Britain’s Atavistic Royalism

Britain’s Atavistic Royalism

Will and Kate may look and dress like us, but their modernity is illusory. They, and the entire British polity, are tied to a 300-year-old law that puts sectarianism at the heart of the Union.


There is a strangely atavistic slant to British political culture at the moment. Bombs, strikes, religious hatred, a Tory government, a plot to kill a man called Lennon, a “fairytale” royal wedding… it might be the ’80s all over again, though whether the 1980s or 1680s is an open question. Closer inspection of some particularly strange headlines confirms a present dateline, with notable differences from the past. The policeman killed on April 2 by a car bomb in Omagh, Northern Ireland, was a Roman Catholic, a rare species even now, but vanishingly rare even a couple of decades ago. Ronan Kerr’s death is part of a wave of sectarian violence, and threatened violence, that has spilled across the North Channel to Scotland, where a leading football manager, Celtic FC’s Neil Lennon, two fans of his (ostensibly “Catholic”) soccer team and the country’s leading Catholic, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, have all recently received crude bombs or live ammunition sent through the mail. The media have routinely denounced these acts, and an imminent wave of industrial unrest following draconian public spending cuts, as a return to the “bad old days,” but the times are different, and the British political map has changed.

It would have been inconceivable in the 1980s, and unnecessary given Margaret Thatcher’s electoral landslide, to have a Conservative government propped up by Liberal support, let alone a full-blooded (or should that read half-hearted?) coalition. It’s also pretty clear that the media can’t decide whether to play the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton as thoroughly modern or magically old-fashioned. And that may be very telling, as I’ll suggest. He comes of a generation of thoroughly unconstrained young royals, and she is the model-thin offspring of a novelties manufacturer and a former airline cabin attendant. There is no possibility that the future Duchess of Strathearn is being taken to the altar by palace decree. Unlike her late mother-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales, who in retrospect seems ever more the victim not so much of the media as of dynastic politics, Kate Middleton is neither passive nor virginal, but impressively independent and so firmly linked with her future husband—they have been living together, after all—that her official as opposed to de facto entry into royal circles is disenchantedly old news. One senses the media struggling to find a fresh angle on what is, after all, an archetypal, almost foundationally British story, for the one aspect of the British political scene that hasn’t changed is the Crown. And some would say it is time it did.

With only outward perversity, the reopening of Parliament coincided with the revival of an ancient political philosophy that had long seemed entombed in museum myth—who would have thought Jacobitism would have another run-out? The other atavistic aspect of recent British news has been the appearance of Jacobite candidates on the election hustings for the now-devolved Scottish Parliament. Most of them have more to say about the health service, ferry subsidies and crime than about the divine right of kings and the restoration of the Stuart line, but their mere presence on the scene is a reminder that all this atavism in the air isn’t merely a seasonal return of the repressed but reflects the single disturbing reality at the heart of British politics.

However one disposes what Walter Bagehot called the “dignified” and the “efficient” in British political life, the fact remains that the Queen, an unelected, hereditary monarch, is the head of state and that she and her offspring are only limited by legislation now more than 300 years old. The 1701 Act of Settlement inevitably has a remote and Ruritanian sound to republican ears, but it remains a cornerstone of the British polity and is again under attack. There have been previous attempts to have the act repealed, but the volume of protest and demand for reform, if not root-and-branch repeal, has now sharply increased.

In historical context, the Act of Settlement provided that the British throne would pass to the Electress Sophia of Hanover, the granddaughter of James VI and I (who united the thrones of Scotland and England in 1603). But it had other dimensions, providing that Sophia’s descendants ascend the throne only if they remained in the Church of England communion. The British monarch, to this day, cannot be Catholic and cannot marry a Catholic. At a moment when Irish politicians battle to close a reopened sectarian rift in the North, and when Scottish politicians debate the introduction of a new offense of aggravated sectarianism, there is a sectarian provision at the very heart of the Union.

Ironically but logically, demands for repeal of the act have reached a crescendo at the very moment Prime Minister David Cameron has declared support for reform. Catholics are disturbed that Cameron’s main concern is that the act be rewritten to allow the eldest daughter of a monarch to take precedence over a younger brother (the present Queen ascended because she had no brothers) rather than removing its divisive religious provisions.

Those who either favor retaining the act or reforming its particulars point to the difficulty of repeal, which would, under the terms of the 1931 Statute of Westminster, require the assent of sixteen Commonwealth heads. However, as the Catholic Church’s chief media spokesman in Scotland said recently, the Act of Settlement is no mystical pledge inscribed on stone but simply an outdated act as susceptible to reform or repeal as those legislative embarrassments that still occasionally turn up in Britain, allowing freemen of the City to herd geese on London Bridge when there is an “r” in the month, or to beat their wives on Tuesdays, provided the stick is not narrower than one inch across. If these can be swept away, why not the Act of Settlement? The Commonwealth has already been approached, and represents no obstacle.

It is easy to argue that old laws have only symbolic meaning, like the schoolbook claim that the Queen “reigns, but does not rule.” The reality is different. It is still the Queen who calls governments, most controversially in October 1963, when she summoned Sir Alec Douglas-Home from the House of Lords, and it seems likely that her son Prince Charles will be a more interventionist monarch than his mother, unless constitutional change prevents him. The succession is not a trivial matter. One senior member of the Royal Family, the Queen’s cousin Prince Michael of Kent, has already removed himself from the line of succession (albeit fifteenth place) by marrying the ever-controversial Catholic Baroness Marie Christine von Rebwitz, now Princess Michael of Kent. In 2008, the Princess Royal’s son Peter Phillips, who is eleventh in line, married the Canadian-born, Catholic-raised Autumn Kelly. She quietly converted to Anglicanism before the ceremony, and it was noted last week that Kate Middleton had been received into the Anglican Church.

Though the ceremony seemed pro forma rather than controversial, these things matter constitutionally. It is the “modernity” of the young royals that is the myth. They no longer assert the divine right, and they live among us, dress and party like us, in a way unseen in the post-Victorian era until Diana donned a baseball cap. Even so, the “ordinariness” of the younger generation of royals is illusory. They are different, and their difference is still the cornerstone of British political life. For how much longer?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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