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Tuesday, January 26, 1999 Published at 18:20 GMT

UK Politics

Forsyth calls for monarch's freedom to marry

Prince Charles could marry a Moonie but not a Catholic

Former Scottish Secretary Sir Michael Forsyth has attacked the government for doing nothing to tackle the British constitution's "grubby little secret" preventing the monarch from marrying a Catholic.

The Tory ex-Cabinet minister went on to describe Labour's devolution package as "constitutional vandalism" and proposals to end the voting rights of hereditary peers as "a barefaced attack" on the people's liberties.

At the same time, said Sir Michael, a "deeply discriminatory" Act of Parliament will be allowed to stay in force.

In a speech in London on Tuesday the former MP said: "It is astonishing that a government which has concerned itself with the number of heralds in the procession at the State Opening of Parliament and which has endlessly preached the doctrine of an 'inclusive' society has not been moved to amend the Act of Settlement."

[ image: The former Cabinet minister lost his seat at the 1997 election]
The former Cabinet minister lost his seat at the 1997 election
This law, "couched in offensive 18th century language", excludes Roman Catholics from the throne or from marrying the monarch.

Sir Michael demanded: "Why retain the Act of Settlement which enshrines at the heart of the constitution the formal doctrine that some 10% of the queen's subjects are to be treated as second-class citizens?"

'Monarch can marry a Moonie'

Yet the act does not prescribe that the sovereign's consort must belong to the Church of England: "It is perfectly legal for the monarch to marry a Buddhist, a Hindu or even a Moonie, but not a Roman Catholic."

Sir Michael added that apart from the modifying the act to deal with this, the monarchy "requires no refashioning".

He added: "It is strong in its essence and in its place in the hearts and confidence of the British people. It is our greatest guarantor of stability."

He said the same was true of the House of Lords which has been a pivotal element in a system of checks and balances.

New Labour Roundheads

Sir Michael warned that the logical extension of the government's Lords reform Bill was republicanism, as "the hereditary principle is the basis of monarchy".

He accused Labour of being a "Roundhead" government and the prime minister of wanting a chamber based on patronage.

MPs are, he said, "schizophrenic" about Lords reform. In theory deplored its composition, but in practice they "dread the creation of a strong, democratically constituted second chamber which could challenge the authority of their own House".

Surprise at sudden interest

[ image: Donald Dewar: Surprised at Sir Michael's intervention]
Donald Dewar: Surprised at Sir Michael's intervention
Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar said he was surprised by his predecessor's intervention.

"Michael has been in government and was a minister of state at the Home Office. I'm surprised that it has popped up at this point," he said in response to the call to remove the bar to the monarch marrying a Catholic..

But Mr Dewar went on: "We must work on every level and every way to eliminate even the most residual prejudice in our society."

The Scottish National Party's constitutional affairs spokesman, George Reid, was similarly surprised at the sudden intervention.

"For many years, the SNP has proposed ending this appalling discrimination - which lies at the heart of the UK's structures - via a written constitution for an independent Scotland," he added.

The Church of England the kind of change to the constitution Sir Michael was calling for would have profound implications for the establishment of the church and its status as a pillar of the state.

"The pope says that a Roman Catholic should only take communion in the Roman Catholic Church," said a spokesman. But the Act of Settlement "says the monarch has to be in communion with the Church of England".

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland welcomed Sir Michael's comments: "In this age of political correctness I would have thought this would have been suggested a long time ago."

A Home Office spokeswoman said there were no immediate plans to amend the Act.

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