Last week’s visit by the Queen to Australia was historic in many ways. Many voiced concerns that at her advanced age of 85, this could be her Majesty’s last visit down under, a sad but possible speculation. Another historic royal first surely was the Queen’s ride on a “royal tram” down the streets of Melbourne. But the biggest news of the trip had to be Friday’s announcement that the Queen and the Commonwealth leaders agreed to change the law of secession, altering 300 years of royal history.
David Cameron announced that the leaders of the Queen’s realms agreed that an elder daughter born to William and Kate should be the heir to the throne and become Queen. This change would abolish male primogeniture, where younger brothers have the right to become monarchs ahead of their older sisters. Currently, only when there are no sons to inherit, as was the case with the Queen’s father, George VI, does the crown pass to the eldest daughter.
The secession change will not be a simple or speedy one. First, investigation is needed to determine what laws need to be updated. An initial review has estimated that nine pieces of legislation would need updating, including the Act of Settlement 1701, the Coronation Oath Act 1688 and the Royal Marriages Act 1772. Once the law has been updated in the United Kingdom, only the laws in each of the 16 realms where the Queen is head of state would need to be updated (not the entire 54-nation Commonwealth). These realms are Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and the Bahamas.
Many of the other royal houses of Europe declared equal rights for male and female heirs thirty years ago, with Sweden being the first to change its laws in 1980. Soon thereafter, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Luxembourg made similar changes.
Friday’s vote included two other momentous changes for the monarchy. The first was to abolish the restriction on British monarchs marrying Roman Catholics.
“Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our Queen,” Cameron said. “The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic – this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries we have become.”
However, marrying a Catholic does not mean that the sovereign may become a Catholic. As the head of the Church of England, it is expected that the monarch would remain an active member of the Church of England.
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond welcomed the lifting of the marriage ban, but was disappointed that Catholics are still not permitted to ascend the throne, feeling that a solution could be found for the sovereign to be Catholic and still protect the status of the Church of England. “It is a missed opportunity not to ensure equality of all faiths when it comes to the issue of who can be head of state,” Salmond said.
Friday’s second major change would be to amend the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which states that every descendant of George II must seek the monarch’s permission to marry. In the future, this requirement is expected to be required only for the descendants of the Prince of Wales.
In her opening speech at the Commonwealth summit, the Queen did not directly mention the suggested changes to the royal secession laws, but said that women should play a greater role in society. “It encourages us to find ways to show girls and women to play their full part,” she said. Many took this speech as a subtle signal the Queen supports the changes.
The next step will occur when the bill originally introduced by Labour MP Keith Vaz in January 2011 regarding the secession is re-introduced in the House of Commons on November 25. Vaz feels that his bill could be used to introduce the reforms announced in Perth.
The BBC estimates that implementing these royal reforms in the United Kingdom and in the 16 realms could take up to four years, by which time it is likely that William and Kate will have started their own family. Even if their first born is a boy and the alterations seem to be for nothing, just the action of changing these laws will bring the British monarchy more in line with modern society.
More importantly, the Queen’s own reign provides a strong example that a female monarch is just as competent as a man. Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia, summed up the feelings of many at the conference in a tribute to the Queen, “We gather as leaders from every inhabited continent and every background, united in gratitude to you – our trusted guide.”