Queuing up to Swear
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Anyone who visited the Peers’ Lobby on Monday afternoon would have found a long queue of men and women, mainly middle-aged and older, waiting to swear their loyalty to the Queen (and to her heirs and successors, which may be a more frightening thought). This process lasts over two days. The start of a new Parliament is a time for plodding through various procedures, some of them both arcane and antique, and the long shuffling procession to take the Oath of Allegiance is one of the first.
The summons to peers was dated 30th March, before the General Election, since we are all appointed for life and our presence does not depend on getting the consent of the people. The wording is fun if you don’t take it too seriously. It starts by telling us in the name of the Queen that “Whereas by the advice and assent of Our Council for certain arduous and urgent affairs concerning Us the state and defence of Our United Kingdom and the Church We have ordered a certain Parliament to be holden…there to treat and have conference with the Prelates Great Men Great Women and Peers of Our Realm…”
I wonder when the Great Women were added – presumably when women were first allowed in the House of Commons in 1918 (if so it’s ironic that the first of the Great Women was a Sinn Fein member, the Countess de Markievicz, who did not take her seat).
The summons goes on: “We strictly enjoining COMMAND you upon the faith and allegiance by which you are bound to Us that the weightiness of the said affairs and imminent perils considered (waiving all excuses) you be at the said day and place personally present with Us and with the said Prelates Great Men Great Women and Peers to treat and give your counsel upon the affairs aforesaid.” Imminent perils? What did the Queen know that we didn’t? Perhaps she knew more than we did about the pending election result!
Actually the summons is a bit bogus since the Queen just sends a message saying that it is “not convenient” to turn up that day – she waits until the following week which is the official Opening of Parliament. Still, who could refuse such an offer? So we all lined up to take the Oath or, in the case of unbelievers like me, Affirm. The right to affirm was granted to parliamentarians thanks to changes promoted by the great man Charles Bradlaugh (elected various times as a Liberal for Northampton) about 130 years ago. There’s a good account of the extraordinary saga of his struggle to be able to affirm here.
The wording of the affirmation is: “I (name of Peer) do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.” Not easy for convinced republicans though the last three words seem to me to be a let-out.
It is of course inappropriate to be swearing personal allegiance to a hereditary monarch in a democratic country and in an era when rather than remaining with a Monarch sovereignty is increasingly understood to rest with the people, or even within the strangely English construct of “the Queen in Parliament”. But as with so much in our constitution we muddle along with “what works” even if some of it no longer works very well.
Adherents of a number of religious faiths, not just Christians, can take the Oath by swearing with appropriate references to their God, and it can be repeated in either Welsh or Scottish Gaelic – the latter small victory for diversity was achieved for the first time by the former Liberal MP for Argyll, Ray Michie, when she joined the Lords as Baroness Michie of Gallanach in 2001.
-Liberal Lord Tony Greaves