Why we really need the Queen
If Britain becomes ruled by an elected president, the political independence so vital to our wellbeing will be lost
SHORTLY AFTER HE became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown announced that there was to be a “national conversation” on constitutional reform. This was the time (how very long ago it seems now) of the “Brown bounce”, when Mr Brown actually enjoyed a modicum of national popularity. He was determined (his spin-doctors assured us) to sweep away the heavily cobwebbed constitutional niceties that the country had inherited from long ago.
The House of Lords (he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr) must be made “accountable”. There were hints that the voting age might be reduced to 16, perhaps in order to harness the adolescent vote all the more tightly to the Labour wagon. The powers to declare war and to ratify international treaties would be removed from the Crown (ie Downing Street) and given to parliament. The Crown (ie Downing Street) might also be stripped of its authority to appoint the bishops of the Church of England.
Tucked deep within this envelope of no doubt worthy but essentially peripheral measures was an undertaking to repeal parts of the Act of Settlement.
This legislation dates from 1701. It prohibits any person of the Roman Catholic faith from ascending the throne, and it further decrees that every person who does ascend the throne shall be or become a communicant member of the Church of England. Three weeks ago, Downing Street let it be known that plans were actually being drawn up to give effect to this pledge, and that the government’s constitutional advisers were busy preparing legislation to put an end to the 300-year-old exclusion of papists from the royal line of succession. The current requirement that this succession must always pass to a male heir if one exists is also, apparently, to be swept away, thus making it possible for a first-born daughter of Prince William to succeed him irrespective of the fact that he might also have a child of the male sex.
On the face of it, who except the most ardent of Protestants could argue against the removal of the current ban on a Catholic becoming or being the monarch? And which of us, in this feminist age, would dare to speak out against doing away with masculine rights of preferential inheritance? In any case (I can hear you expostulating) what on earth has any of this got to do with the Jews?
On the face of it, nothing whatsoever. But as I look beyond the face of these proposals, I become, as a Jew, ever more uneasy.
The Whig statesmen who framed the Act of Settlement did not object to the presence of Roman Catholics, and if they scoffed at Catholic beliefs (which they did), in practice they tolerated those who followed the Catholic religion. But that religion was and had for centuries been associated with tyrannical and absolute government throughout Europe. Moreover, Catholics owed their ultimate al- legiance on this earth to the Bishop of Rome, and to his laws, not those enacted at Westminster.
You may say that the concept of dual nationality is now well understood. So it is. But the papacy has never been the friend of the Jews. We British Jews had our liberties secured in this country by a Protestant establishment, not a Catholic one.
On the back of the latest proposals, the celebrated constitutional lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC is now to be found at the head of those who are arguing for a reform even more radical. Damning the exclusion of Catholics from the throne and the rule of male primogeniture as “blatant contraventions” of the Sex Discrimination and Human Rights Acts — as if these measures possessed some divine right of precedence (so to speak) — Mr Robertson has nailed his colours to the mast: “The next stage”, he has declared, is “for the government to challenge the notion of a head of state who achieved the position through inheritance” — in other words, the abolition of the hereditary monarchy and its replacement by an elected presidency.
A gender-neutral monarchy is one thing. But a politicised headship of state is quite another. The strength of the hereditary monarchy is precisely that its succession is not open to political shenanigans. In this way, it gives immeasurable political stability where none might otherwise exist. And if history shows anything, it is that political instability is never good for us diaspora Jews.
British Jewry has prospered under the umbrella of a hereditary monarchy that owes allegiance neither to a domestic politics nor to any foreign potentate. Long may that continue.