Bad King James may yet have a Catholic successor : a momentous move from Gordon Brown

Now here’s a real constitutional turn-up of the first order in a Guardian exclusive. One of the last ancient acts of discrimination against Roman Catholics is to be repealed – the Act of Settlement of 1707 which barred Catholics from the throne after the little difficulty between King James and King Billy. Up to this moment, this was written off as far too complicated and obscure, while campaigners saw it as a totemic issue at the formal apex of the British State. It would also I guess make it that bit easier for the Republic to rejoin the Commonwealth, if that idea were to be mooted again. Along with the end of the Act of Settlement will be the end of male primogeniture, the right of a male to succeed before a female. What would be regarded in other fields as blatant sex discrimination was the subject of private members’ bills in the Lords, lately by Lord Alf Dubbs a former NI Labour minister, and before that one from Lord Jeffrey Archer before his own brush with the law. Both measures are constitutionally momentous. The politics of the repeal of the Act of Settlement are fascinating. Scottish Catholics who are an important strand of Labour – or were at least until recently – were particularly vociferous about lifting the royal ban on Catholics, but this was one trick Alex Salmond was keen to take. Brown may have forestalled him, if he survives.

Today’s move was trailed in Scotland earlier this year, where it will be seen, bluntly, as one in the eye against English supremacy and the established Church of England. Even if Brown falls, it’s hard to see how this Pandora’s Box can be closed again, once opened. It could also augur a much bolder programme for constitutional reform than was expected from Brown.

Update The Daily Telegraph’s Damian Thompson has spotted the Scottish Catholic connection

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London