The Royal On-Deck Circle
January 21st, 2011

You would think that after nearly 60 years under a female monarch it would be a no brainer for the UK to amend its succession laws.  Not so fast.  It seems it’s more complicated than that.

Mixed into the fuss about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding (which I’m guilty of following) I came across this article about the laws of succession.  As the law stands today, the firstborn male descendent of the sitting monarch is first in line for the throne.  If Prince William had been a girl, Prince Harry would be on deck after his father, and his sister would be a royal footnote.

Apparently the current law was set into place with the 1701 Act of Settlement.  While I don’t mean to oversimplify things, I’ll go ahead and say that I’m pretty sure things have changed a little bit since then.  Not surprisingly many people find the current laws “antiquated and sexist” so I can only assume that an amendment giving female royal offspring the same rights as their male counterparts would enjoy reasonably broad support.

From my perspective it seems that this is the most opportune time to implement this kind of change.  Since QE2′s first child was male (Prince Charles) and his first child was male (Prince William) changing the law now would do nothing to upset the existing succession plan.  Further, with a long-standing and well-respected queen on the throne I think any argument about how a man is more qualified or suited to fill the role of monarch is basically indefensible.

So if the time is right to make this change, what’s taking so long?  I realize that the British monarchy is not exactly an institution of progressivism and social reform.  But gender discrimination was outlawed in Britain in 1975.  These are hardly cutting edge ideas.  At this point we’re talking about just catching up.  What are the British people and lawmakers holding onto?

The reason this issue interests me is not really because I have a particular interest in the British monarchy – though I will be tuning in for the wedding – but because it piques my curiosity about the way we approach tradition.  The British monarchy is, at this point, a tradition.  It is symbolic.  It is a point of pride and source of comfort for many Britons.  But this sexist aspect of it has lasted into the 21st century for no apparent reason other than as a function of tradition.

I firmly believe that traditions are important and valuable.  They help us stay in touch with our roots.  They remind us of people and places that aren’t with us anymore.  They provide us an intimacy and kinship to our own lives that gives them meaning.  But the thing about traditions is that sometimes we abide by them mindlessly.  Sometimes we forget how they emerged in the first place.  And sometimes they cease to serve their intended purpose and are merely an empty shell of something that doesn’t exist anymore.  And in situations like that – like this – by continuing the tradition we actively honor something that perhaps shouldn’t be honored.

It is hard to break with tradition.  I get that.  But when a tradition can’t be earnestly advocated – when it exists for the sake of tradition alone – that’s when it’s probably time to find the next tradition.

3 Responses to “The Royal On-Deck Circle”

  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    The question of tradition is such an interesting and tricky one. When to stick with history for the sake of reverence and history and when to change things up? Much broader implications here. Another thoughtful post. Per usual :)

  2. Kimc Says:

    Why not break with tradition more radically and say “the next in line for succession is the king or queen’s offspring with the most aptitude for the job”?
    Or why make it hereditary at all? In 1475(?) the Polish kingship became a matter of voting — though only the nobles voted. It only lasted about 75 years, but they tried it….

  3. Gale Says:

    Kimc – This idea fascinates me. The birthright is such a bedrock principle of monarchy that I wonder if it would completely upend some equilibrium of the royal family for the succession plan to be up for grabs. And I wonder what the public would make of it. I get the sense that these issues are actually taken more seriously in countries that still have governing monarchies. It’s a bit easier to factor aptitude out when the position is largely ceremonial.