I'm foxed by the priorities of our `modern' government

`Mr Livingstone's bill should have been one to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a presidency'
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The Independent Culture
SEVEN O'CLOCK this morning and, dressed in little more than my pyjamas, I'd just opened the front door to bring in the paper when - with a terrible suddenness - a pack of 60 beagles shot up the street, through the open door and into my living-room, where they proceeded to disembowel a fluffy little red-coated fox that had taken refuge behind the sofa.

The children were upset, the wife was upset, I was upset. The noise of a dozen or more huntsmen clattering towards us from the direction of Camden Town, their view halloos drowning out the sound of the rush-hour traffic on the High Street, reminded me who was to blame for this carnage. I wanted action to put an end to this madness, and I wanted it now. "Ken," I thought to myself, "if you can do something to stop this happening to other Londoners, then I'm yours."

The trouble is that Ken Livingstone won't be able to prevent the capital suffering from the depredations of those who hunt with hounds. The first, most obvious reason is that - despite my fantasy - we do not have a fox- hunting problem in London. We have all kinds of other problems: a crime problem, a transport problem, an education problem, a how-to-get-a-decent- mayor problem, but not a fox-hunting problem.

The second reason is that Ken came eighth in the private member's ballot, only the first seven get priority, so he'll hardly get any time.

And the third is that the Burns inquiry into the consequences of a ban probably won't report till June, and Ken has set down early April for his debate. In other words, he stands no chance at all of getting a bill on fox-hunting passed. And he knows it.

So why do it? Because, says Ken Livingstone, it is - for Labour - "a debt of honour", effectively promised in the 1997 election. But this doesn't quite wash either. The party also made a far more cast-iron promise to the electorate not to raise the top-rate of taxation, and Ken has been agitating for this particular "debt of honour" to be dishonoured ever since polling day. But Labour activists like foxes and don't much care for the well-off.

It's gesture politics, of course. In practical terms it's worth as much as Ken's public insistence that he will not, if the Labour's electoral college backs Dobbo, stand as an independent candidate. Of course he'll stand. If he doesn't, I undertake to eat a newt of his choice, no matter how large or slippery, cooked according to his preference. But then, as Ken disarmingly says: "Foxes can be wicked old things. That's nature." And if the newly emerging rules of democratic politics hadn't been so bone-headedly abused by the Labour party machine, his nature would have been more obvious to the voters of London.

No, if it's gestures you want, a much more useful one was being made yesterday by the Members of the Scottish Parliament. There they were debating a motion calling for the repeal of the Act of Settlement of 1701. It's not something that they can actually carry out themselves, but their debate was an interesting first step.

The Act of what? Of when? In July 1700 the sole surviving heir of Princess Anne, the Duchess of Gloucester, died of the small-pox in Cambridge. William III (you know, of Orange) was on the throne and had no kids, so everyone was anxious about the succession that Anne's child might have guaranteed. What bothered them most was the possible return of the heirs of the Catholic James II.

So a bill was worked up, stating that every future sovereign should be a member of the Church of England, and passing the throne on to the Protestant descendants of the ancient Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover. This act effectively bypassed 57 Catholic royals with stronger claims.

Twelve years earlier the Bill of Rights of 1689 had, in any case, established that, "Every person that shall... profess the popish religion, or shall marry a papist shall be excluded and be for ever incapable to inherit, possess or enjoy the crown... of this realm".

We lived with this for three centuries. Then, with the advent of a parliament for Scotland this year, serious moves began to be made to have this Act repealed. Cardinals (who are a bigger deal in Scotland than in England) complained that it was discriminatory against Catholics, the SNP took up the call and even Tory Lords - improbably - started to agitate for a more inclusive millennium. Some Labour people moaned that the Conservatives had enjoyed power for two-thirds of the century, but had waited till 1999 and a Labour government to bring it up. True, but that's nature.

Still, there are some complexities here. How can you have a monarch who is head of the Church of England and, simultaneously, a Catholic, a Zoroastrian, a tree-worshipping animist or a witch-doctor? You can't. So you have two choices. You either disestablish the CofE, or you allow the possibility that a shaman can be Defender of the Faith.

Now, the CofE has a lot going for it. It doesn't run evangelical TV stations and fleece the credulous of their savings, nor does it go around trying to convert heathens to the cause. For which we heathens give thanks. Its leaders are sensible and moderate and - for the most part - are decent men and (increasingly) women. But its elision with Christianity in these Isles was originally a coup de main by Henry VIII's spin-doctors, contrived for the basest of political reasons. It was a fib then and the Church now no more represents the soul of this nation than does rock'n'roll. Tony Benn is right; it should be disestablished.

Then we could have a Jewish king, already. It would be quite a story if William were to convert, learn the chants and take himself down to the Royal mohel for a trim. And imagine a real north London Jewish princess. This alone, I would submit, is more of an issue for many Londoners than is the issue of fox-hunting.

The next question, I suppose, is how much of a priority the repeal of the Act of Settlement and the disestablishment of the Church of England should be, no matter how desirable. Look what quantity of ordure was heaped upon the Government for not having sufficient time to enact the Transport Bill before this session.

Even with cross-party support, losing the Act would be quite an undertaking, involving the whole of the Commonwealth (though one wonders whether the Windward Isles would cut up as rough as some people suggest). Besides, for many of us republican types, the fact that no one except a Windsor can be head of state is not the greatest act of discrimination. Few of us have a Hanoverian Electress in our family trees; isn't that where the problem really lies?

So Mr Livingstone's Bill should have been one to abolish the monarchy, and replace it by an elected presidency. That - for a radical politician - really would have been a gesture worthy of the effort. But would it have attracted quite so many votes from Labour and union members being balloted in the London mayoral race? Probably not. Ah my, wicked things, foxes.