The State Opening of Parliament and the Reform of the Royal Succession

Queen Elizabeth II reading the throne speech at the State Opening of Parliament, May 9, 2012

Queen Elizabeth II opened parliament at Westminster on Wednesday May 9, delivering a throne speech that promises to improve the lives of ordinary families. The Queen outlined the proposed Children and Families Bill, which will allow mothers and fathers to share parental leave, overhaul support for children with special educational needs and speed the adoption process.

The Queen also discussed reforms that will have a profound effect on her own family, stating, “My government will continue to work with the fifteen other Commonwealth realms, to take forward reform of the rules governing succession to the Crown.”

Engraving of Sophia of Hanover, granddaughter of King James I, created around the time of the Act of Settlement. The Act restricts the succession to her descendants.

The royal succession is currently governed by a number of pieces of legislation including English common law pertaining to inheritance and the 1689 Bill of Rights. The most influential piece of succession legislation is the 1701 Act of Settlement, which restricts eligibility to succeed to the throne to the descendants of Sophia of Hanover, the mother of King George I. Roman Catholics and dynasts married to Roman Catholics are excluded from the line of succession, reflecting the political and religious attitudes of the early eighteenth century. As recently as 2008, Autumn Kelly converted from Roman Catholicism to the Church of England so that her fiance, the Queen’s grandson Peter Phillips, would retain his place in the line of succession.

The Act of Settlement also followed English common law of the period, enshrining succession by male preference primogeniture. Under the current version of the Act, a woman may only succeed to the throne if she does not have any brothers. The current Queen succeeded King George VI in 1952 because she was the elder of two daughters. If a monarch has a daughter and then son, however, the prince takes precedence over his elder sister. Queen Victoria was succeeded by her eldest son, King Edward VII, in 1901, instead of her eldest child, the Dowager Empress Victoria of Germany.

The Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William and Prince Harry at the 2009 Trooping of the Colour Parade.

The current proposed reform of the royal succession will change the terms of the Act of Settlement, allowing members of the royal family to marry Roman Catholics and retain their eligibility to succeed to the throne. Roman Catholic members of the royal family will still be ineligible become King or Queen because this position also entails becoming Defender of the Church of England. The reforms will also establish absolute primogeniture for the future children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, ensuring that their eldest child will succeed to the throne, regardless of gender. The same changes will apply to the status of any future children of Prince Harry.

The flags of the Commonwealth Nations on Horse Guards Road, next to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London

These changes to the royal succession will continue the process begun in October, 2011, when the Queen presided over the Commonwealth leaders meeting in Perth, Australia. The reference to the United Kingdom and the fifteen other Commonwealth nations in the throne speech is significant as the Queen takes her role as Head of the Commonwealth seriously and is committed to its unity. The agreement of all the nations that have the Queen as their Head of State is essential to ensure that the same child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is eventually acclaimed as sovereign by all these monarchies. In Perth, the Commonwealth Heads of Government all agreed to the reforms, which should assist with the ratification of the reforms in both the parliament at Westminster and the individual commonwealth legislatures.

Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and Daniel Westling on their wedding day in 2010.

The reform of the British and Commonwealth royal succession follows the larger trend toward absolute primogeniture among Europe’s constitutional monarchies. The Swedish Parliament made the change in 1980 after the births of King Carl XVI Gustav’s two eldest children.

Despite the King of Sweden’s objections to his son losing the title of Crown Prince that he had already received, his eldest child Victoria became Crown Princess. The Netherlands adopted absolute primogeniture in 1983, followed by Norway in 1990, Belgium in 1991 and Denmark in 2009.  The current impetus to reform the Act of Settlement may have been the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The Queen and her government appear eager to complete the process of succession reform before the Duke and Duchess start a family, avoiding the complications that occurred in Sweden.

The reform of the Act of Settlement will have a profound impact on the British and commonwealth monarchies. There is the potential for the spouse of a sovereign to be Roman Catholic, a situation that has not existed since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. There have only been six uncontested Queens Regnant in English history and the introduction of absolute primogeniture will bring gender equality to the monarchies of sixteen nations.

Tomorrow: Abolishing the Royal Marriages Act

7 thoughts on “The State Opening of Parliament and the Reform of the Royal Succession

  1. Carolyn, what most people do not realize that although the commonwealth countries with the Queen as the head of state have agreed to the reforms, each country has to pass legislation … and in Canada, there may be a 2 step process as the law must be passed not only by Parliament but by all the provincial governments. Hypothetically, Quebec could block it …

    British legal experts have to comb through a variety of laws, not just the Act of Settlement and the RMA, but also other laws that pertain to the monarchy and succession. .Tthe AofS makes no reference to primogeniture, just “heirs of body.” Male primogeniture has largely been based on tradition.

    • Thanks for the insightful comment Marlene. My impression is that the succession changes will only be debated in the federal parliament in Canada. Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper supports the reforms and has a majority government, the implementation of the reforms in Canada should be relatively straightfoward. A debate over the abolition of the monarchy, however, would involve all the provinces.

      That’s true that there are a number of laws that influence the royal succession including the 1689 Bill of Rights, with the 1701 Act of Settlement being the most influential. The phrase “heirs of body” would have assumed male preference primogeniture according to English common law. I will clarify that in the post!

  2. I do not believe it is that simple Carolyn, is it? Canada’s Constitution Act 1982 specifies that amendments to the constitution must be done in accordance with Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 which provides for five different amending formulas. The general formula is set out in section 38(1), refers to most cases; the other four formulas deal with protected clauses.

    One of those protected clauses says that in the case of an amendment related to the Office of the Queen, the use of either official language, the amending formula itself, or the composition of the Supreme Court, the amendment must be adopted by unanimous consent of all the provinces.

    Surely the succession to the throne would constitute a matter related to the Office of the Queen, and therefore would fall under this protected clause formula?

    • Thanks for your comment – it will be interesting to see how this issue is addressed in Canada. As you say, the wording of the Constitution Act does create the potential for this issue to become much more complex.

      In October, 2011, Prime Minister Harper made clear that he does not want the royal succession to become a time consuming issue. According to the October 13 edition of the Globe and Mail newspaper, “The Prime Minister does not want to spend a lot of time in the Canadian Parliament debating this as “the government is focused on creating jobs and growth in the economy,” Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall told The Globe.”

  3. You said that Autumn Kelly converted from Catholic to Church of England so that Peter Phillips would retain his position in the line of succession after their marriage, but I thought she said that her decision was made so that the whole family would be of the same religion. He’s so far down the line of succession that it wouldn’t really matter one way or the other, especially if the succession really is officially slimmed down in the next reign.

    • Yes, she described her conversion to the Church of England in personal terms. The precise timing of her conversion, immediately before her wedding, however, suggests that the Act of Settlement may have had some influence over her decision.

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