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‘Little grape’ and the ‘right to reign’

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There are plenty of reasons to treat the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which ends the policy of male primogeniture in royal succession, with a healthy dose of scepticism. The Act was clearly green-lighted to save the British government the embarrassment of denying the throne to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's 'little grape,' due next month, should the 'grape' be a daughter. Even so, the Act should not be dismissed as inconsequential. While it may have been cobbled together to modernise the royal family, the Act does have the potential to initiate a broader set of policy changes, while also revitalising a national, and even international, conversation on questions of gender equity and governance.

The implications for the royal family should not be overlooked. The policy of male primogeniture in royal succession - already characterised as a 'rather strange principle' by a journalist writing for The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in 1875 - has contributed to numerous family feuds since its enactment as law in 1701. Consider for a moment the case of Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria's first-born daughter. One can only imagine the frustration the driven Vicky must have experienced when she learned that her younger brother, the hapless Bertie, and not she, would one day become monarch. 'A natural mistake,' quipped Eleanor Stanley, one of Queen Victoria's Maids of Honour, 'the little girl being the elder, and, moreover, seeing that their Mama is Queen and their Papa is not King.' The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 helps create a more fair royal playing field.

The repercussions, however, could stretch far beyond Kensington Palace. Since the Victorian period, if not earlier, the royal family has helped to shape, and served as a repository for, national values. We often focus on the conservative dimensions of this enterprise: the royal family as modelling (or aspiring to model) middle-class respectability. The German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter's 1846 portrait of the Royal Family captures this impulse: a proud queen seated beside her doting husband, her arm extended around Bertie. It was precisely this type of reassuring image that enabled many Victorians to countenance a female head of state. 'The kind of business which a monarch has to exercise in modern times does not in general belong exclusively to either sex,' a writer for The Spectator explained in 1856. 'There is a certain fidelity to established rules... a reduction of state questions to the simplest elements - functions in which woman, with her simpler and more instinctive mind, is better even than a man.'

But the Winterhalter portrait has other stories to tell. The very fact that women have been allowed to reign in Britain, even if on an uneven footing with men, has provided a significant opening for more progressive understandings of self and nation. Decades before Victoria became Queen in 1837, radicals considered the concept of the Queen Regnant one of the most powerful weapons in their political arsenal. That women in Britain had the 'right to reign,' they felt, would surely lead to the 'rights of women.' As the prominent Unitarian minister William Johnson Fox opined in A Political and Social Anomaly (1832), the fact that Princess Victoria was 'likely' soon to become Queen made it all the more preposterous that the women of Britain could not even 'exercise... the very lowest and simplest political function... the elective franchise.' From the mid-19th century, suffragists seized on this logic. For John Stuart Mill, writing in The Subjection of Women (1869), it was an outrage that the constitution granted women the throne, but could not 'intrust' them with the 'smallest of the political duties.' For Charlotte Stopes, in her similarly path-breaking British Freewomen (1894), the Queen gave the lie to Victorian 'laws of nature' about women.

Well into the 20th century, many continued to associate the figure of the Queen with progressive politics. Helena Normanton, the first practising female barrister in the UK, took a considerable interest in the policy of female succession, and reported that her female colleagues in 1930s America were 'anxiously following' the 'building of Princess Elizabeth.' In The Eagle and the Crown, historian Frank Prochaska has uncovered similar evidence of the Queen's ability to inspire women. In 1950s America, for example, one female analyst accounted for women's fascination with the Queen by noting that 'Philip takes orders from Elizabeth... What wife doesn't secretly wish she had the same authority?' As another American analyst put it, this was the first time 'that the women of America have found a heroine who makes them feel superior to men.'

This is not to offer a naive assessment. Female sovereignty did not lead directly to female civil and political rights. But the 'right to reign' did prove a powerful driver of female suffrage. It has also helped men and women to imagine different possibilities for themselves, both at home and in the workplace. The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 could take these possibilities even further. Over 200 aristocrats are currently campaigning to extend the policy of absolute primogeniture to the rest of the nation's elite. The passage of the Act has also helped reignite discussions in Spain about ending male primogeniture in their royal family. Then again, the legal disputes now unfolding in Quebec about the constitutionality of Canada's agreement to the changes in royal succession suggest a different impact altogether. The Act may well end up sparking debates about the continuing relevance and reach of the Crown overseas, and the entire Commonwealth arrangement. For all of these reasons, and more, the effects of this new law are worth following.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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