CHANGES to the 300-year-old succession laws have been branded a “missed opportunity” after stopping short of allowing a Catholic to accede to the throne.
Under the reforms outlined yesterday, primogeniture was scrapped to allow sons and daughters of any future monarch to have equal right to the throne. The Act of Settlement was further amended so that heirs to the throne could marry Catholics, but the ban on Catholics becoming sovereign remains in place.
The changes, announced at the Commonwealth leaders summit in Perth, Australia, means that Prince William’s first child will follow him to the throne whether it is a boy or a girl. But any king or queen would still have to be a member of the Church of England.
The First Minister, Alex Salmond, and the Catholic Church in Scotland criticised the decision to reform rather than repeal the act, and said the move “raised more questions than it answered”.
The leaders of the 16 countries where the Queen is head of state unanimously approved the changes at the summit. Under the old succession laws, which date back to the 1701 Act of Settlement, the heir to the throne is the first-born son of the monarch. Only when there are no sons, as in the case of the Queen’s father George VI, does the crown pass to the eldest daughter.
The changes will require a raft of legislation to be amended, including the 1701 Act of Settlement, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the Royal Marriages Act 1772.
The change to the Royal Marriages Act will end the position where every descendant of George II is legally required to seek the consent of the monarch before marrying. The ban on the monarch being married to a Roman Catholic was also lifted. But there will no be repeal of the 1701 act, which was formalised in Scotland with the 1707 Act of Union, meaning Catholics will still not be able to become monarch.
“It is deeply disappointing that the reform has stopped short of removing the unjustifiable barrier on a Catholic becoming monarch,” Mr Salmond said.
“One of the first motions passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and passed unanimously, was a call for the complete removal of any discrimination linked to the monarchy, and the repeal of the Act of Settlement of 1701.
“I cannot believe that any Commonwealth country has raised any objection to this, and therefore the barrier seems to have been the status of the Church of England. It surely would have been possible to find a mechanism which would have protected the status of the Church of England without keeping in place an unjustifiable barrier on the grounds of religion in terms of the monarchy.”
The Catholic Church in Scotland has consistently called for the complete repeal of the Act of Settlement, with the late Cardinal Thomas Winning describing it as an “embarrassing anachronism for both the Royal Family and parliament”.
In 2005, Cardinal Keith O’Brien described it as “a piece of arcane legislation” that “causes offence and is hurtful”.
Yesterday, Cardinal O’Brien said he hoped the reforms would lead to the eventual repeal of the act, but a spokesman for the Church said there were many unanswered questions about what the changes would mean in practice.
He said: “We would echo the concerns raised by the First Minister that while the fact that the beginning of the reform process is now under way is to be welcomed, it looks as if it may also be a missed opportunity.
“It looks as if a situation has now been created which begs more questions than it answers. For example, if a royal child is brought up as Catholic then it looks as if they will immediately be disinherited. It’s very difficult to square that reality with the comments made by David Cameron that this is a move to fairness and justice.”
The rules of royal succession have handed men power for hundreds of years but women have still managed to accede to the throne, even becoming the country’s longest-serving monarchs – Queen Victoria and the current Queen Elizabeth II.
The radical shake-up in succession to the throne was spurred by the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge earlier this year.
If William and Kate’s first child happens to be a girl, she will automatically become queen one day, regardless of whether she has a younger brother.
Yet it is still likely to be many years before another female monarch takes to the throne.
The Royal Family already has two generations of kings-in-waiting and the Queen is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee next year and is in good health. Her own mother, the Queen Mother, lived to 101.
The Prince of Wales is next in line and then there is William, who has still to fulfil his regal duties before any child of his takes over.
Even then, William and Kate might have a son, meaning the nation would wait even longer to see the first royal daughter to benefit from the rule change.
But the fact that the laws will be updated brings the importance of equality of the sexes to the British monarchy which did not exist before and which will in time change history.
Prime Minister David Cameron described giving male heirs priority in the line to the throne as “outdated and wrong”.
Speaking about the possibility of William and Kate having a child, he said: “I think the time has come to change the rules so that if the royal couple have a girl rather than a boy then that little girl would be our queen. That’s the rule we want to change.”
On scrapping the ban on future monarchs marrying Roman Catholics, Mr Cameron said: “Let me be clear, the monarch must be in communion with the Church of England because he or she is the head of that Church.
“But it is simply wrong they should be denied the chance to marry a Catholic if they wish to do so. After all, they are already quite free to marry someone of any other faith.”
Republic, which campaigns for a directly elected ceremonial head of state, said the reforms still failed the “equality test”.
Campaign manager Graham Smith said: “In practice, it simply means that the eldest child of one family is preferred over all others.
“Inequality is therefore further entrenched in the system.”