Amending the Act of Settlement

Last Friday’s royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, has rekindled public debate on Britain’s monarchical succession laws.

Attention has mostly focused on the primogeniture rule, a throw-back to feudal times, whereby the British throne is inherited by the eldest son of the monarch, regardless of whether there is a first-born female child.

However, a YouGov poll for today’s The Sunday Times also enquired about (without mentioning it explicitly by name) the Act of Settlement 1701, which bars Roman Catholics, or persons married to a Catholic, from acceding to the throne.

The survey was conducted online on 28 and 29 April 2011 among a representative sample of 2,280 Britons aged 18 and over. The detailed results appear on p. 10 of the data tables at:

43% of respondents wanted to see the law amended to permit a Catholic to ascend the throne, while 36% favoured the status quo and 21% expressed no opinion on the subject.

Pressure for change was strongest among current Labour voters (51%) and Scots (52%), with opposition coming disproportionately from Conservatives (49%) and the over-60s (44%).

These figures are superficially in marked contrast to those recorded in another recent YouGov study, for Prospect magazine on 1-2 February 2011, which employed somewhat different question-wording in that a) it spoke only of a law prohibiting a monarch from marrying a Catholic and b) it sought views on the repeal (as distinct from amendment) of that law.

In the Prospect poll 71% of Britons elected for repeal against 16% wanting the law to stay as it is, a reforming margin of +55% compared with just +7% in The Sunday Times investigation. See our earlier coverage at:

The difference between the two surveys might be explained in terms of the fact that in April there was a clear statement that the prospective monarch was a Roman Catholic, whereas in February there was no assumption that the monarch was necessarily a Catholic him/herself, only that he/she might wish to marry a Catholic.

Some might gloss these widely varying data as implying some kind of lingering anti-Catholic undercurrent in British society, others as recognition by the public of the monarch’s constitutional role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, thereby precluding a Catholic from sitting on the throne.

To add to the complexity, an Ipsos MORI poll for The Tablet on 20-26 August 2010 found 44% of Britons thinking it wrong that members of the royal family who are or have been married to a Catholic should have to give up their right to become king or queen. 24% took the opposite line and the remainder were neutral or expressed no view. See:

All in all, this is a good example of just how difficult it can be to measure popular attitudes to anything connected with religion, and how careful one must be to unpack the question-wording.

But will the public’s views, whatever they are, be heeded? Both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have declared themselves as open to reform of the laws of monarchical succession, albeit the former’s support seems muted, more at the level of ‘in principle’, with realism about the difficulties of securing Commonwealth-wide approval. Already the Canadian authorities have indicated that they see the change as a low priority.

As for the Roman Catholic Church, there appears to be remarkably little pressure from the English and Welsh hierarchy to sweep away this 300-year-old statute against Catholic royals. The Scottish bishops seem keener for the Government to act, doubtless setting the issue within the context of a strong tradition of sectarianism in Scotland, which surfaced again recently in the Celtic parcel bombs affair.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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