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Stephen Pound: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Not for the first time, the House has been educated by his erudition, and I am reluctant to stand in the way of his unstoppable flow. Before he moves off his point about the putative Duchess of Edinburgh, he talks about a possible third child—a son—who might have been King, and is praying in aid, as all people would, the idea that the advantage of the present monarch being Her Majesty is so great that no one would wish to oppose that. Is he not missing the rather obvious point that we do not know who that son
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would have been? He could have been as good as her. Is it not more important that we speak of the principle rather than the personalities?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: May I just agree with the last point that was just made? We are also straying into the subject of abdication, which is not strictly what the Bill is about. Can we try to stick to principles, rather than get too much into the detail of the people involved?

Andrew Mackinlay: Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but in my defence, may I point out that the long title of the Bill demonstrably relates to succession, so it is possible to deal with abdication—and I see some acknowledgment of the fact that I am on firm ground. Secondly, I want to make abundantly clear my unreserved respect for the present monarch. It would be difficult for someone to have a higher approval rating than hers, for the reasons that I have set out. She is demonstrably outstanding. Had there been a younger brother, we would have been deprived of those extraordinary talents. I apologise if that point is discourteous, but the reverse was my intention.

Simon Hughes: The whole House recognises the fantastic service and qualities of the Queen, and whatever people’s views, they must say that. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that although these are proper matters in the context of succession, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is trying to persuade the House that there are two succinct ring-fenced matters, which could be dealt with now, in a manner compatible with Government policy, and the task is to get this Bill through and look separately at the broader set of constitutional issues that quite properly need to be addressed?

Andrew Mackinlay: I accept that because, if the Bill of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, which I support, were given a fair wind by the Government, a number of things would follow from it. There would need to be a mechanism to talk to the Prime Ministers of other countries. And this is not new ground. I asked John Major and Tony Blair, during a number of Parliaments, whether there was some dialogue—and if not, whether it could be initiated—between the Heads of Government in those states where the Queen was Head of State, and both of them said no. That is why I come back to my frustration on these matters. No doubt the Justice Secretary will feel aggrieved, but the track record on this matter is poor. I give him full marks on the constitutional changes that bear his fingerprints, but legislators either treat this sensitive area with some levity—

Mr. Straw: No, I didn’t.

Andrew Mackinlay: Or they are frightened. My right hon. Friend did not treat it with levity, but some do.

It is important that we get our legislation correct, and we must deal with the matter with some dispatch. First, it is discriminatory on ground of faith; secondly, it is discriminatory on grounds of gender; and thirdly, if we do not begin to address it, one day this Parliament will face a substantial embarrassment, which, far from advancing or maintaining the monarchical institution,
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will put it in peril. The points I introduced were not a red herring or an attempt to create a diversion. The issues that should be raised are morganatic marriage, which is a current issue for the reasons I gave—the spin of Sir Michael Peat and others—and the question of abdication. Long may she reign, and she will do so, but there might be a stage down the road where a person does not wish to succeed, and there is no facility to allow them to fulfil that wish. And we would still have to discuss the matter with the other states, which will lead to paralysis. I am just being sensible and prudent in saying that we should address the matter now.

In conclusion, the Bill should be amended, even if we keep it narrow. It should reach the statute book, but remain in hibernation until there is simultaneous and comparable legislation and agreement is made with the other legislatures where the Queen is Head of State. I wish that those from the Prime Minister downwards would get their terminology correct and not refer to the Commonwealth. It is a broader matter, which affects those countries where the Queen is Head of State which by coincidence are members of the Commonwealth. If we do not do this, what happened here and in the Irish Free State in 1936 will be multiplied and create chaos in the countries where the Queen is Head of State that pepper the globe. I support the Bill.

10.58 am

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to be here today to support the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) in introducing this Bill. It has been a long time coming, and we have waited a long time for a complete day on the matter on the Floor of the House of Commons, as opposed to a 10-minute Bill, with a real chance of getting legislation on to the statute book. I do not think that I need to declare a personal interest in this matter, even though my son, Benedict, is 640th in line to the throne. I think that I shall be fairly safe—we will not manage to kill off the preceding 639.

It is said that Catholics are easy-going people and, in fact, one of our bishops was quoted yesterday as saying that this issue is not high up the list of our priorities, and that we know that, in reality, there is no discrimination in this country. However, the matter is still lurking. I remember that when I took my Gainsborough seat, my wonderful predecessor said two things to me. First, he said, “Edward, I am handing you Gainsborough, a virgin bailiwick. Don’t spoil it by doing anything.” The second thing that he said was, “I understand you’re Catholic—don’t mention that to anybody around here.” I am sure he was joking.

We are very easy-going, and there is an element of a pre-emptive cringe in the Catholic population in this country after hundreds of years of lying low. We do not want to make a big fuss about succession, but just imagine if the Bill of Rights contained the same provisions against Jews or Muslims as against Catholics. There was a Statute of Jewry that expelled Jewish people from this country in 1290—an outrageous measure long since got rid of—but imagine if we had the sort of language about Jews or Muslims that is in the Bill of Rights about Catholics. It states:

That is in the Bill of Rights—it is part of our law. Imagine if there were something in the Bill of Rights making a similar provision against Jewish or Muslim people. There would be outrage, and it would not last five minutes. It would be got rid of. The Government would not say, “Oh, it’s all rather complex, and we’ve got to consult the Commonwealth, and nobody really cares about it very much either.” The provision is discriminatory, it is on the statute book and it should be got rid of straight away.

Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the only theological objection to the Roman Catholic Church in the Bill of Rights is a reference to transubstantiation. Does he agree that that proves that it was an entirely political provision, not a theological one? It was the politics of then, which today we should turn our back on.

Mr. Leigh: Yes, we all know that it was about the politics of then and about James II, and there is no possible justification for leaving the provision on the statute book. I do not need to labour the point, but the situation is ludicrous, particularly in the Royal Marriages Act 1772. The cardinal archbishop was at a meeting in the House yesterday and put it quite well, although in a rather politically incorrect way. He said how absurd it was that Prince William could marry anybody that he liked, a Muslim or a Hottentot—perhaps a bit unfair to Hottentots, whoever they are—but not a Roman Catholic, which is ridiculous. As I have said before, Prince William could have a civil partnership with a Roman Catholic man if he wanted. Out of the great galaxy of eligible young women in the whole of Europe and the world, the only person he cannot marry is a Roman Catholic woman. That discriminates not just against us but, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said, against Prince William. He might want to marry a Roman Catholic woman.

It is said to us, “Oh, this is not going to apply,” but it has applied. For instance, in 1978 Prince Michael of Kent married a Catholic and was automatically barred from the succession to the throne, so it applies at this moment. It is not a theoretical matter, and the hon. Gentleman read out a list of people who have been disbarred. Would it not be ludicrous if Prince William were barred from the throne because he chose to fall in love with a Roman Catholic? Of course, the Government hint that they would then immediately rush through legislation, but why do that? It would make us look absurd. Why not do it now?

Andrew Mackinlay: Before we move away from the question of marriages and how unfair the situation could be to the monarch, the Prince of Wales or one of the royal princes, it is interesting to note that the second marriage of Her Royal Highness Princess Anne was conducted in the Church of Scotland. It is beyond doubt that that was in line with both the constitution and matrimonial law. But in respect of His Royal Highness
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Prince Charles, many constitutionalists argue that the wedding had to be conducted in the Church of England, which of course it was not. There was a blessing, which is quite a different matter from a matrimonial service. Such grey areas have to be visited, because whether what happened in the Windsor registry office is in line with the constitution is a matter of serious debate.

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman is obviously an expert on this, and perhaps we need to find out about and debate such matters. The absurdity is shown by the fact that everybody is prepared to be very liberal and broad-minded, and say that nobody was going to prevent the Duchess of Cornwall from becoming the wife of the Prince of Wales if he wanted to marry her for whatever reason. It is all rather ludicrous. Lord Forsyth put it quite well in the other place when said that this is the constitution’s “grubby little secret”. It is, and we should get rid of it. It is wrong because it perpetuates the notion that Catholics are somehow disloyal. They were considered disloyal in the 17th and perhaps even the 18th century. I agree that we did have a slight problem with the gunpowder plot, for which I do apologise. I should like now to set history straight and declare a formal apology to the House of Commons, but I say in our defence that that was 400 years ago.

Dr. Evan Harris: Even though I do not approve of it, the fact that effigies are burned every year makes the point. The hon. Gentleman does not have to apologise. It is the perpetuation of a libel—we would not tolerate it for any other religion and we should not tolerate it for Catholicism.

Mr. Leigh: No, we should not, and that is a point that I made earlier. Muslim and Jewish people are quite rightly very sensitive about discrimination, and we have to make the point that if there were a similar provision on the statute book affecting them, it would not last five minutes. The situation is tolerated only because the 4 million Catholic people in this country are so easy-going that they are almost horizontal, as I am for much of the time about many political issues. We do not make a fuss about it, but the Government should not prey on our good and easy-going nature and leave the provision permanently on the statute book.

If anybody thinks that all this is ancient history, they might not know that the last Catholic relief legislation was passed only in 1927, in the lifetime of many of our parents. Before then, if a Jesuit or a Dominican priest entered the country, they had to register with the Home Office as a suspected disloyal person who might subvert the constitution. We should not think that this is somehow ancient history; it goes right into the modern age.

Andrew Mackinlay: More recently, the hon. Gentleman’s noble Friend, the late Viscount Hailsham, had to enact a provision to allow the option for the then Conservative Member for Epsom and Ewell, Peter Rawlinson, to become Lord Chancellor. The situation is much more recent. In fact, it is ongoing—I keep returning to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns).

Mr. Leigh: We need to deal with the problem; it is ongoing.

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Let us examine some of the objections to a change. They are red herrings, but we need to get to the bottom of them to find out exactly what is going on. First, there is the suggestion that the proposal has to be put to the Commonwealth. The hon. Gentleman read out part of the Statute of Westminster, but as I asked earlier, does anybody seriously think that the 15 members of the Commonwealth that have the Queen as their Head of State would object for a minute to the proposed changes? The consultation could be done in a phone call. I therefore do not accept that objection at all.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, because as a result of the Bill, for the first time ever the Prime Minister actually started talking seriously about the matter last night, perhaps because he has other problems that he wants to divert interest from. It is on the front page of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph today, and apparently the Prime Minister intends to raise it in the margins of the Commonwealth conference. But the fact is that the change could be made easily, and everybody knows that that is not the real reason for objections.

Ah, but is there another reason that we are not being told about? Are people actually worried about opening Pandora’s box? I think that hints may have been dropped, particularly by our friends in Australia. They may have said that there is a lot of republican sentiment there, and that if a motion went in front of the Australian Parliament, it might provide an opportunity for republicans to come forward. I know the way in which the establishment works—I am part of it. A little hint dropped here—I know how such things work. Would it result in Australia becoming a republic? No. A referendum has already been held there. It is a huge issue—if it wants another referendum, it will have one. Simply moving a motion on the Floor of the Australian Parliament to get rid of some ancient discrimination will not suddenly propel Australia into becoming a republic.

I know that there are various rules—we cannot attribute opinions to the Queen, but we love her and worship her, and, if there is any sensitivity there, we understand it. I know how the establishment works, so I will say no more. However, if there has to be some delay or sensitivity—people have put that to me—I quite understand. The Government can still make their intention absolutely clear. Nobody wants to embarrass our current monarch—we hold her in the highest regard and respect—and we all know that she had to take a particular coronation oath. All those matters are understood, but the Government today could convey a firm message that they intended to get rid of the discrimination.

Stephen Pound: I would never presume to correct such a senior member of my faith. However, whereas I entirely agree with his first comment about Her Majesty, is “worship” the appropriate word, given the subject that we are debating?

Mr. Leigh: Perhaps that is going too far—a bit of hyperbole. With the royals, we have to lay flattery on with a trowel, as Disraeli famously said.

Dr. Evan Harris: We cannot presume the Queen’s opinion or state what we think it might be, but although she cannot comment—she has been very good about that—there is no need for it to be a problem. The
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Government are, through Parliament, in charge of the matter. I do not believe that there is any question of its being an embarrassment to Her Majesty.

Mr. Leigh: In reality, it would not be an embarrassment. There has not been a royal veto since Queen Anne in 1708—and there would be no veto. We all know that the argument is ridiculous. The Commonwealth argument does not, therefore, hold.

What about complexity? We are constantly told about it, but it is absurd. Professor Blackburn, who is an expert, has not yet been quoted. His comments are included in our parliamentary brief from the Library, and they are worth reading. He says that

The complexity argument is therefore a red herring.

One wants to know what the Government are playing at. I put the question to Tony Blair at the Liaison Committee when he was Prime Minister. He almost laughed in my face and said that he had got far more important things to do. First, the Government use that argument, then they claim that it does not make any difference and then they use the complexity argument, which, we all know, is nonsense. They introduce tens of thousands of lines of legislation every year, without difficulty. We also know that the Commonwealth argument does not stand up.

Is the final objection the position of the Church of England? Let me make it clear that, although I do not trust the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon in every respect, I certainly do not believe that he wants to affect the position of the established Church. To disestablish the Church would send the wrong message. We already have the problem of secularisation. The fact that we have an established Church should be a matter of great pride to us.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): In England.

Mr. Leigh: I apologise. We have an established Church in England and we also have the established Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Angus Robertson: It is not established.

Mr. Leigh: One should not venture into other countries because one’s knowledge starts getting feeble. I will leave Scotland to one side.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I am happy to profess that I am a Roman Catholic. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows of John F. Kennedy’s comment, “My religion may come from Rome, but my politics come from home.” Is he aware that Glasgow Rangers dropped Sir Alex Ferguson because he married a Catholic? Glasgow Rangers has now seen fit to adopt a non-sectarian policy. Why cannot the monarchy do the same?

Mr. Leigh: I take that point, but I will not comment on Celtic and Rangers in case I put my foot in it.

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