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Good move on Royal succession, but let’s disestablish the Church

October 28, 2011

A small step into the modern world as Prime Ministers of the sixteen countries where the British monarch is Head of State have agreed in principle that a first born girl can succeed to the throne, even if a brother arrives later.  This is good news for future princesses and now they can even marry a Roman Catholic…

The House of Commons Political & Constitutional Reform Committee, of which I am a member, will now discuss the detailed changes that will be needed to various laws, mainly from the 18th century. Behind the scenes discussions have been going on since the general election, with the Coalition Government’s sweeping programme of constitutional change unlikely to leave the future status of the monarch untouched.

But I don’t think the changes go far enough.  I certainly welcome them as statements in principle of gender and religious equality.  But one big fat anomaly remains off limits for reform, the status of the Queen and her successors as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

As a Welshman brought up as a nonconformist (I went to Moriah English Baptist Church in Abercynon) I don’t have any sentimental attachment to the Church of England.  But as an elected politician in Bristol since 1993 I have attended many official ceremonies at Bristol Cathedral and think the Church does a good job of giving solemn setting or emotional uplift to an occasion.  But it can maintain this traditional place without having the Monarch of the United Kingdom as Head of the Church in just one part of the state.  The Queen does not preside over the Church in Wales, the Church of Ireland or the Church of Scotland.  She is no less a Queen in her three Celtic realms and the Reformation separation from Rome does not appear to be under threat.

Apart from the symbolism this matters for two reasons in modern Britain.  The British are now a people of many faiths and most of us have no active adherence to any religion.  For our Head of State to be the titular head of one denomination of one faith in one part of the country seems to me absurd.  Secondly, the Coalition wants to reform the House of Lords.  You can read my views on that topic elsewhere on this blog.  But as a bare minimum we must get rid of the bishops.

So if we’re going to reform the Monarchy and the House of Lords then surely now is the time to also disestablish the Church of England.

Postscript – addition to original article on 30th October 2011:

The Monarch is of course also the head of the peerage.  So logically a female heir should also be able to succeed to a title and the property that goes with it.  I assume this would require more legal change, but only in the UK.  As there are now only 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords (and hopefully this will be zero before 2015) this would have limited political effect.  But it would still be an important symbolic change and for those who mix with the county set (not me!) then it would upset the social order of things.  So in terms of the big estates near to Bristol we could have a Duchess of Beaufort (why isn’t Badminton ever open to the public??), a Marchioness of Bath presiding at Longleat and a Countess of Carnarvon at Highclere…and on that latter great estate, this would rather undermine the plot of Downton Abbey!

30 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2011 11:26 pm

    All pressing matters in these uncertain economic times, real pressing matters…

  2. October 29, 2011 12:17 am

    Absolutely! and thereby get rid of those unelected diehard Bishops from the Lords who have consistently blocked a succession of Bills as a result of which I, as an Atheist since I was 16, am prevented from getting an dignified assisted death.

    I want to die NOW.

    This wish is now complicated by the fact that have inoperable Cancer and receiving Oncology treatment. I am already confined to a wheelchair and my very limited Zimmer walking is painful: life is not worth the candle any more, and now the “Coalition” are determined to take away the DLA from me!!

    Why do the Established Church and the “Coalition” seem to want to make our final years utterly miserable??

  3. October 30, 2011 9:56 am

    That girls are now also able to become non-elected rulers isn’t really anything to celebrate:

    • October 30, 2011 5:57 pm

      Thanks – I’ve read your own blog. I think you’ve made substantially the same points as I’ve made above. It is true that in terms of the personality of the monarch, nothing is likely to change for many decades as the next two successors (Charles III and William V) are already known. But in terms of statements of gender equality and partial religious equality, the reforms have immediate resonance. As the monarch also heads the peerage, change should also follow there – more duchesses and countesses. As I hope we will soon dump the remaining hereditary peers out of the House of Lords, this would have no political effect but again would have some social benefit. Though it would rather undermine the whole underlying plot of Downton Abbey!

      • rosemary permalink
        November 1, 2011 9:44 pm

        Neither you nor Julian Fellowes seem to understand that daughters inherit equally, as co-heiresses, in the absence of a male heir. So this reform, if extended to peerages, and to property in general, would disinherit younger female siblings for the first time in a thousand years or more, in favour of the eldest daughter winning the jackpot. An antique example of anti-ageism (Norman) would be lost in favour of new-fangled ageism.

  4. Art of the Impossible permalink
    November 4, 2011 12:25 pm

    Ooh, does this mean that we tabloid readers will be able to enjoy hearing about the goings on at stables of ‘manlets’ in the wealthy houses of England?

    With boys’ performance at school falling increasingly behind that of girls, could this be one of the few remaining options for social mobility available to young men in our soon-to-be wonderfully gender blind plutarchy?

  5. robertjessetelford permalink
    November 7, 2011 7:14 am

    “Behind the scenes discussions have been going on since the general election, with the Coalition Government’s sweeping programme of constitutional change unlikely to leave the future status of the monarch untouched.”

    1) What are these behind the scenes discussions? Do you think we deserve to know?
    2) “Sweeping” changes? Like a “miserable little compromise” of a voting system referendum that was doomed to fail? Hardly a sweeping change, Stephen.

    • November 8, 2011 9:59 pm

      Rob – politicians do actually talk to each other outside formal debates and committees, eg when voting…though your friend Ms Lucas would like to put a stop to this! And the Lib Dem MPs and Peers have lots of party meetings, so nothing sinister is taking place.

  6. John Rippon permalink
    November 7, 2011 11:46 pm


    You said it Stephen: ” But as a bare minimum we must get rid of the bishops.”

    I am totally in agreement, and the quicker the better!

    • rosemary permalink
      November 12, 2011 12:31 am

      Do you feel the same about Deans, John? They nearly always seem so much better value than the bishops to me.

      • November 13, 2011 3:22 am

        I ask you to simply look at history: Religion of every conceivable nature caused all the misery, torture and death throughout the entire world (If you include philosophies like Communism and Fascism as Religious philosophies)

        Just get rid of the whole sickening lot!

      • rosemary permalink
        November 13, 2011 6:01 pm

        Looking at history, my eye lights straight away on John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s.

  7. rosemary permalink
    November 14, 2011 4:05 pm

    Coming back to the present, John, would you include European Federalism, now morphed into Unificationism, as a religion whose intransigence is causing great suffering?

    • November 15, 2011 12:31 am

      Not in the slightest: I look forward to a United States of Europe once they have sorted out their present birth pains. It never did the USA any harm in the end EXCEPT that they never outlawed Religion which still remains their main problem.

      • rosemary permalink
        November 16, 2011 11:11 am

        Italy has an example in miniature of the cultural and economic faultline which divides Europe. Their new unelected technocrat has all the hallmarks of the Northern Italian, completely out of sympathy with the Southern. Hold your fire till you see how that coup d’etat works out, before insisting on the whole of Europe being remodelled thus.

        And don’t let’s ever forget, the USA had one of the cruellest and bloodiest wars in history to force it to become one nation. Only a fervent religious zealot would insist on our risking that, and call it birth pangs. Babies are usually worth the pain and permanent damage they cost their mothers. I don’t think a Soviet Union of Europe would be.

  8. November 14, 2011 9:38 pm

    Update – my select committee took evidence on this issue last Thursday. The witnesses (two academics) thought disestablishment of the CofE and the reform of title succession for the aristocracy was “very difficult”. I said I thought this was really an England problem, with an obsession with titles and heirarchy and social status that was not so much an issue in Wales. A Welsh PM (like Lloyd George) or a Scottish monarch (like James V1 and 1) would see it all for the tosh that it is and get on with reform!

    • rosemary permalink
      November 14, 2011 11:44 pm

      The trouble with seeing the old order as tosh is you can end up with new disorder, or at the very least the mess New Labour made when they thought they could tinker about with centuries of constitutional development without thinking it through.

      “No Bishop, no King” was how James VI and I put it to the equivalent of those sort of people then. I would add, “No peerage, no monarchy”. Perhaps that is where you are hoping to end up?

      • rosemary permalink
        November 14, 2011 11:57 pm

        By the way, in 1997 New Labour were compared to the Wisest Fool in Christendom and his friends, as “a bunch of puritanical, anti-smoking, homosexual Lowland Scots, coming down to London and bossing everyone about.” Do you remember who by? Someone in London, I imagine. Could it have been Matthew Parris?

      • November 15, 2011 1:09 am


        Absolutely not: I am a Royalist and believe that on the whole the Monarchy is an immense asset to this country. I would add a rider: that Charles would have the good sense to waive his succession on the sad death of our wonderful Queen in favour of William and his wife who have all the makings of a superb Monarchy.

    • November 15, 2011 12:58 am

      Stephen: I can see well the problem of disestablishing the CofE and their related vested interests. The main reason the Welsh and the Scots stick like glue to England is the obscene supplements they receive which allow them to have low or no University Student fees and free prescriptions: luxuries the English cannot afford!

      Years ago the “Goon Show” had the perfect solution to the Welsh Problem: saw it off, tow it out to sea and then pull the plug out!! In the same vein simply rebuild Hadrian’s Wall only make it reinforced concrete 100 metres high!! then withdraw all subsidies and let them pay for their own defence and withdraw the loony situation whereby their MPs can influence the English Parliament but we have zero influence on theirs! Let them experience the hard facts of life.

      As for Ireland and their bigoted Protestants simply transfer control to the Republic who already have a large Protestant community who manage perfectly well: They have a Protestant CATHEDRAL in Dublin!

      • rosemary permalink
        November 15, 2011 3:26 pm

        And a protestant university.

      • rosemary permalink
        November 15, 2011 3:36 pm

        Our beloved Queen will probably live to a great age, as I hope her splendid consort does too. The Duke of Cambridge may then be as bald as the Duke of Cornwall, and the Duchess more like Mrs Simpson. Not that age or looks should come into it – look what a success Edward VII was in his old age, contrary to expectations. Actually, I am very keen on The Prince of Wales. I know his father made a good point when he said “The Prince of Wales is a romantic, while I am a pragmatist,” but I still admire his thoughtfulness, good taste, and all round achievements. As for Mrs P-B, she may not survive the Queen. Who knows?

  9. November 15, 2011 2:44 pm

    Rosemary – my reference to James 1 alongside Lloyd George was more from the angle that they both were considered (by the English) to have debased the peerage…by selling them and/or elevating their favourites (esp George Villiers in James’s case!) Of course our dear friends in New Labour raised selling peerages to a new form. Who now remembers Tony Blair being the PM who had to answer police questions on selling peerages??!!

    • rosemary permalink
      November 15, 2011 3:47 pm

      I do. And he and Brown should be put in the Tower for having so relaxed our borders too. As should have Mr Heath, for having lied to the Cabinet and House of Commons over our fish, and all the other details of that high treason.

      Debauching the peerage was all of a piece with destroying the national indentity. It was done from deep rooted dislike of the English in general, and of conservatives in particular, but they cut off their own noses.

  10. rosemary permalink
    November 16, 2011 10:39 am

    Has anyone considered the wisdom of our forefathers in restricting primogeniture to one sex?
    The fair sex tend to live a lot longer, which is fine at the moment – but if you get a wrong’un?

  11. November 17, 2011 12:54 am


    To quote you: “Their new unelected technocrat has all the hallmarks of the Northern Italian, completely out of sympathy with the Southern.”

    ’twas ever thus! Even Garibaldi was unable to solve that problem and never forget that the Italians invaded Turkish-held Libya in 1911, before the First World War, with the expressed intent to settle SOUTHERN peasants in the fertile areas of of Libya, mainly Cyrenaica. Please note that this was enforced deportation. After the First World War Mussolini accelerated this process vastly.

    Regarding the American Civil War: it pales into insignificance when compared to the countless Millions who died in the First and Second European World Wars which finally led to the European Union.

    I share your fears, Rosemary, but we have, like the Elephant In the room, the unspoken concept of the Enterprising forward-looking honest NORTHERN Europe above a rough line following the Alps right across Europe, against the Corrupt, indolent SOUTHERN Europe.

    So if we do not work hard to bring Unity to the EU, all the Eastern Members, finding no benefit will drift back to Russian domination and the Iron Curtain will descend once more; the former Yugoslavia might also follow, and we certainly do not want that, do we?

  12. rosemary permalink
    November 17, 2011 8:49 am

    It was NATO that kept the peace in Europe after the war, not, as so many people like to delude themselves, the Common Market, now morphed into the EU. It was the existence of the Iron Curtain across Europe, dividing it between free West and enslaved East, that enabled NATO to pull together. The Common Market was something else altogether, and could not have got going if its true destiny and purpose had been made clear at the outset.

    The best European partners we have in NATO are the French, probably the best in the whole outfit, not the Germans; and the French have always understood that it is better to keep command of their own troops and foreign policy. Hence their not being full members of NATO, but dining instead a la carte. This is the model we should adopt for our membership of that much more corrupt and bureaucratic club, the EU.

    However, according to your divisive scheme, whose logic I recognize, the French would go in with the Latin countries, not the Northern Protestant ones. This is what they are desperately trying to avoid at the moment, and their pocket Napoleon and his Josephine are serving them well in this, as Berlusconi did the Italians. Not fashionable to recognize either of these 2 men’s diplomatic and patriotic merits, I know.

    Unfortunately, since the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO, though not corrupt, has been abused by the US and UK, most notably in the Kosovan War by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Those two naive, inexperienced, and dangerously over-promoted politicians have yet to be called to account for their crime. (Iraq was a UN war preceded by sanctions and no-fly zones, not a NATO escapade, though it was not prosecuted with the wisdom and diplomacy of the first Gulf War, nor limited in its military objective to the correct casus belli as that one rightly was.)

    NATO has not been the same fearsome defence organisation since, and is now rightly denounced elsewhere for its aggressive adventurism. Its abuse has done more than anything else to enable Putin and RT to rebuild the old KGB and soviet system of terror, leading probably to a new Stalinesque regime. The hopelessly weak and divided EU under the leadership of the well known general, Mrs Peter Kellner, will be no match for this determined and singleminded man, or for the rising empires further East.

    As to the American war, I did not mean its scale, which the European wars far outstrip, but its peculiarly cruel and bloody intensity. This was practised by people on their own kith and kin, for internal political reasons; but the horrifying memory of its severity has been overlaid by the modern pre-occupation with the 18th century Atlantic Slave Trade.

  13. rosemary permalink
    November 17, 2011 9:03 am

    PS Having so completely changed our national identity, would we qualify as a Northern European Protestant nation any more?

  14. rosemary permalink
    November 17, 2011 12:18 pm

    PPS for John Rippon: It’s a tossup whether civil war in Europe will flare over the technocratic bossing about, or the anarchy of the shanty towns.


  1. In praise of … disestablishment | Editorial »

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