Leader: Missed opportunity

ONE of the most fundamental changes in our society in recent decades, bringing with it profound legal and political challenges, has been the growing importance of human rights legislation.

While the incorporation into law of the European Convention can sometimes seem like one big baffling headache – how can a case of police brutality in Turkey result in the overturning of a central tenet of Scots law? – it is hard to argue against the fundamental human entitlements these new laws enshrine in the way we are governed, particularly in the still contentious areas of gender, race, free speech, sexuality and religion.

And yet, despite this tectonic cultural shift, our society still has blind spots which, when viewed in any rational light, are breathtaking in their disregard for concepts of equality. The Act of Settlement, setting out the conditions under which someone can perform the functions of the British monarch, is one such blind spot, and the partial way in which David Cameron has gone about trying to reform it only makes its incompatibility with the 21st century all the more plain.

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For many years the argument against reforming the Act of Settlement was that it would be too difficult, given that it would entail the agreement of all the countries where the Queen is nominally head of state, plus the many others in which the monarchy has a lesser, but still constitutional role. The recent Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Australia gave the lie to that canard when Cameron, with little fuss, secured agreement to change to law to ensure that a first-born child of Prince William and his wife Kate would be heir to the crown, regardless of whether the child was a boy or a girl. Granted, the laws of primogeniture are not the most compelling problem facing the world today, and of course the whole concept of an accident of birth providing a head of state is still one that many people quite understandably find ridiculous, if not offensive. But taking sexism out of the equation was a sensible and welcome tweak to the somewhat curious way we order our affairs of state. The problem is, however, that Cameron’s reforms do not go far enough, and the gap between the “reformed” Act and a truly equitable monarchy – as far as that concept is possible – is still too great. The reason is that the law still prevents the monarch being Catholic.

True, there has been some progress on this issue. Under the new strictures, a monarch will be permitted to marry a Catholic. But as for sitting on the throne itself, that privilege is specifically denied to anyone who is an adherent to the Catholic faith. One can only assume this omission is deliberate. Equally, one can assume this omission came after the issue was discussed by the prime minister, the Queen and the hierarchy of the Church of England, which has the monarch as its head. That they have weighed up what would have been a historic change – one that acknowledged the overwhelmingly secular nature of our society and the obvious desirability of a separation of church and state – and rejected it, is a missed opportunity of significant proportions.

There is a cynical way of regarding this issue. It holds that the only people the reformed Act of Settlement discriminates against are a handful of royals who are, given their knowledge of less happy times in history, unlikely to be consumed with a desire to be religious pioneers. This entirely misses the point. As it stands this is discrimination against a person on the grounds of their religion. Bang to rights. How can we seek to end discrimination and yet allow this?

This iniquity at the apex of government is a medieval stain on the constitution. The Scottish Government is right to take this stand.