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Queen's speech takes aim at modernizing the monarchy

Britain's Queen Elizabeth looks through the window of the Australian State Coach after the State Opening of Parliament in London May 9, 2012, for the State Opening of Parliament.


The head that wears the crown looked decidedly weary on Wednesday morning, as Queen Elizabeth took to the throne, put on her heaviest crown, and opened Britain's parliamentary session by reading the traditional agenda-setting policy speech – in this case, one that reflected back on Britain's highest offices, including the monarchy.

"My Government will continue to work with the 15 other Commonwealth Realms to take forward reform of the rules governing succession to the Crown," she said, announcing a proposed law that will make it possible for women to be first in line for the monarchy, and to make it legal for the monarch to marry a Roman Catholic.

This isn't as easy as it sounds. Not only Britain, but every other country with the Queen as its head of state – including Canada – would need to pass similar laws. It would overturn 300 years of tradition, and has been attempted 11 times before in the British parliament.

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But it might work this time – not just because social values have changed and sexual and religious discrimination are widely regarded as unfair, but also because monarchists worry that once the popular Queen Elizabeth is gone, it will be far more difficult to defend the institution if it appears anachronistic and discriminatory.

If her grandson William and his wife Catherine – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – were to have a daughter first, there is a widespread sense that the public would not want to see her passed over for the succession.

"Put simply," Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters, "if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen."

He added: "The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic – this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become."

About 5 million of Britain's 60 million citizens are Catholic. The discrimination against royal marriage to a Catholic dates back to King Henry VIII's creation of the Church of England in the sixteenth century – and is also a formal matter, since the monarch is the head of that church. So there still can't be a Catholic king or queen, but it will now be possible to have a mixed marriage in Windsor Palace.

"Let me be clear, Mr. Cameron explained, "the monarch must be in communion with the Church of England because he or she is the head of that Church. But it is simply wrong that they should be denied the chance to marry a Catholic if they wish to do so. After all, they are already quite free to marry someone of any other faith."

Canada's government has expressed muted approval of these reforms, but doesn't consider them a priority.

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"We are supportive of these reasonable modernizations," Mr. Harper's spokesman Andrew MacDougall told the Globe and Mail on October, "but don't believe there should be extensive Parliamentary time spent debating them when the government is focused on creating jobs and growth in the economy."

Mr. Harper was more explicit during last year's royal wedding, when he dismissed the urgency of the reforms. "The successor to the throne is a man," Mr. Harper said. "The next successor to the throne is a man…. I just don't see that as a priority for Canadians right now at all."

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was far more supportive, saying last year that as her country's first female prime minister she was "very enthusiastic" about the changes.

The Queen also announced proposed legislation to reform the House of Lords, making it partially democratic, ending hereditary peerages and removing religious leaders from the Lords – another item that has been promised by successive British governments but never delivered. (Tony Blair's labour government introduced some reforms, including banning new hereditary appointments.)

Lords reform was demanded by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg when he agreed to join Mr. Cameron's Tories in a coalition government after the 2010 election. Still, while it appears on the order paper this time, it is widely rumoured that Mr. Cameron has little interest in letting it go forward.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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