In practice, could a Catholic be British Prime Minister?
July 8, 2011 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Is there any reason why a Catholic would be unelectable as British Prime Minister, or any practical difficulties in having a Catholic Prime Minister?

I know there's a prohibition against a Catholic monarch, or a Catholic marrying someone in line to the throne. On the other hand, I've never really had the sense that outside parts of Northern Ireland and possibly Glasgow, that's there's that much serious anti-Catholic sentiment in the UK.

I read something that suggested a Catholic Prime Minister would be problematic. I don't think there's a law stopping a Catholic from being Prime Minister, but sometimes we have unwritten stuff...

FWIW I'm British, and I grew up Catholic.
posted by plonkee to Law & Government (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There's no law against it, but it would be really awkward constitutionally due to the PM's role in advising the Queen in making ecclesiastical appointments. Also, there are laws forbidding Catholics and Jews from advising the crown on religious matters. So, those two together would make it constitutionally hard for the PM to be Catholic.
posted by General Malaise at 1:34 PM on July 8, 2011

I was gonna say Tony Blair's a convert, but that was after he left office. His wife is Catholic. Related: Wasn't Benjamin Disraeli Jewish? Ack, well, Disraeli was born Jewish but was baptized at age 12. Hmm.
posted by zomg at 1:36 PM on July 8, 2011

Not British, but am American, and grew up Catholic as well.

Possibly the reasons some people claim a Catholic PM would be "problematic" are similar to what people were saying in the 1960's in the U.S. when John F. Kennedy became President. The U.S. is largely non-Catholic Christian, and there were people who were afraid that Kennedy would somehow be more prone to his secular governing being "influenced" by his Catholicism. Practicing Catholics are sometimes seen as being more likely to adhere to the strict dogmas of the Vatican, and that lead to a few whispers of "if he gets elected, who'd really be running the show here, Kennedy or Pope John XXIII?"

Not a legal restriction, in other words, but a political one -- "the people wouldn't elect the guy anyway because they'd be afraid of that, so why bother nominating him?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:38 PM on July 8, 2011

Yes, Tony Blair converted to Catholicism straight after he stood down as Prime Minister. Which suggests that it would be seen as problematic. (I remember when he was still PM, reading an article in the Times which opposed the idea of a Catholic PM).
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:39 PM on July 8, 2011

PS. The relevant portion of law: Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 c. 7 (Regnal. 10_Geo_4)Section 18:
It shall not be lawful for any person professing the Roman Catholic religion directly or indirectly to advise his Majesty, or any person or persons holding or exercising the office of guardians of the United Kingdom, or of regent of the United Kingdom, under whatever name, style, or title such office may be constituted, [F1or the lord lieutenant of Ireland], touching or concerning the appointment to or disposal of any office or preferment in the [F2Church of England], or in the Church of Scotland; and if any such person shall offend in the premises he shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown.
posted by General Malaise at 1:40 PM on July 8, 2011 [8 favorites]

General Malaise beat me to it on the exercise of prerogative powers associated with the Church of England, but the unwritten constitution generally manages to fudge its way around these things. The main impediment is its novelty, and the need to consider (and stipulate) the nature of the fudge, which engages with the wider question of the royal prerogative.
posted by holgate at 1:40 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

EC, remember that the UK has a state religion, and that the Queen is the head of that religion. So it's not quite the same situation as the USA, where you of course have the formal separation of church and state.

On preview: holgate, GM, I wonder if there's a workaround whereby a Catholic PM could avoid advising the Monarch on that one point, instead delegating it to a senior Minister? (Or, given that most of that Act has been repealed, would it be controversial to repeal that section?)
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:45 PM on July 8, 2011

EC, remember that the UK has a state religion, and that the Queen is the head of that religion. So it's not quite the same situation as the USA, where you of course have the formal separation of church and state.

yeah, I realized that on preview. My apologies.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:45 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, its not a "political" restriction - but a matter of interpretation of the british constitution.

Tony Blair obviously waited until he left office to convert, however it is inconceivable that if a practising catholic was elected or appointed prime minister, they would not take that role .

The 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act does prohibit such a prime minister from advising the queen on church appointments. But, given that the Lord Chancellor (Tenure of Office and Discharge of Ecclesiastical Functions) Act 1974 provided that, if a Roman Catholic should be appointed Lord Chancellor, arrangements may be made by the Queen in Council for any or all of his
ecclesiastical functions to be performed by the Prime Minister or any other Minister
of the Crown. I suspect similar arrangements would be made for a catholic PM.

On a purely legal basis - its 3 years since I wrote a paper on constitutional law but from the back of my mind I am dredging up Thoburn and the like .. in the event that this came before a judge, I suspect that at the very least the Human Rights Act 1998 would almost certainly subject the earlier act to the doctrine of implied repeal.

Regardless, any attempt to invalidate the selection of a catholic would certainly result in a constitutional crisis, I can't see a situation where it would be an issue (also note that the current deputy PM is an atheist)
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:52 PM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

p.s I plagiarised part of that answer from this paper
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:53 PM on July 8, 2011

The Constitution of the United Kingdom, unlike the Constitution of the United States... isn't actually a fixed document. It's a set of principles and practices as much as it is anything else. Why is there a unitary legislature and executive? Because. That's why. The way they do things isn't written down anywhere official.

Which means that the mere fact that there has never been a Catholic PM itself makes it difficult for there to be one, given the fact that the UK still has an established church. Custom and law tend to blur a lot at this level, which is one of the downsides of not having a written constitution.

But one of the upsides is that "amending" the constitution doesn't actually require any particular process. It just involves deciding to do things a different way. That decision doesn't have to be terribly formal, and there's no extra-special vote or process that has to happen to deviate from past practice. But the pressure to follow precedent is pretty strong, so actually getting to this point can take some doing.

Still, if it ever came right down to it, I'd bet that there would be some squawking, but it wouldn't prevent an otherwise-eligible MP from becoming PM. The UK has slowly been doing away with the significance of having an established religion for decades now. It's probably only a matter of time.
posted by valkyryn at 1:56 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Disraeli was jewish, and was Prime Minister twice. So there's precedent for a non-protestant.
posted by auto-correct at 2:03 PM on July 8, 2011

Disraeli was jewish, and was Prime Minister twice. So there's precedent for a non-protestant.

As your link says (and as is noted above), Disraeli was jewish and also a practicing Anglican (and therefore not a non-protestant by the standards of his day.)
posted by Jahaza at 2:08 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Disraeli was born Jewish, but converted to Anglicanism as a child.
posted by vickyverky at 2:08 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It should be pointed that Blair waited till he left office to announce that he had converted to Roman Catholicism, for the reasons mentioned above. It seems, e.g. according to this and other sources, that he was practising while still PM.
posted by TheRaven at 2:10 PM on July 8, 2011

given that most of that Act has been repealed, would it be controversial to repeal that section?

It's not so much controversy as how tinkering with old acts can be messy. That was the case when the Labour government wanted to separate out the diverse accumulated powers held by the Lord Chancellor, including ecclesiastical ones, and found out how hard it is to do a Montesquieu on an office with medieval origins.

On that topic, there had previously been doubt over whether the Lord Chancellor could be a Roman Catholic, which led to the passage of the Lord Chancellor (Tenure of Office and Discharge of Ecclesiastical Functions) Act 1974, which declared the office eligible to Catholics 'for the avoidance of doubt' (a term designed to avoid the appearance of novelty) and provided alternatives for exercise of prerogative powers. I'd assume that's the appropriate template for a future fudge.

Another source of messiness is the legislative legacy of the 1829 Act outside the UK. While it doesn't touch upon the Statute of Westminster's convention for the succession, there's been ongoing discussion on how best to winkle it out of the statute books of Australian states (one example [pdf]).
posted by holgate at 2:34 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The short answer to your question is no, there is no reason why having a Catholic as Prime Minister should be problematic. It would create a few minor constitutional anomalies, but nothing that couldn't be easily fixed. The constitutional position is summarised in this parliamentary briefing paper (pdf) on 'Prime Ministerial involvement in ecclesiastical appointments':

It is often suggested that the Prime Minister cannot be a Roman Catholic by law. This is not correct. [..] While there is no longer any statutory bar on Roman Catholics becoming Prime Minister, there are issues arising from advice on ecclesiastical preferment that is given by the Prime Minister to the Crown. Special arrangements would have to be made to ensure that he or she did not advise the Crown directly or indirectly on Church of England appointments, as doing so under the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 remains a 'high misdemeanour'. This particular aspect of Prime Ministerial duties could be delegated to another minister not similarly barred.

The only difficulty arises because of the Prime Minister's role in appointing Anglican bishops and archbishops. Under the current system, the Crown Nominations Commission recommends candidates to the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister submits them to the Queen for final approval. In a slightly Alice in Wonderland touch, the Commission is required to recommend two names for each appointment, so that in theory the Prime Minister can choose between two candidates, though in practice the PM always chooses the first name on the list. (However, there are said to have been occasions when the PM has picked the wrong name.)

Gordon Brown proposed in 2007 that this particular bit of constitutional jiggery-pokery should be tidied up by allowing the Crown Nominations Commission to recommend only one name. If this reform takes place, the PM will effectively be cut out of any active role in the selection of bishops, thus removing the last vestige of any constitutional obstacle to a Catholic becoming Prime Minister.

Tony Blair's religion first became a political issue because of his role in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was for political reasons, rather than constitutional ones, that he delayed his conversion until after he had left office. Blair had of course been attending Mass (and on some occasions receiving communion) for years before he converted.
posted by verstegan at 3:22 PM on July 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

It is very problematic and incredibly unlikely.

Nevertheless, the right person - the right cult of personality - could do it.
A message of tolerance, true concern for all British people, a catching image of the future.

It could happen. A Catholic monarch is not absolutely impossible. Though, it is crazy unlikely.
posted by Flood at 6:46 PM on July 8, 2011

Just to Nth those noting that there is no political problem (at all) with a catholic monarch these days. In terms of pure gathering of votes, it would probably be an advantage in many respects. Constitutionally, it wouldn't be a problem because the unwritten constitution would allow for easy re-routing to avoid any issues.
posted by prentiz at 11:46 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Michael Howard is a practising (Reform) Jew and he fought the 2005 general election as Tory leader so I very much doubt that non-Protestant is a formal impediment.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 3:35 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Michael Howard is a practising (Reform) Jew and he fought the 2005 general election as Tory leader so I very much doubt that non-Protestant is a formal impediment.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 11:35 AM on July 9

I'm afraid this is an overly simplified view. It isn't a case of simply Protestant v non-Protestant. In England there are a very different set of historical influences associated with being a Jew and a Catholic, and they would be viewed quite differently. You have to understand the long antipathy towards Catholicism in England. After all, this is a nation that rejected the power of Rome, destroyed Catholic monasteries and churches, and still has an annual celebration built around the execution of a bunch of Catholics who tried to destroy Parliament.
posted by Decani at 11:10 AM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Flood: A Catholic monarch is not absolutely impossible.

It is impossible under the Act of Settlement, 1701, isn't it?
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 2:22 PM on July 9, 2011

verstegan nails it. In point of fact, that person could be a catholic priest following the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Act 2001.

A Catholic monarch is absolutely impossible per the Act of Settlement - "any person who shall be reconciled to, or hold communion with, the see or Church of Rome, or profess the popish religion, or marry a papist" is excluded from inheriting, possessing or enjoying the Crown.
posted by dmt at 12:12 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

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