Some Words on Primogeniture

Primogentiture is the right of the first born to inherit titles, estates and thrones. At present the UK has a form of male primogeniture, which sets the Duke of York and Prince Edward above the older Princess Anne in the line of succession. In the 21st Century, this is absurd. With the #RoyalWedding suggesting the possibility of new heirs being born soon, there are plans afoot to legislate for a more equal form of primogeniture.

Keith Vaz MP is quoted in a BBC report:

I hope that they will give their full support to my bill which is currently before Parliament.

If they do so we can resolve this matter before any child of Prince William and Kate Middleton is born, not afterwards. The clock is ticking. We need to act fast.

Ignoring the distasteful idea that legislation has to race against one woman’s fertility, this is still not quite right. The legislation will only become awkward after a second child is born to Prince William and Princess Catherine. When their first kid is born, he or she will become 3rd and directly in line to the throne (bumping Prince Harry off the podium and, probably, into drunken obscurity). Only when a second child is born, and only if that second child is a boy and the older child is a girl, will there be any awkwardness. Assuming Wills and Kate do want kids, and assuming they want more than one kid, and further assuming this is biologically possible (because for some women it is sadly not) then it’s a 25% chance, and will likely take at least half a decade to occur.

So there is no urgency to this, just a bizarre set of sensibilities to spare the feelings of Royal toddlers who probably wouldn’t care anyway. Altering the law right now would mean demoting Princes Andrew and Edward and their offspring in favour of Princess Anne and her issue, and we don’t seem to worry about that.

Interestingly, had full cogniatic primogeniture prevailed, Queen Victoria – our longest serving and one of our greatest monarchs – would not have ascended to the throne. It would instead of passed to the family of Princess Caroline, a sister of George IV and William IV who was older than Victoria’s father, Edward. And since our current Queen is a direct descendant of Victoria, she would not have reigned either! This is doubly true, because Queen Victoria’s oldest child was a daughter (also named Victoria) who died in 1888. Had full primogeniture been law by the time Victoria died in 1901, the throne would have passed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Great War would probably have been avoided.

On the other hand, that other great queen, Elizabeth I, would have ascended to the throne at exactly the same time, on the death of her sister Mary. However, since Catholic Mary would have have had an extra six years on the throne (with the sickly Edward VI being passed over) she may have maneuvered to exclude her Protestant sister from the succession.

In the last century however, Royal succession has been indifferent to gender. The eldest children of all the monarchs since 1901 were male, except for George VI who had only daughters, so questions of gender primacy never arose. Had a more equitable law of succession been passed when (say) women’s suffrage was introduced in 1918, there would have been absolutely no difference in the Royal lineage.

Its not an idle point about Women’s Suffrage. I would say that the argument over women’s equality was settled when they won the right to vote, so legislation on women having equal right to the Throne is at least 93 years overdue! I find it amazing that anyone in Britain or the Commonwealth needs to think about this. When Nick Clegg says that the issue still requires “careful thought” he is being utterly disingenuous… and I really don’t understand why.

4 thoughts on “Some Words on Primogeniture

  1. See, was going to simply answer your last line, but went to read the link first, and Clegg’s reasons are exactly what I was going to say.

    My Canadian friends will joke occasionally that the Queen of Canada is legally an entierely different person to the Queen of the UK, she just happens to inhabit the same body. This is, technically, correct, same for Australia (And probably the rest of the Realm countries, but I don’t know their setups well enough to say for sure).

    Changing the rule of succession for the UK alone is fine, but it could lead to complications later on if the other countries don’t follow suit.

    Careful thought therefore is needed-do we lead, hope the others follow, and possibly create some issue with the Realms later, or do we get consensus and all change at the same time? Personally, I’d favour the former, but I’m not speaking on behalf of the Govt.

    Also, I think it does matter that it’s done before they have kids (assuming they do), as if the first child is a girl, that immediately brings the issue to the fore, regardless of whether they then have another child.

    Of course, I’d much rather we went for a Citizen’s Convention and rewrore the rulebook from scratch, but there aren’t enough votes in that one :-(

    1. I took those considerations into account when I made my sweeping statement about the issue being entirely straightforward. The Realms all have women’s suffrage and other laws that assume equality of women. Are you saying that Canada or Australia or New Zealand are in anyway unsure about full succession rights for women? Even in the Caribbean dominions, which might conceivably be less liberal, is there be anyone who could mount a serious campaign in favour of male primacy, when our current Queen has been so long and so successful? If she was somehow Queen of Saudi Arabia I might understand the reticence.

      Clegg and Cameron should just send a memo to all the countries who still have QEII as their Head of State: “We’re having a vote on this in our Commons next Thursday, and it will receive Royal Assent on Tuesday week. We suggest you guys do the same.” Remember, if any country fails to ratify a similar law, then they are only stacking up their own constitutional crisis when the time comes: An English King of Canada, stuck in London without any of the trappings of the Monarchy, Buckingham Palace, or any of that crap, because his older sister has just been crowned Queen of England. It won’t happen – we can and should force their hand!

      And I really don’t see how a crisis arises after only one child. Granted, if that child were a girl then there would be a 50% chance of something misogynistic happening with every subsequent pregnancy, and Keith Vaz’s sense of urgency might be justified. But as I say, that is at least half a decade away (unless Kate has twins, of course).

  2. Clegg and Cameron should just send a memo

    Not the done thing though, is it old boy? We’re British, we follow procedure.

    And actually, one of the proposals for dealing with the Australian Repiblican problem is to give them Harry or similar to reign over there independently, so it’s possible one or two might do it just to be contrary.

    I’m not disagreeing that all of this is something that probably should happen. But provoking diplomatic incidents, even for the very best of reasons does, well, require a bit of careful thought first, n’est ce pas?

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