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The British House of Commons has voted in favor of legislation that would allow women to succeed to the throne on equal terms with men.
As the law stands now, a woman can only ascend the throne if she does not have any brothers. However, in 2011, David Cameron announced that the prime ministers of the sixteen Commonwealth Realms where Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State had agreed to let daughters inherit on an equal basis. From henceforth, the Crown would go to the eldest child, regardless of sex.
After lengthy negotiations with the various Commonwealth governments, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg introduced legislation to make the change official. But in addition to doing away with male-preference primogeniture, the Succession to the Crown Bill also makes other adjustments to the law of succession. Notably, members of the Royal Family will no longer be barred from succeeding to the Crown if they marry a Roman Catholic. Also, the requirement to seek the monarch’s consent before marrying will be limited to the first six people in the list of succession. Presently, every descendant of George II is supposed to obtain the sovereign’s permission to marry; if they fail to do so, their marriage is null and void. Under the new law, those who marry without the monarch’s consent will only forfeit their claim to the throne.
Before the Commons began their debate on the general principle behind the bill, MPs expressed frustration at the government’s proposed timetable for the law’s journey through Parliament.
“We spend hours debating the taxation of lorries and other such matters, which get a full day allocated for Second Reading, whereas the succession to the Crown is to be dealt with in a truncated Second Reading debate, a brief Committee stage, and then one day for the remaining stages,” said Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. “That seems to me to be an insult to the nation, to our sovereign and, indeed, to Parliament.”
Rees-Mogg also argued that the Commons should be able to extend the scope of the bill. He pointed out that if an heir to the throne were to marry a Roman Catholic, he or she would be expected to promise to do everything in their power to see that their children were raised in the Roman Catholic faith. But the sovereign is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, so they cannot be members of the Roman Catholic church. Rees-Mogg maintained that, if a Roman Catholic ascended the throne, it would be best to allow an Anglican regent to handle ecclesiastical matters.
“That is an entirely logical extension of what is proposed in the Bill and time ought to be allowed to debate it, because when we start these changes and decide that in this modern age we need to be more politically correct and allow Catholics to marry into the throne, we have to consider the consequence.”
But despite the misgivings of a number of MPs, the government’s timetable was ultimately agreed to by a voice vote. Since the opposition Labour Party also backed the timetable, there would be little chance of defeating it.
During the actual debate on the bill itself, the vast majority of speakers declared their support. However, some MPs questioned the government’s decision to require the first six heirs to the throne to obtain the monarch’s consent before marrying. “I simply do not understand why the monarch would want to retain the right to forbid somebody to marry and to declare their marriage null and void because consent was not granted,” said Labour MP Chris Bryant.
“On what basis would they refuse to grant consent—because someone involved was illegitimate, not wealthy enough, a commoner or an actress?” he continued.
But Clegg defended the government’s decision, saying that it was right for the monarch to have a say in the marriages of those who were most likely to inherit the Crown. “Having been in consultation with the royal household over a prolonged period, we feel that that strikes the right balance.”
Conservative MP Ben Wallace expressed concern about the bill’s effect on the Duchy of Lancaster. He claimed that the duchy would continue to be governed by male-preference primogeniture, so a female heir to the throne might not inherit its multi-million pound property portfolio. But Clegg dismissed his concerns, saying that the bill was only concerned with succession to the Crown and Parliament could deal with the issue of other titles later.
Several MPs also voiced concern that, although the bill allowed members of the Royal Family to marry Roman Catholics, Roman Catholics would still be prohibited from ascending the throne. But given the lack of political will to disestablish the Church of England, it seems likely that the religious requirement will remain for the foreseeable future.
After giving the bill a second reading, the House immediately resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole House to discuss the bill in detail. Although several backbench MPs moved amendments based on concerns raised during the second reading debate, the only amendment that was actually passed was a minor technical change moved by the government. But MPs will have another opportunity to propose amendments during the bill’s report stage on January 28.