory’ that the Pope may not be Protestant, and even more ‘unfair’ that he may not marry at all. But there are sound theological and historical justifications for the restrictions upon both the King of the Vatican and the Monarch of the United Kingdom, and none of these amount to a violation of their ‘human rights’. Prince William’s heir is perfectly free to marry a Roman Catholic should he (or she) so desire: that it is his (or her) human right. But the Heir is not then free to be King and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. But to be King or Queen is not a human right; it is the gift of Parliament.
It is difficult to view ‘historic injustices’ through the lens of the present. As His Grace has previously observed, this is a realm about which the Prime Minister knows very little. The Protestant Christian faith is woven into the fabric of this nation’s life; it secured its liberties and forged its identity. The Constitution is a fragile work of many delicate threads, and the tampering with one – and the Act of Settlement is a very crucial one – risks producing many loose ends and the eventual unravelling of the entire work.
Our forebears made the Protestant Constitution so watertight as to be virtually impossible to undo; indeed, one clause declares that the terms of the Settlement are ‘for ever’. Amendment or repeal of this Act would demand the consequent repeal of nine further Acts, including the Bill of Rights (1688), the Coronation Oaths Act (1688), the Crown in Parliament Act (1689), the Act of Union (1707), and the Royal Marriages Act (1772). On top of this, fifteen Commonwealth countries of which the British Monarch is also Head of State would also have to enact similar legislation, committing them to months of legislative scrutiny on the implications of repeal for their own constitutions. Even with minimal opposition (and this should not be taken for granted), the parliamentary time involved over the entire British Commonwealth would be colossal. In the UK alone it has been estimated that it could dominate an entire parliamentary year – around a quarter of a government’s legislative programme.
Why is David Cameron trying to chew and swallow that which both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dared not even bite? Why is he intent on suspending the Coalition’s manifesto commitments on such pressing issues as the economy, education, welfare, defence and health, while they navel-gaze for a whole year on what is considered an issue of such microscopic unimportance to 99% of the British people?