That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for Sovereigns to be chosen by the House of Commons from among the immediate family of the preceding Sovereign; to provide that all Sovereigns so chosen shall cease to be Sovereign upon reaching the age of 75; to make consequential provision relating to Regencies, succession to the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, and the private estates of the Crown; and for connected purposes.
I am a strong supporter of the monarchy. I believe that as a nation we owe this institution and its present incumbent a debt of gratitude as well as our allegiance. It is because of the selflessness of many recent monarchs, exemplified by Her Majesty the Queen, and the curb on elected tyranny that the institution provides that this apparently anachronistic institution continues to receive such widespread support. But if the monarchy is to continue to be the popular apex of an otherwise democratic pluralist state, it is right to consider whether it would be beneficial if, while retaining its traditional role, it evolved to meet modern demands and expectations. The danger is that without such evolution, the continued existence of an hereditary unreformed apex in a modern state will be pilloried as incongruous, and will be used to promote republican views.
My proposals would enact three principles. The first is the end of succession based on male primogeniture. No account should be taken of either gender or order of birth in the determining of succession to the Crown, but this proposal would not affect the current heir. The second is the retirement of the sovereign at 75 years of age, although not in the case of our current monarch. Finally, public support for a successor should be demonstrated, possibly by Parliament sanctioning the choice of the heir from within the immediate children of the monarch, and members of the Commonwealth in which the sovereign remains the head of state should have the right to be consulted.
It is important to make it clear at the outset that nothing in the Bill should be construed as an attack on the current sovereign, the heir or the institution of the monarchy. The changes that I propose would not affect the status of Her Majesty the Queen, or the role of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales as her heir. Her Majesty has sworn the existing coronation oath, and Prince Charles has already been invested as her heir. It is only fair and proper that their position remain unchanged.
The laws determining succession to the throne have their historical origins in the 17th century and the struggle between two different conceptions of monarchy: divine right, and the view that the sovereign's title rests on a willingness to rule within the law and through Parliament. The Queen rules not by simple hereditary right, as did James II, but because of the agreement by William and Mary to accept the constitutional arrangements in the 1689 Bill of Rights, then strengthened by the Act of Settlement. These rules of succession are based on the concept of primogeniture: male heirs take precedence and the Crown is offered automatically to the eldest son. It is a tradition that was
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historically reinforced by the feudal belief that men were better able to defend property and to lead armies into battle. This assessment of the differences in the capabilities of men and women has since been rendered irrelevant, as the modern responsibilities of the monarch have not extended to fighting in battle since 1742, when George II fought in the battle of Dettingen.
A law of succession under which female and male heirs are considered equal has both historical and international precedence. Such precedence is found under the ancient Irish Brehon law and in the Iceni. In 1980, Sweden modernised its Act of Succession and moved to full cognatic primogeniture; a similar debate has since arisen in Spain. Her Majesty the Queen has proved that a woman is capable of fulfilling the modern leadership and advocacy roles of the British monarch as well as any man. Some of the finest English monarchs have been female, and some of the worst, male. We no longer live in need of a feudal monarchy, and the monarchy will be strengthened if it acknowledges that fact.
Secondly, I propose that the requirement placed upon the monarch to serve until death be removed and replaced by retirement at 75. In an age when people are living longer, and in which the monarch has fulfilled a lifetime of responsibility, service and duty, it seems sensible that they should have the right to a retirement away from the commitments of the Crown, and without thereby calling the institution of monarchy into question. This change is more likely to ensure a suitable and able monarch by virtue of age, and it would allow the heir to succeed to the Crown earlier, rather than waiting all their life in the wings. It is reasonable to expect that without such changes, an heir will only ascend to the throne having reached an age at which most of their contemporaries are already drawing their pensions.
My third proposalthat public support for a successor be demonstrated, perhaps by Parliament sanctioning choice of the heir from within the immediate children of the monarchis the oldest idea of the three. It is witnessed in European history through the Elector of Hanover, and in Britain by the Act of Settlement of 1701, which states that it is for Parliament to decide the title to the throne. It is reinforced by the elective element at the coronation ceremony, for through the coronation oath, the sovereign acknowledges their duty to preserve the liberty of their subjects, while their representatives symbolicallyand consequentiallypledge their allegiance to the sovereign.
My ideas go further than simply bringing the monarchy into line with the basic legal and societal values of equality; they move towards reflecting a value that is at the heart of our democratic society: choice. The populace could have an indirect input into choosing the monarch, and the potential monarch could choose whether to accept the responsibilities and duties of the position. For an unwilling monarch is more likely to be an unfit monarch, and not all offspring wish to follow in their parents' footsteps. In this respect, the royal family is probably no different from our own.
Historical precedents for these proposed changes exist alongside modern impetus, but inertia risks the monarchy being portrayed as increasingly remote and anachronistic. With that in mind, support for considering these ideas would, over time, allow change
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to be carried out calmly and with due consideration, rather than waiting until our hand is forced. For I want us to continue to have a sovereignfit by the virtues of age, inclination, ability and history of servicewhom we both need and from whom our nation will continue to benefit.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Well, I have heard a few things in my time, but my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who has performed such signal service as the chairman of the parliamentary choir, should stick to singing. Not only does he make a nicer noise and rather more sense then, but he generally reads from a better script. If I had had that text before me when I was a schoolmaster many years ago, I would have given it a gamma minus as a sixth-form essay and would not have allowed it to be discussed at great length. My hon. Friend has produced a most extraordinary tissue of ridiculous arguments. [Interruption.] First, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) reminds me in an interjection, his speech contained an extraordinary amount of ageist claptrap. The present sovereign is above the retirement age that he would prefer, which is also an oblique attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). We believe that people can serve extremely well way beyond the age of 75.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire did a little historical research, but he did not investigate the Hanoverians much. His proposal would bring back the heir's party and the sovereign's party all over again. It would politicise the monarchy by making people in this House take sides for or against a particular potential heir.
The whole thing is absurd. In all my time in the House, I have never heard a less credible argument. I never thought that the day would come when a Conservative colleagueone who belongs to the constitutional partywould propose so much claptrap and nonsense to the House. This Bill should be seen off immediately.