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Happy Catholic Emancipation Day (1829)

April 14, 2014

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Happy Catholic Emancipation Day.

The process of what’s now called Catholic Emancipation took place over a longish period of time, evolving between 1778 and 1829, during in which a series of legal and political disabilities suffered by Catholics in Britain and Ireland were gradually removed.

The monarchy represented a significant barrier to redressing of these palpable injustices. Both George III and George IV took the view that they were protestant kings of protestant kingdoms and that permitting Catholics to take part in government would be in violation of their coronation oaths, as well as a betrayal of the terms of the 1701 Act of Settlement that had bestowed the crown upon the descendents of Sophia, Electress of Hanover subject to certain conditions. The Georges would have felt, therefore, that if Catholics were allowed to hold political office, then the Hanoverian dynasty itself was somewhat redundant if not illegitimate.  Some historians assert that the last time that the royal veto was exercised was during the reign of Queen Anne. While this may be technically the case, subsequent monarchs were certainly able to use the serious threat of veto in order to put a very real spanner into the legislative process and George III used this threat with devastating political consequences.

William Pitt felt forced to resign as a result of George III’s refusal to grant political rights to (some) Catholics following the Act of Union of 1800. Pitt was a fairly reactionary politician, but it seemed to him (and to most others) that to ask Ireland, a nation with a large catholic majority, to send to Westminster only protestant MPs elected by protestants was such an evident injustice that it threatened to overwhelm the stability of both nations.

George IV, who had given up any reformist flirtations as soon as his Dad had become too mad to be annoyed by them, was almost as reluctant to give royal assent to the profoundly right and necessary policy of Catholic emancipation. It took the Duke of Wellington (hardly a radical reformer but an Anglo-Irish pragmatist) no less, to force the issue, nearly thirty years after Pitt’s failure.  On April 13, 1829, the very reluctant signature of George IV gave royal assent to a bill that permitted Catholics the right to take part in the British polity.  Not long afterwards, the paragraph blaming Catholics for having started the Great Fire of London in 1666 was prised off The Monument.

The idea that small differences of theological persuasion should determine who should have the right to vote or stands for office seems so nonsensical to the sane twenty first century imagination, that the importance of today’s date is easy to forget.  Of course, liberal advance exposes a further consequent injustice.  The Act of Union of 1800 showcased the injustice of anti-Catholic exclusions.  Catholic Emancipation soon created the presence of a body of Irish elected MPs who could express and represent their nation’s demand for self government.  Daniel O’Connell, described by Gladstone as the greatest popular leader the world had ever known, organised the almost seamless conversion of energy from the challenge to faith-based political discrimination towards the struggle for representative home rule.

In addition, today’s very important democratic step forward represented a necessary diminution in the power of the monarchy. Monarchists may claim that monarchy and democracy are perfectly compatible. A proper historical perspective insists instead that time and time again the British monarchy has taken the wrong side, has sought to oppose the evolution of democratic traditions. Such democratic traditions as Britain does enjoy, we enjoy in spite of the monarchy, not because of it.  Britons can only hope that the monarchy keeps losing. 

 

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