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he makes a disparaging comment about the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), which I will not repeat—

the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

I suspect that that view, although light-hearted, is one that many people in this country would accept, because they tend to accept the constitution, warts and all. I say that without in any way defending the scurrilous language in the various Acts; indeed, I wish it to be amended properly in due course.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument and would like to try to help him support the Bill. The quotation that he used earlier was about the use of the word “random”, but the point about the Bill is that it seeks to remove something that is not random. The Act of Settlement writes into our constitution that the monarch cannot marry a Catholic. That is not random; it is deliberately written in. Although only a small number of people may be directly affected, the important thing is the message that the Bill would send to the country today, which is that discrimination against Catholics has no part in modern society.

Mr. Slaughter: Let me repeat—if the hon. Gentleman has been listening to my speech, he will have heard this—that nobody disagrees with that point. Nobody disagrees that we will move in the near future not simply towards the measures in the Bill, but—to use 17th-century terminology—to a more root-and-branch reform of the constitution. The evidence of the past 10 years is that even with a great reforming Government, as the Labour Government since 1997 have been, problems are thrown up. We tinker with such things at our peril, even if we do so for the best of motives.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is no longer in his place, which is perhaps opportune, because the last opponent of the Bill whom I want to quote is one whom I do not really think he should bother with. The editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald said, in the most disparaging terms—I will explain why I am reading this in a moment—that the hon. Gentleman,

However, I do not want to continue reading that, because it is simple abuse.

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Stephen Pound: As a Catholic, I have to say that if the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) found me prostrate on the floor of Members’ Lobby with blood spouting from an artery in great gouts, I would be grateful for his assistance and I would think about his rather extreme views afterwards. Surely we should not be damning the messenger in this case, when the message appeals to us all. Let me also say that not all Roman Catholics have such an utterly dismissive view of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Slaughter: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention because it allows me to say again what an enormous fan I am of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. The reason why I read that passage was simply to show that bigotry is not dead in this country. I hope that the editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald would not miss the irony that although he is attacking the Bill for purely bigoted reasons—that is, because it comes from the hon. Gentleman—he would no doubt support the measures, even if, as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has said, they are not high up the shopping list.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I once again ask the hon. Gentleman to confine his remarks not to the personalities, but to the principles of the Bill that is before us?

Mr. Slaughter: You have pulled me up short at exactly the right moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, so that I can draw my thoughts together and drive myself to a conclusion. I am now 80 or 85 per cent. on board with the Bill, but I like to be 100 per cent. on board or to have three lines under a Bill before I know exactly how I am going to vote. It is always nice to make a joke that the Whips get.

In conclusion, it is absolutely right that this private Member’s Bill has engendered a huge amount of publicity. It is on the front pages. I know that those on the Opposition Front Bench suspect that there are motives for its being on the front pages, but I think that it is front-page news because it is a subject of genuine interest. That has achieved the Bill’s aim by bringing the measure not only to this House but to public attention. Inevitably, when such issues are brought to one’s attention, one reflects on the monarchy and its role, which widens the debate.

I see nothing wrong with that. It is not a matter for us this morning, but it would be churlish of us to seek to restrict the debate outside the House. As a republican, I have to say in all candid honesty that the Queen is a popular monarch and that the monarchy as an institution remains popular in this country. It is perhaps not as popular as is often reported in the popular press. As a consequence of this Bill, polls are showing that more than three quarters of the British public want the monarchy to continue, but when that question was asked only three or four years ago, while the overall majority fully supported the current monarch, less than 50 per cent. wanted to see the monarchy continue.

I suspect that despite some of the comments made this morning, the one thing that would ensure that the monarchy always continues is that all the proposed alternatives are less attractive. Sadly, but realistically, the proportion of the public who support a republican
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alternative stays stubbornly around the 20 per cent. mark. I do not think that the Bill will change that materially, as has been suggested by some of its advocates. I do not believe that most people’s support for or opposition to the monarchy as an institution is based on whether we repeal or amend the Act of Settlement.

I tend to the pragmatic view that the House interferes with the institution of monarchy at its peril. That is certainly usually the view of the Government and the official Opposition. It is not—there is a slight irony here—typically the view of the Liberal Democrats, who used to be famous for their debates at conference about the abolition of the monarchy along with many other “rice and sandals” issues.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. This Bill is not about the abolition of the monarchy. I once again remind the hon. Gentleman to confine his remarks to the Bill before the House.

Mr. Slaughter: I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. That was a concluding peroration before I finally make my mind up about what to do. I did it only so that I could mention the fact that the previous Liberal Democrat leader, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), relatively recently called for a “bicycling monarchy” and

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has had some liberty. I ask him now either to conclude his remarks or to confine them to the content of the Bill.

Mr. Slaughter: I am grateful for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I shall conclude simply by saying that I realise that I am speaking from a minority position as I believe that this country has a future of a non-monarchical nature and that we should not necessarily drive the Bill through today. However, along with those who have spoken from all parties, I agree that the issue raised by the Bill is important.

Stephen Pound: Does my hon. Friend agree that when Michael English promoted one of the first succession Bills in 1981, he had virtually no support in this House? There has been some movement and some progress. I realise that interventions are bringing my hon. Friend on to the side of the godly, and I hope that he will accept this one as one more step along the way.

Mr. Slaughter: Indeed I do. I think that that, along with the publicity and the overwhelming support for the Bill, in contrast to the eccentric opposition to it, should be the comfort that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon takes from this process. However, one of the facts that we have to live with is that constitutional change takes a long time in this country. That may not be for bad reasons. It may be that careful consideration, repeated debates, the building up of a groundswell of support, the engagement of those on Government and
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Opposition Front Benches, and a move towards what is perhaps a more comprehensive reform of discriminatory and obsolete legislation is the better way to go.

I will support the Bill with my heart, but I do not feel that I can support it with my head.

12.55 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): It is one of the unwritten rules of Fridays that the more one supports a Bill the less one should say. I shall therefore speak briefly, because I strongly support the Bill.

The only thing that I shall say about the speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) is that it seemed to combine, in a very unstable way, the argument that this measure should be opposed because it might block the way for more radical reform later and the argument that it sets a dangerous precedent and might actually lead to that reform itself, thus producing an overall argument of breathtaking incoherence.

The main point of the speech of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) was that he felt that the Government should do more about the economy, rather than thinking about a measure of this sort. In fact, experience seems to show that the more the Government do, the worse the economic crisis becomes, so I think that, rather than doing any more to make things worse, it would be better for them to concentrate on measures of this kind.

The Bill contains three proposals, all of which I strongly support. The first is to end sex discrimination in the order of succession; the second is to end the disabilities that are attached to members of the royal family who marry Catholics; and the third is entirely to repeal the absurd Royal Marriages Act 1772. No substantive reasons have been given for not doing any of those things. The sex discrimination in the order of succession makes no sense whatsoever, given that we abolished feudalism three or four centuries ago, and if there is a lesson of history to be learned from the monarchs that we have had in recent centuries, it is that, on average, the public seem to be served much better by our queens than by our kings.

The only objection to the measure that has been advanced is a procedural one to do with the idea that the 15 Commonwealth member states that share our Head of State might block it. I do not see how that could happen. Many of the countries concerned are far more progressive than we are on the matter of sex equality. That is historically the case as well: I believe that New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, so it hardly seems likely that it would block the measure.

As for the Pandora’s box idea that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the notion that opponents of the monarchy in the Australian Parliament would stand up to block its assent to the measure on the grounds that they did not want to see equality for women is too bizarre to contemplate. First, they will not do it. Secondly, they probably cannot do it, because the Statute of Westminster probably does not have the legal force that has been claimed for it. It is a treaty obligation, but it is not a domestic legal obligation in this country.

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There are various ways in which other countries could respond. They could say, “You get on with it: we do not care what you do.” They could also say, “You get on with it: we will agree with what you do.” Those varieties of response are dealt with in my hon. Friend’s Bill, which states simply that Ministers should consult with the relevant countries and then decide what to do on the basis of what they discover. I therefore see no reason not to support the part of the Bill that removes discrimination in the order of succession.

Mr. Alan Reid: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the important messages that the Bill would send out to the whole country is that discrimination both on the grounds of sex and against Catholics is not permissible in modern society? It is not just about the small number of people who would be directly affected.

David Howarth: The idea behind the Bill is that those principles of non-discrimination are universal and that they do not apply only to particular parts of our society.

My hon. Friend mentions the discrimination against Catholics. There is absolutely no reason for that to continue. Given that Conrad Earl Russell used to be of the belief that our own party—the Whig party, and then the Liberal party—started as a consequence of the exclusion crisis of 1679 and therefore was founded as a party aiming at excluding James II from the throne, I should, perhaps, join in the apologies that we have heard today about the gunpowder plot and other events, and perhaps even apologise for Titus Oates as well.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) made a serious point—perhaps the only serious point in his speech. In the 16th and 17th centuries Protestantism became part of the national identity, especially of England. That led to extreme forms of discrimination against Catholics. He is right to say that that was originally based largely on ideas of foreign threat—of threat from the French, the Spanish and so forth. It has taken us a long time to get back from the effects of that part of our history. It has had a profound effect on the way people in this country see themselves. Catholic emancipation, which started in the early 19th century, has still not finished, although it should be mentioned that bringing about the Catholic emancipation Act required the efforts of perhaps the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen, to paraphrase Gladstone: Daniel O’Connell.

The massive changes that were brought about in the 19th century are still not yet quite complete. The hon. Member for Ealing, North mentioned examples of discrimination against Catholics in the 20th century that are still going on. It has to be said that there is a residual feeling in some Europhobic circles—perhaps I should mention Mr. Ashley Mote, who was originally elected to the European Parliament as a member of the UK Independence party—that somehow the whole European Union is a Popish plot. This is happening now, in our day and age. There are still residual feelings of anti-Catholicism and we should recognise that, and take the step that this Bill proposes precisely because it challenges that.

The only argument made against that step, apart from the Commonwealth argument, which I do not think works, is the notion that it will somehow lead to
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the disestablishment of the Church of England. I should be open about the fact that my party supports the disestablishment of the Church of England, but this Bill does not get anywhere near achieving that, or even starting to do so. First, it is only about the spouses of monarchs, and not the monarchs themselves, and even if it were about the monarchs themselves, it is not clear that that is a problem because there would be other ways around the supreme governorship issue, including the idea that another senior member of the Royal family might take over the supreme governorship for the period in question. I do not think this is an issue at all; it is simply a red herring.

The third proposal is the repeal of the Royal Marriages Act 1772, an Act that is plainly ridiculous, and has been so for a long time. It was passed in first place only because of the misbehaviour of the brothers of George III, not to mention the later misbehaviour of his son, George IV. It is clear that we need to move on. It is not entirely clear whether this even applies now, because arguably both Queen Victoria and our own current Queen married into a foreign family and that is effectively the end of the Act itself. This is therefore a nonsensical historical survival, and we should simply repeal it.

I have no more to say other than that I thoroughly approve of the Bill. I hope that the House will pass it today, and I hope that, rather than the Government using it as an excuse to do nothing, they will actually do something.

1.5 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on his Bill, which has my complete support. It seeks to remove discrimination on the grounds of sex and religion, because those discriminations are relics of the past and should have no place in modern society. Effectively what these ancient laws still say is that women and Catholics are second-class citizens, and I want all references to sex and religious discrimination removed from the constitution, as does he. That is probably beyond the scope of a private Member’s Bill, so what he has included in this Bill is something that can realistically be achieved.

One of the few arguments being put against the Bill today is that it is all too complex and difficult, but my hon. Friend has focused on aspects of the constitution that can be quickly and easily amended. I do not think that the complexity argument has any weight in respect of the discriminations that he seeks to remove. Clause 1 would remove a sex discrimination provision that is clearly absurd; the Queen has had a distinguished reign of nearly 60 years, and there have been many distinguished queens in the past. It is absurd to say that removing sex discrimination from the monarchy would, in any way, have knock-on effects or cause damage to the constitution.

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