Jane Devine: Time for parliament to initiate its own reformation

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Picture: Getty
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Picture: Getty
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DISCRIMINATION on any basis, be it gender or religion, has no place in a modern Britain or Scotland.

Therefore the announcement last week that the UK government plans to introduce a bill to remove the practice of male primogeniture – where males succeed to the throne over elder female siblings – and to allow heirs to the throne to marry Roman Catholics, is to be welcomed.

At the moment though the reforms stop short of allowing heirs to convert to Catholicism without effectively abdicating. Now, the UK is a protestant country and the monarch, under the Act of Settlement 1701 and the Act of Union of 1707, is the head of the Church of England and Scotland. So, it stands to reason that they should be of the same religion of the church they lead. But, surely at a time when the laws are being changed to be more progressive, the clear discrimination against specifically Roman Catholics (not Jews, Hindus or Muslims) should be removed too.

There have been attempts to raise this issue before. Including one by Mike Russell, now Cabinet secretary for education, who introduced a motion into the Scottish Parliament in 2002 decrying the discriminatory nature of the Acts of Settlement and Union. A motion by a then opposition MSP, in a devolved administration, however, had little purchase. The attitude of many, including the UK and Commonwealth governments, was that legislatures have more important issues to deal with than updating historic legislation.

But, it’s not as if this explicit mention of Roman Catholics has no impact beyond its obviously discriminatory element. There has never been a Roman Catholic prime minister. The legislation does not disallow this, but because the prime minister of the UK is involved in ecclesiastical appointments, it is seen as impractical. Tony Blair – whose director of communications, Alastair Campbell famously stated that “we don’t do God” – postponed his conversion to Catholicism until after he had left office. This adds weight to the argument that for a PM to be Catholic would raise all sorts of constitutional issues, too difficult and distracting to bother the government of the day with.

That’s not good enough. We have an opportunity now at the level of the Westminster government to fully up-date this legislation and not to single out one religion and we should take it. But, if this doesn’t happen, we may have another opportunity in the not too distant future.

If Scotland chooses independence in the referendum in 2014, we will have the opportunity to amend the Act of Union again – perhaps Mike Russell will take his chance when he may have the power to make a difference?

Indeed, if an independent Scotland is to be a fairer Scotland, perhaps its constitution should allow its political leaders to be so on the basis of merit, and allow them the freedom to be of any religion or none.