Terms and Conditions of Employment for the British Monarchy?
Today is the 315th anniversary of the Act of Settlement – one of the more important constitutional documents in British history. It is, among other things, the closest thing to a contract or a set of terms and conditions for the British monarchy. More important than the specifics of this contract is the assertion of sovereignty that is implied by this contract’s very existence.
As it became clear around the beginning of the eighteenth century, that there would be no more protestant Stuarts available to govern Britain, a protestant parliament determined that they were empowered to settle the throne as they saw fit and to compel monarchs to adhere to certain principles. The Act of Settlement did not finally “settle” the relationship between parliament and the monarchy, but it provided the legal basis for ensuring that parliament could always win.
When settling the English (and subsequently British) crown upon the House of Hanover, parliament had to pass over the closer dynastic claims of around fifty individuals, none of whom could be relied upon to support a protestant national church. Project from these fifty persons an average number of offspring every thirty years, and you’ll be aware that the number of people with a better strictly dynastic claim to the throne than the current family must number in the thousands. We have most of us bumped into or tripped over people who can make such a dynastic claim.
This summer, the British royal family will have been on the throne for exactly 302 years. Although they have had some cosmetic name changes, the present Queen is in direct line of descent from George I. There were no great demonstrations of pageantry planned for this anniversary in 2014 however, because any such official commemoration would only draw attention to the awkwardly provisional and contractual nature of this dynasty’s legitimacy.
The anti-Catholic provisions of the 1701 Act of Settlement have been subject to recent scrutiny. The original basis for the settlement of the crown upon the House of Hanover seems no longer relevant. The Act was the product of culture that was terrified of Catholic absolutism. In the twenty-first century, the prospect of Britain suddenly being transformed into a Roman theocracy seems so remote as to be laughable. Not even protestants still regard Protestantism as an indispensable aspect of British identity. Meanwhile most Hanoverian monarchs have shown very little interest in offering spiritual leadership or even obeying core Anglican doctrines.
In the Hanoverians cannot claim to be particularly special from a dynastic point of view and if they are no longer theologically motivated, then the basis for their monopoly on the office of head of state would appear to be overdue for review. 302 years on, the Hanoverians would appear to be overdue an audit.