The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced one of the most radical changes in the law of succession to the British throne, by informing the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth that the principle of male primogeniture is to be ended. Henceforth, the first offspring, whether male or female, of any British monarch will take precedence in the line of succession. The 1701 Act of Settlement, under which female offspring can ascend the throne only if there are no male heirs, will have to be amended. Another change proposed is that the ban on succession if the heir is married to a Roman Catholic will be lifted, but the monarch himself or herself will have to be an Anglican and will continue to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The new law will not have retrospective effect — but the first child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will have precedence whether or not the current law has been amended before the child is born. It is appropriate that Mr. Cameron has announced the changes to CHOGM, as no fewer than 15 other Commonwealth countries that recognise Queen Elizabeth II as head of state will need to amend their own legislation accordingly.
The abolition of male primogeniture is long overdue; the Queen, in her speech at the Perth meeting, noted the need for gender equality in public life. The measure will also bring the British monarchy more into line with the times. Many British constitutional developments, such as the Act of Settlement and the 1689 Bill of Rights, were pragmatic resolutions of urgent political problems, but became key principles in the country's uncodified constitution. The new law will also end a problem under the Human Rights Act 1998, which requires that primary and secondary legislation be read and given effect to in ways that are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Some major issues, however, are still unaddressed. To start with, Mr. Cameron appears not to plan large changes to the Act of Settlement despite the fact that it is so hostile to Catholicism that it could not be drafted today — Catholics will still be banned from holding the monarchy. Secondly, the Bill of Rights is not a statement of citizens' rights. It transfers almost all power from the monarch to the British parliament, and such rights as are given specifically to United Kingdom nationals are potentially revocable. The new law on succession will be morally right, but U.K. nationals will remain, substantively, subjects of the monarch, male or female, not citizens of the state.