"I think in the 21st century people do expect discrimination to be removed"
— Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Well, Mr. Brown, does that mean we should remove the monarchy altogether, surely the whole foundation of monarchy is quite spectacularly a rather deliberate show of institutionalised discrimination. The people don't get to choose their King, birth and hereditary succession choose it for them. Ought we not to tidy our hands of this little tyranny while we're at it?
I won't question the absurdity of denying women and Catholics their rightful inheritance, even if it is the entire apparatus and trappings of state. Some of our best monarchs were Catholic, and few would disagree that three of our most successful sovereigns have been women: Elizabeth, Victoria and Elizabeth again. So no, there is no good reason why our ancient monarchy should have been, for more than a thousand years, dominated by men.
But if you want to talk about discrimination and violations of human rights, when can we expect to see legislation that will reduce the Queen's workload down to a 40 hour work week like everyone else? When can Her Majesty expect a little privacy in her life? What is the mandatory retirement age for Queens anyways, a ripe old 118? If it all were not so laughable:
The royal family, while nominally our betters, are in fact our captives and an interesting and profitable focus for media attention. It's as unfair as life; the royals can't escape and if you want to become royal, you basically can't. It's a more or less functional arrangement that no one would ever have had the wit to devise deliberately.So fine, tinker away. However, know that with all the tinkering in the world, we will never devise a "fair monarchy", for that is wishfully absurd. Our best hope is that we retain a monarchy steeped in duty and dignity, heritage and habit, but most importantly one in which the most powerful politician in the country still has to kowtow to someone other than himself. If putting up with some crazy discrimination gets me that, I'm all for a mad monarchy over a fair republic.
Which is why Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris's attempt to fiddle with it is so enervating. He wants to change the Act of Settlement whereby Catholics can't marry the sovereign and end the discrimination against female heirs to the throne. He thinks this will make the monarchy more fair. I suppose it will, in the same way that throwing some bread into the Grand Canyon will make it more a sandwich.
The monarchy is overwhelmingly, gloriously, intentionally unfair - that's the point. The defining unfairness is that you have to be a member of that family to be king or queen; fringe unfairnesses like their not being able to marry Catholics or men having priority in the line of succession are irrelevant in that context. And what's so fair about primogeniture, which Harris is not planning to touch, or the sovereign having to be Anglican, which is also apparently fine? He wants to spend parliamentary time, mid-credit crunch, on a law aimed primarily at helping Princesses Anne and Michael of Kent.
When will people get the message? If you want a fair system, have a republic, elect a president and live with some arsehole like David Cameron giving a speech every Christmas Day afternoon, bitter in the knowledge that you asked for it. Otherwise, we should stick with what we've got, rather than trying to tinker. No abdicating, no skipping Charles, no changing weird ancient laws. We get who we get because we'd rather live with the inadequacies of a random ancient structure than the inadequacies of one designed by Brown and Cameron.
The monarchy's not perfect, but it's also not harmful, powerful or, and this is the clincher, our fault. The inevitable imperfections of anything we replaced it with would be.