The Guardian newspaper yesterday carried news of constitutional proposals drafted by Chris Bryant MP, who was charged with reviewing the UK constitution by Gordon Brown. The main ideas are that of abolishing primogeniture (the principle whereby the male children of UK monarchs take precedence over the female ones in the line of succession to the throne) and reform of the Act of Succession: the 1701 law that bans Roman Catholics, or those married to Catholics, from taking their place in the line of succession, i.e. ultimately from being king or queen. Curiously, the proposals are also reported to include limiting the powers of the Privy Council: a shadowy body, which is in theory the monarch’s private advisory committee, but which is in reality a branch of the executive and answerable to the Cabinet. One of the roles of the Privy Council is to arbitrate in disputes between the UK government and the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales.
Why should we be worried or even bothered about these proposals to repeal such seemingly archaic and irrelevant features of the UK’s eclectic constitution? As far as primogeniture is concerned, it does seem rather unimportant and discriminatory to insist that if the first child of a reigning monarch is female, she should should be relegated behind any younger brothers in the line of succession. Probably most British people who are still attached to the monarchy would not be too concerned by scrapping this rule; and those of an anti-monarchic bent probably couldn’t be bothered.
For me, however, it seems like an assault on one of the last bastions of an idea about authority in society that is Christian at root: that authority is ultimately vested by God in male persons. This is authority, not overweening power or a blank cheque to do as you wish, and is really in fact a form of service: the duty to represent and uphold God’s authority and truth in the land, to serve him and try to ensure that his will is done.
This idea of the divine role of the monarch as a servant of God is closely linked to the reasoning behind the Act of Settlement. As the Guardian puts it, quoting from the words of the Coronation Oath, the monarch’s constitutional duty is to “maintaine the Laws of God the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant reformed religion established by law . . . and . . . preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this realm and to the churches committed to their charge all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain unto them or any of them”. The monarch has to be Anglican because of this combined duty to ‘maintain the Laws of God’ (i.e. to ensure that secular laws as well as church governance reflect God’s law) and to defend the established Protestant religion. This latter duty involves both the monarch’s role as the Supreme Governor and Head of the Church of England, and a general responsibility to uphold the Church of Scotland (the established church of that land), even though the monarch is not the formal head of the Kirk.
If you remove the requirement for the monarch to be Anglican, then he or she cannot exercise this role as Defender of the (Protestant Christian) Faith, nor can (s)he be the Head of the Church of England. Consequently, as the Guardian article states, reforming the Act of Settlement would probably lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England.
Again, why should this matter? There are many supporters of an English parliament or English independence who would be happy to see the disestablishment of the Church of England and would prefer England to be constitutionally a secular country, without any established religion. However, they’re missing something here. The talk is only of disestablishing the Church of England and not the Church of Scotland. Admittedly, the Church of Scotland is not an established, state church in the way that the Head of the UK state’s simultaneous headship of the Church of England makes that church a state religion. But nonetheless, the Church of Scotland is the official, ‘national’ church of that land, with statutory duties to tender to the pastoral care of all the Scottish people, whether they belong to that church or not. Equally, as I have indicated above, the British king or queen still has a constitutional responsibility – as contained in the Oath of Accession – to “defend the security” of the Kirk.
No one, to my knowledge, is presently talking about ‘disestablishing’ the Church of Scotland in the sense of stripping it of its formal status as Scotland’s ‘national’ Church, its legal responsibility for the pastoral care of all who live in Scotland, nor its royal protection. Nor, certainly, is anyone talking about allowing the Church of England to retain a similar status and set of responsibilities in the event of its disestablishment; i.e. that it should continue to be, in some sense, the national Church for England and to retain its age-old responsibility for the ‘care of souls’ in every parish in the land. That land being England.
And it’s England’s status as a nation that is ultimately at stake. The Church of England is perhaps the only remaining institution that preserves any sort of constitutional status for England as such. Through the Church of England, the head of the UK state and hence the state itself is constitutionally bound to have care and exercise governance over a real, established entity known as England and her people. If you sever the link between the monarch (and the state) and the Church of England, this means that there is no longer any established body that has jurisdiction over England as a nation. This would then mean that the UK monarch would have no particular constitutional duty to defend England as such – whether in a general or merely spiritual sense. And, accordingly, the UK state could decree that England as such was history, as there is no other constitutional, legal or political framework or institution that belongs to England only and exercises governance over England only.
In a context of constitutional reform in which England’s status as a nation was assured and protected by things such as an English parliament – or even just the political will to acknowledge the nation and governance of England as precisely that and not treat it as just a territorial jurisdiction of UK governance – such an untying of the organic links between the state, the Christian faith and England would not be so grave a matter. But a comprehensive reform package of this sort is not what is on offer; far from it. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the idea of any kind of English self-governance is not remotely on the government’s constitutional-reform radar, as they have no model of governance other than that of UK-parliamentary sovereignty, to which England is absolutely subject, while any idea of English national, popular sovereignty is seen simply as a non-sequitur. And England would be even more subject to, and constitutionally indistinct from, the UK state as it currently stands if the Church of England were disestablished as there would be no national English Church to look out for us, and no head of state that was constitutionally bound to care and pray for England as such.
And this is why the as yet unspecified proposals to reform the Privy Council appear particularly sinister to me. If the Privy Council’s powers to arbitrate in disputes between the UK state and Scotland or Wales were limited, presumably, this means that a body that currently has a constitutional duty to consider the interests of England – through its ties with the monarch and its exercise of the royal prerogative in matters such as the appointment of Church of England bishops, for instance – would no longer have as much influence in matters to do with the relationship between retained (UK-wide) and devolved governance. If decisions in such grey areas were left to the Cabinet and / or to parliament, rather than the Privy Council, there would be no need or duty to consider the interests of England at all, because parliament and the executive do not represent or govern any entity known as England but only the UK. So there would no longer be a third party – England – that could be seen as being affected by disputes between the UK state and the devolved nations. Constitutionally, there would be, in fact, only Britain and the devolved nations.
So these proposed measures could signal nothing less than the beginning of the end, or even the end of the end, of England.
Don’t let it happen. Please sign the ‘England Nation’ petition, if you haven’t done so already. Thank you.