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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, after their wedding, April 29. (AP Photo/John Stillwell)

The British government is embarking on historic reforms of the monarchy.

The government is proposing to change the centuries-old law of succession that automatically gives male children precedence in inheriting the crown.

For as far back as anyone can remember, first-born male children have received preference in royal succession. Remember, for example, Henry VIII’s obsession with having a male heir.

Among the British royals, the boy gets the position even if there’s an older female sibling who could assume the title. Known since feudal times as primogeniture, the practice of favoring males was even codified into law in the Settlement Act of 1700. Only when there is no male heir at all is it possible for a Queen to assume the throne. That’s why the current Queen Elizabeth is the monarch: she had no male siblings.

But male primogeniture is now very likely to end. Parliament is moving towards altering the law of succession. Last month, Prime Minister David Cameron sent a letter supporting the reform to heads of the other Commonwealth nations, which would have to approve any constitutional changes.

“We espouse gender equality in all other aspects of life,” Cameron wrote, “and it is an anomaly that in the rules relating to the highest public office we continue to enshrine male superiority.”

If the law is changed, it would mean that any first-born child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would be in a direct line to become England’s ruling monarch, regardless of its sex. If their first child were to be a girl, she would be the first in line to become Queen.

In this day and age, where the current royal status quo would bring about sex discrimination lawsuits in almost any other sphere, the change seems like a no-brainer. Nevertheless, given the deeply conservative nature of the institution of the monarchy itself, it’s still an enormous sea change, although one that is likely to meet with little or no opposition. (via The Guardian)

In other news related to royal succession reforms:

• There had been talk of implementing succession changes earlier this year, but there was some speculation at the time, the Guardian reported, that raising constitutional issues about the monarchy might offer an occasion for Australia to renew a campaign to declare itself a republic. That prospect now seems remote, and the succession issue will almost certainly discussed by Commonwealth leaders at their meeting in Australia in two weeks. There was not even a mention of opposition from Down Under in this TV report from Australia’s 7 News:


• Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already signaled that his country will support succession reform, as long as the parliamentary debate doesn’t divert Canadian politicians from dealing with economic issues, Harper’s spokesman told the Toronto’s Globe and Mail. The paper said the caveat from the PM’s aide is “likely aimed at assuring Quebeckers and other Canadians who are not big fans of the royal family” that the issue will not become a distraction.

One Canadian legal expert cited by the CBC suggested that consulting Canada was no more than a “courtesy request” and that ”a motion in Parliament supporting the British endeavor is all that’s needed.”  Ned Franks, professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said, “The only people who can change the rules of succession are the British Parliament.”

Franks added: “It’s simply bringing a part of the British Constitution, a part of the ceremonial more than the working Constitution, up to date and recognizing that the age of men coming first is long past.”

In addition to bringing the monarchy into the modern world, there is another sense in which time is of the essence, says Queen’s University’s Carolyn Harris. Other monarchies, she says, have run into complications in changing succession laws if those changes affect current living royals. “I think the British government is really eager to settle any question regarding the succession before William and Kate have children.”

• Male succession is not the only question at issue, the Guardian also reports. Current law not only forbids a Catholic from becoming the monarch (the King or Queen is also the head of the Church of England) but forces anyone in the line of succession who marries a Catholic to give up any claims to the throne. Cameron is not looking to sanction a Catholic monarch, but  he wants to allow royals to marry Catholics without being ousted from the line of succession themselves. That’s as long as their heirs, if they are Catholic, give up any rights to the throne. No one said the monarchy was easy – or egalitarian, or multicultural – but Cameron says the anti-Catholic rule is, like primogeniture, an “historical anomaly” and he points out that it unfairly targets Catholics because it doesn’t prevent royals from marrying people of other faiths. “We do not think it can continue to be justified,” Cameron wrote to Commonwealth leaders. (How many members of the royal family marry outside the Church of England? Any Jewish or Muslim spouses?)

• Here’s another prohibition you probably didn’t know about. Right now, descendants of George II can’t get legally get married without the Queen’s permission if they’re under the age of 25. Cameron wants to change that, because, as the Guardian points out, “There may be thousands of married descendants of George II in the UK who may be unaware that they should have first sought such approval.”

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By Paul Hechinger